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(The Gear Loop) - Given the fact that most ski lifts were closed for two seasons (and perhaps a little longer) during the (sorry to bring it up) pandemic, it comes as no surprise that backcountry skiing and snowboarding has seen a spike in popularity.

With the freedom to explore beyond traditional piste maps, the frisson of extra danger, loads of cool gear to play with and the promise of fresh powder turns, its appeal is glaringly obvious. But what is backcountry skiing? It’s essentially skiing, snowboarding and other winter sports without the lifts, where you hike to the top of a slope, either using special skis with bindings that allow your heel to lift up - like cross country skiing - or on a splitboard, which is a snowboard that turns into two skis, making it easier to hike through deep snow before converting it back into a board and riding down.

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Ski touring takes you far away from the resorts - and the safety of ski patrols and avalanche control - and leads you to the untouched backcountry where kilometer after kilometer of untracked snow awaits... if you’re prepared for the climb. It’s time to earn your turns.

When getting into riding in the backcountry, it's always best to do so with experienced friends or qualified instructors. Companies are making it easier and easier to get into the backcountry, but learning your mountain safety is more important now than ever before. "Test your equipment on a daily basis and make sure you know how to use it." says Gigi Ruf, pro snowboarding pioneer and owner of Slash Snow.

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How to get started

You’re already a half decent skier or snowboarder. You've already got a selection of top snowboards. Maybe you hike and climb in the summer, maybe you like running up hills. It’s possible you hate queuing for a gondola and have an unhealthy addiction to fluffy white powder. If any of this sounds like you, backcountry is for you.

With backcountry and ski touring, you become the lift, and you need specialist kit to make it happen. The defining feature of backcountry is the ability to turn your downhill skis and board into tourers that allow you to move your heels up and down so you can tour (walk) up the mountain.

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Most backcountry skiers use alpine touring (AT) bindings, which allow you to lock your heels down at the top of the hill so you can ski back down making parallel turns as you would while downhill skiing. Ski boots designed specifically for backcountry are lighter than downhill boots and they have a walking mode that allows the upper portion to pivot forward and back for greater comfort.

While it’s possible to strap your snowboard on your backpack and hike uphill with snowshoes, a splitboard is a more efficient option. As the name suggests, a splitboard is a modified snowboard that splits into two, essentially creating two skis.

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With special movable bindings, you can go anywhere those on skis tend to venture, and then when you get to the top, you reassemble the board and snowboard back down.

But the secret sauce with all this gear is climbing skins. These strips of material - originally made from seal skin, hence the name, but now made from mohair and nylon - fasten to the bottom of your skis or splitboard and provide traction for going uphill. When you get to the top, you take them off your skis or board, put them in your pack and ski or ride back down.

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As a snowboarder, you’ll also need to invest in some collapsible poles that help propel you while touring, but fold small enough to fit in your backpack. Backcountry skiers tend to favour extra wide - larger than 100mm - skis to maximise floatation when in powder, giving the backcountry skier a more enjoyable ride in deeper powder. Be warned though, these extra wide skis are no fun on groomed pistes.

Where can I go?

If it snows enough and there’s a slope to slide down, you can use backcountry ski gear just about anywhere. During lockdown, many skiers took advantage of the often overlooked couloirs in the highlands of Scotland and unexpectedly heavy snowfall in Cumbria.

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But with conditions far from guaranteed in the UK, and if you want to experience some of the world’s best skiing and riding, you need to be in the alps, which are only a few hours away from these fair isles.

Mountain Tracks is a specialist adventure tour operator that offers a range of ski touring and backcountry training courses and adventures in the Alps, including a three day training course in Chamonix covering all the essential skills.

British Backcountry is an experienced tour operator offering a range of courses in Scotland, giving you the chance to see the Munros at their finest. They have a range of beginner, intermediate and more advanced courses that will give you a flavour of what off piste and ski touring is really about.

