Backcountry Skiing Basics

By Tom Richardson
No doubt you’ve heard about the growing interest in backcountry skiing—a throwback, do-it-yourself approach to downhill skiing in which the skier essentially hikes uphill on skis to access untapped powder in remote, wooded glades. It’s a form of skiing that requires specialized gear, as well as a certain level of physical endurance and self-sufficiency.


Backcountry boots feature hinged ankles that make it easier to "skin" uphill.

I learned the basics of backcountry skiing from REI Local Experiences Instructor Sarah Simaitis, as part of the company’s REI Local Experiences program. (Note: check with your local REI to learn about the experiences offered near you.) The classes are led by experienced and certified REI instructors, who will walk you through the gear and skills needed to enjoy the activity in a safe, controlled outdoor setting. Better still, all gear is provided.


The heel binding features special risers for extra calf support when skinning up steep pitches.

On my trip with Sarah, we drove to nearby Cranmore Resort so I could familiarize myself with the gear and techniques in a controlled environment. We started with the specialized boots and bindings. Similar to Nordic and telemark skiing, only the skier’s boot toes are clipped to the bindings when walking (aka “skinning”) uphill, while the boots themselves are hinged to facilitate ankle movement (this makes them inherently more comfortable than regular ski boots). The binding’s heels also feature special “risers” that can be flipped up to provide additional calf support as the pitch increases. When it’s time to ski downhill, the boot heels must be locked into the bindings, like traditional downhill ski boots.

Climbing skins attach to the bottom of the skis and feature unidirectional fibers that make it possible to negotiate inclines without sliding backwards.

Then there’s the skis themselves, which are typically shorter and wider than Nordic skis, making it easier to navigate deep powder and confined glades. To make the ascent possible, special “climbing skins” are attached to the bottom of the skies. Climbing skins are strips of fabric sporting unidirectional fibers that prevent the ski from sliding backwards. They clip to the front and back of the skis, and are temporarily affixed to the ski surface with tacky adhesive that does not affect the ski surface. When it’s time to descend the mountain, the skins are removed from the skis and stowed.

As I soon learned, backcountry skiing is a workout! Ascending a mountain on skis takes a lot of energy, so backcountry skiers must be in good shape, dress in layers, and bring plenty of water. A backpack is required for stowing your helmet, clothing, snacks, and skins.

After making a few runs at Cranmore and getting the feel for backcountry gear and techniques, Sarah and I headed to Maple Villa Glade in Intervale, a backcountry trail on National Forest land that’s now maintained by the Granite Backcountry Alliance (GBA). We met GBA’s Tyler Ray in the parking lot and headed up the trail, one of several ski trails originally cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and recently “reclaimed” by the GBA. As Tyler explained, the organization works closely with state and federal land managers to facilitate backcountry ski access in various parks and forests throughout New Hampshire and western Maine.

Unfortunately for us, trail conditions were extremely icy on our visit, but we did get to practice climbing some steep pitches on skis, and met some GBA volunteers who were removing a blowdown. For GBA members, backcountry skiing is a four-season sport, as the work needed to build and maintain the trails for winter use takes place all year.

To learn more about the GBA and its many backcountry trails, or to become a member, visit their website.



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