(The Gear Loop) - Shut your eyes to dream about the perfect day on skis and it’s likely to feature blue skies, waist-deep powder and zero-effort turns... but that’s often Instagram versus reality.
Yes, the so-called "bluebird" days do come along, but skiing off-piste (or in the backcountry, if you’re in North America) is often about making laboured turns in heavy, crusted snow that does its level best to trip you up, hamper your style, force your skis apart or knock you off balance as you make your way down the slope, desperately worried about avalanches, rocks and why the hell your ability to ski disappears as soon as you hit the pow.
The reality is that the learning curve for skiing off-piste is incredibly steep, but stick at it, learn to master the crud, revel in the good days and once you’re skiing powder, you’ll never look back.
What is off-piste skiing?
Skiing off-piste means skiing any ungroomed snow away from the marked pistes in a ski resort. While most of us think of off-piste as the stuff of far-away adventures, tree skiing or gunning down couloirs, technically speaking (and crucially, in the eyes of an insurance company) skiing off-piste is being on your skis anywhere on the mountain that is off the marked areas.
So that means dipping off the side of a piste to do a jump, skiing in the soft snow between two runs (which is what Michael Schumacher was doing in Méribel before his terrible accident in 2013), ducking under the barriers to ski a closed run or leaving the boundary in a North American ski resort (ski the backcountry).
What is the difference between backcountry and off-piste skiing?
It’s complicated! Backcountry is an American term that has crept into global ski lingo. US ski resorts are marked by a boundary line - with skiing described as "inbounds" within the boundary and "out of bounds" outside. Inbounds, the resort is one big avalanche-controlled area and within that are a number of groomed ski runs - allowing skiers the freedom to ski on groomed or ungroomed snow in the knowledge that it has all been avalanche-controlled.
Anything out of bounds (the backcountry) is technically off-piste and accessed through a gate that typically warns they are entering at their risk - there is no rescue or avalanche control, neither is there a lift back to the resort.
In Europe, ski resorts operate differently. Pistes are avalanche-controlled, as are walking routes, ski-touring routes and "itinerary" (ungroomed but marked) routes. Anything away from the marked runs is considered "off-piste" and is skied at your own risk. When you go properly off-piste, away from just the side of the run, the term "freeride" is used more commonly than "backcountry" - and the term "out-of-bounds" is rarely applied.
What insurance do I need?
You must notify your insurance company if you intend to ski off-piste - and that’s even if you plan to build a jump off the side of the piste with your mates and take turns over it.
Normally, an insurance company will stipulate that you must be with an IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations) or UIAGM-certified mountain guide or a qualified ski instructor, trained to a level to lead a group off piste (generally level three and above).
If you fall while off-piste and don’t have adequate insurance, prepare to foot the cost of a heli-lift to hospital on your credit card. It's not nice and eye-wateringly expensive.
Do I need special kit?
Yes. Don’t consider going off piste without an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel - and make sure you, and anyone else you are off-piste with, know how to use them. We created a guide to backcountry skiing and snowboarding here, and this has an extensive list of essential kit.
Avalanches happen quickly and there is no substitute for knowledge and experience. Avalanche bags are useful if you can remember to inflate them, but they rely on the user to operate them.
Otherwise, you’ll need a helmet and lightweight clothing that allows greater freedom of movement compared to piste-skiing kit. You’re likely to get warmer skiing off-piste, especially when learning (and falling!). Good skiers can use any type of ski off-piste, but the best weapons of choice, depending on the conditions, will be all-mountain/freeride skis. If it’s super-light pow, fatboy skis, that are wide underfoot with a rocker so the tip is elevated, will do the trick.
What skills should I have?
That pinnacle of skiing, the bluebird powder day, is made all the better by the years of learning what it takes to get there. Anyone can learn to ski off-piste, but it helps if you are happy skiing on piste, able to make parallel turns and will happily tackle red and black runs in all sorts of conditions.
Off-piste conditions throw everything at you, so your weight needs to be more evenly over your skis and your balance good. The fitter you are, the better.
As well as the fabled powder, you could encounter rocks of hard snow or ice, crusted snow, heavy, granular or possibly melting snow and sketchy conditions with below-the-surface rocks (sharks’ teeth). So start small and familiarise yourself with the easy stuff - there are loads of good off-piste courses that teach the specific skills needed to ski powder.
As we said, only ever ski off-piste with a qualified ski instructor or mountain guide so they can not only keep you safe, but validate your insurance. Above all else, remember that mountain rescue teams, the men and women who serve on them, are risking their lives in trying to save yours if you get in trouble.