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Backcountry bucket list

Chamonix, France

It’s the birthplace of mountaineering, modern skiing and mountain guiding and sits at the base of the highest peak in the Alps, Mont Blanc. The region has 11 ski areas to choose between, and it’s the starting location of the much revered Haute Route where you can ski from Chamonix and Mont Blanc to Zermatt and the Matterhorn.

Lake Tahoe, California and Nevada, USA 

With famous amounts of sunny ‘bluebird’ days, easy access from major airports and a wide choice of small resorts with excellent access (we mean car parks!) to the untouched good stuff, the area around Lake Tahoe is an accessible backcountry playground for all.  

Niseko United, Hokkaido, Japan

With the world’s fluffiest powder virtually guaranteed, a trip to Japan is like no other, and with Backcountry opportunities for all abilities it is well worth the journey. Experienced adventurers head to the mountains of Honshu for the steep, challenging lines, while Hokkaido is famous for the deepest, lightest powder imaginable. 

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How fit do I need to be?

You don’t need to be an elite athlete to go backcountry skiing or splitboarding, but you do need a fairly decent level of fitness for climbing uphill, and enough skill to get you down again through potentially challenging conditions.

If you are a confident skier on most red runs, you’ll be able to navigate some backcountry routes, but remember that, compared to runs in the resort, which are carefully managed and well groomed, conditions can change from deep powder to ice, slush and crust all within a few metres. Oh, and it goes without saying that the pistes are never marked, so it’s up to you (or ideally a guide) to navigate the best route home.

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You also need to get comfortable with going uphill, which involves using touring bindings, putting on climbing skins and being able to perform uphill kick turns. It’s worth taking a class or two to learn these skills, especially if you’re a snowboarder not accustomed to having two planks strapped to your feet. 

It goes without saying that lugging yourself (and a load of kit) uphill requires a decent level of cardiovascular fitness. So if you're getting out of puff climbing the stairs, it might be time to start training

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Is it safe?

In the backcountry, there’s no cosy lodge, no lifts and no ski patrol. If you’re heading out of bounds you’re entering an uncontrolled environment and you need to be prepared for all eventualities.

Avalanches pose a very real danger to all winter backcountry riders. If you want to ski or snowboard in the backcountry, it’s crucial that you understand the risks, and if you have any sense, you’ll employ an experienced guide to take you out and teach you the skills, and invest the time in an avalanche safety course.

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Here’s some sobering statistics from Luke Scrine, Outdoor Equipment Buyer, Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports. "In the event of an avalanche accident, the victim’s chances of survival are relatively high at 90 per cent, providing they can be recovered within 15 minutes. After this, the numbers drop off rapidly. To carry out a rescue within 15 minutes, having the correct avalanche safety kit (and knowing how to use it) is crucial".

Being prepared and having the right gear could save your life, here’s the essential kit for any backcountry tour, just make sure you know how to use them before you head out:

  • Avalanche transceiver: This high-tech box of tricks emits a signal that rescuers can pick up with their own transceivers, giving them pinpoint accuracy if they need to dig you out of an avalanche.
  • Avalanche probe: It’s not a tool you ever want to have to use, but this collapsible pole is essential in the hunt for buried people, once you’ve found their location using a transceiver. 
  • Shovel: A snow shovel isn’t just great for building jumps, it’s essential for testing snow conditions and digging out someone who has been swallowed by an avalanche.
  • Airbag rucksack: If you get caught in an avalanche, you pull the ripcord and a gas or battery powered airbag in the backpack inflates, helping you float above the moving snow. They’re expensive, but how much is your life worth?
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The best backcountry ski and snowboard kit

Snowboarding gear

Experienced riders will be well-used to unclipping bindings and hiking up to hit kickers and find the untouched powder, but with a specialist split binding, skins, poles and a board that turns into a pair of skis, you’ll be able to travel miles for the ultimate off-piste experience.

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Burton Family Tree Hometown Hero

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An exceptional all-rounder, designed to cope with just about every condition. The 12mm taper and directional shape help keep it agile in powder and capable in crud, ice and piste while the Split Channel Board Mount is one of the easiest to adjust, and works perfectly with the Hitchhiker binding (below). 

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Burton Hitchhiker Binding

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A collaborative effort between splitboard specialists Spark R&D and Burton, which combines plush comfort and performance on the downs, and unbeatable engineering for the uphill slogs.

The aluminium Tesla T1 baseplate system is light, the pins holding the heel are simple to adjust and the climbing wire allows you to adjust your climbing angles from stowed (0°), low (12°) and high (18°).

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Jones Solution Splitboard

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This is the best selling splitboard... and for good reason. The all-terrain-loving freeride board with directional rocker profile and a mid-stiff flex is seriously playful in soft snow, yet confidence-inspiring on steep, hard pack and ice.

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Union Explorer Binding

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Easily the most popular splitboard binding, mainly as it offers the closest ride to a regular binding, meaning your efforts on the way up are richly rewarded on the way down. Get yours here.

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Jones Nomad Skins

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Made up of 70 per cent mohair and 30 per cent nylon, this is a longer lasting, superior performing skin with exceptional glide across snow, even slushy stuff, and the Quick Tension Tail Clip features a durable rubber strap and compact metal clip to save faffing.

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Leki Tour Stick Vario Carbon

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The most versatile all-purpose ski pole available, these sticks can be adjusted between 115-135cm to suit most height ranges. Plus, they weigh just 271g each, the handles have neoprene for added insulation and when not needed they fold down to just 42cm and fit in any decent rucksack.

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Ski gear

Virtually any pair of downhill skis could be mounted to backcountry bindings and taken out on a tour, but backcountry-specific skis are usually lighter and fatter than downhill skis, making uphill travel easier, and powder more fun.

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Blizzard Zero G 105

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Efficient on the uphill and hilarious on the descent, this lightweight, multi-layered carbon ski is ideal for anyone looking to explore further afield and with a 105mm width, it’ll keep you afloat in all but the deepest powder.

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Full Tilt Ascendant SC Grip Boot

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A superb tour-ready ski boot that uses Full Tilt's traditional three piece shell design and a clever Tour Cuff, which boasts a walk mode lever that unlocks the cuff, allowing the skier a greater range of motion for a more natural stride when you’re not sliding across the white stuff.

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Decathlon XLD500

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An eye-wateringly great value complete ski touring setup, featuring the XLD 500 RT skis, Tyrolia Ambition 10 bindings (typical price over £300) and a set of skins to give you grip as you walk.

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Safety gear

There’s no ski patrol in the backcountry, so be prepared with the essential safety gear to prevent accidents, or rescue, if the worst does happen.

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Ortovox Avalanche Rescue Kit Zoom+

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All-in-one kit for averting disaster in the mountains, this pack includes a Zoom+ transceiver, Alu 2.4m long lightweight aluminum snow probe, 2.5-litre aluminium Badger Shovel and a guide book stuffed full of safety information. 

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Mammut Barryvox S Avalanche Transceiver

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Packed with tech, this top-end transceiver ticks all the rescue boxes. It has one of the largest search strips in the industry - up to 70 metres - and you can also switch between digital or analogue mode, to maximise the chance of a successful rescue.

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Ortovox Shovel Pro Light

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If you don't fancy the full Ortovox kit, then carry this extremely light (440g) shovel, which is compact and functional, and will fit easily in your pack. The shaft and blade are both high grade T6 aluminium while the step grooves on the blade stop your foot slipping when digging. 

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Black Diamond JetForce Pro Avalanche 25-litre Airbag backpack

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It costs more than a second hand car, but the electronic (rather than compressed gas) inflation technology is second to none, easy to recharge and you can deploy it countless times, which is great for training. The Black Diamond 25-litre, 3.1kg bag also has enough capacity and straps for the rest of your survival kit. 

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Mammut Ultralight Airbag 3.0

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For fast, light and safe adventures, this new style avalanche backpack from Mammut weighs just 1510g - about the same as a full water bottle - but has a potentially life saving 150-litre volume airbag. Ideal for short trips off piste. 

Writing by Chris Haslam. Editing by Leon Poultney.