How to Ski Tour - Backcountry skiing

The lure of fresh tracks in undisturbed terrain is drawing more and more skiers into the backcountry. Away from the hustle and bustle of resorts, you can find pristine slopes and peaceful routes surrounded by nature. But before you answer the call of the wilderness, there’s lots to learn. This guide will explain how to ski tour and what equipment you need to stay safe beyond the pistes.

What is off-piste and what is backcountry?

Off-piste terrain is anything outside of the piste markers. The slopes inside ski resorts are maintained by the ski patrol and pisteurs who continuously assess how the weather and snowfall affect them. On the piste, snow is compacted or ‘groomed’ by pisteurs who iron out any bumps to keep the surface smooth for snowsports. However, in between pistes and outside of them, the terrain is left to nature and you can see where the piste ends by the large coloured poles indicating the width. Dangerous areas such as cliffs, lakes or crevasses are marked with signs and areas which pose an avalanche risk are remotely bombed for security. Off-piste you’ll find varied snow conditions which demand a different skillset, not to mention specialised equipment and adequate insurance cover.

Backcountry refers to any terrain which is outside the resort boundaries or ‘out of bounds.’ Out there, the condition of the snow is dictated by geography and weather only. With little to no human interference or management, the backcountry is generally wild and undisturbed. This makes it both peaceful and risky since unpatrolled snowy landscapes pose many dangers to uneducated explorers.

What is ski touring and who can do it?

When skiers use specialised equipment and their own efforts to gain altitude, it’s called ski touring. The sport can be done on the side of the piste or outside of resorts in the backcountry. This type of skiing requires specialised equipment to grip the snow on the ascent, and a higher level of fitness compared to piste skiing.

Skiers and splitboarders should have the endurance to walk continuously uphill for several hours and the strength to do it with a backpack filled with gear. To train for touring, incorporate some cardio into your routine such as long jogs and hikes. Core strength training is also important so crunches, planks and weight-lifting are beneficial.

Touring is not just a physical challenge, you must be extremely aware of your surroundings too. It is important you have the knowledge and ability to react at any time to backcountry dangers, which can be anything from first aid to avalanche rescue. To prepare yourself, consider taking a touring skills course which will explain how to get the most out of the experience.

You will face a variety of snow types in the backcountry which may change throughout the day depending on the terrain and weather. For this reason, ski touring requires an advanced level of snowsports experience to competently navigate varied conditions.

It’s not for beginners, but skiers with less experience can elevate their skills over time and work gradually towards an adequate level to start touring. The best way to advance your skills and stay safe is by arranging trips with a professional mountain guide.


Ski touring isn’t just for skiers as the misleading label suggests. Snowboarders can enjoy the backcountry too, along with the correct kit of course. Splitboards are snowboards designed for touring and have the same profile as a normal snowboard, with a split down the middle. This split allows the board to be used in the same way as touring skis.

Light and durable touring bindings attach the rider to the board and skins make it possible to walk uphill. Once the rider has reached the destination, the board is clipped together for the descent. Telescopic poles are essential for splitboarders as they help to push forward during the ascent and assist with balance.

A backpack with all the features mentioned below should be used, and loops provide storage for poles on the way down. Snowboard touring can also be done with snowshoes and the board strapped to a backpack, but splitboarding lightens the load and eradicates the need for extra weight. When choosing a splitboard, consider the terrain you want to ride and remember that there are no groomed pistes in the backcountry.

Freeriders benefit from stiff, directional boards with some camber for control whereas twin tips are good for freestylers. In powder, a tapered tail ensures the nose of the board stays high in soft snow. The mountain safety equipment listed for ski touring also applies to splitboarding.

What equipment do you need for ski touring?


Alpine touring (AT) boots, also known as ‘freetour’ boots, have several features designed for the backcountry. Pin holes on the toe connect to AT bindings and allow the heel to move. They are lighter than downhill boots to make the wearer more agile and they can be set to walk mode so that the cuffs pivot easily. This increased range of movement is essential for skinning and boot-packing since it gives the ankles a wider range of movement. Alpine touring boots typically have great skiability and many people use them as their daily in-bounds boots due to their compatibility with mainstream alpine binding systems.

The lightest touring-specific boots are better for fast ascents and ski mountaineering where weight decreases even more for added agility and manoeuvrability when heading up. Expect to give up some of the plush comfort features found in regular boots in return for an increased range of movement and minimal design. For example, many ultra-light backcountry boots with rockered soles are only compatible with pin bindings, sacrificing step-in compatibility in favour of a more streamlined design. These types of boots are known as ‘non-conforming’ since they are not compatible with any other binding type.

There is a huge range of flex and fit available so all shapes, sizes and abilities are accommodated. Boots can quickly become uncomfortable from rubbing during touring, so getting your boots fitted at a trusted dealer is the key to happy backcountry adventures.


Alpine touring (AT) bindings allow the heel to rise up so that the wearer can ‘walk’ uphill. After the ascent, AT bindings are locked at the heel so that the rider can ski down the mountain. There are lots of binding types to choose from and the model you select must be compatible with your boot. It’s best to find a boot that fits first and then a suitable binding. Ultralight tech bindings can offer the user a fastener ascent whereas heavier frame bindings perform similarly to the types found on piste skis. Always get a certified expert to mount the equipment for safety and security. The technique for clipping boots into AT bindings and switching into walk mode is different from downhill bindings, so make sure you understand how to do it and practice before setting off.


Your touring experience will be enhanced by a specialised set of skis which are lightweight and designed for varied terrain. Touring skis have a similar shape to freeride skis but are typically thinner with tips and tails designed to attach skins.

The equipment you need depends on the type of skiing you intend to do and what terrain it will be on. For example, lightweight touring skis are good for skiers looking to cover a lot of distance and elevation. If you need to remove them to climb during ski mountaineering, they are easier to carry when attached to a backpack.

Skiers and snowboarders who seek deep powder tend to go for equipment with a bit more weight and width underfoot which helps to surf on top of soft snow instead of sinking in. There are lots of backcountry models to choose from that combine lightweight construction with freeride or downhill profiles, depending on your preference.


Climbing skins make it possible to walk uphill on skis and keep equipment stationary on slopes. They are strips of fabric cut to the exact length and width of your ski and attached with one-sided adhesive. Skins provide grip for ascents, hence the term ‘skinning’ which also refers to climbing. Historically, seal skin was used but nowadays nylon or natural fibres such as mohair are common. Skins typically attach to the tip of the ski with a metal hook or loop and have a plastic clip at the tail. Tip and tail hardware are important in case glue fails during the trip. Following an ascent, skins are peeled off and re-attached to a plastic sheet to be rolled up and stored while you ski.

Equipment styles vary, but the most important thing is to make sure your skins are compatible with your skis. Skins must be cut to the exact shape of the ski because rough or loose edges can cause friction and make touring unsafe. Similarly, the adhesive quality of the glue side must be checked to make sure it stays attached. Monitoring these elements is a critical part of equipment maintenance because a faulty skin in the backcountry (miles from any ski patrol) can spell disaster. Consult a professional in a ski shop for peace of mind when purchasing skins. Alternatively, pre-cut skins can be purchased.


Poles are an essential part of your ski tour setup because they help to propel the body forward while walking uphill. They provide continuous stability which is critical in exposed, steep terrain and high winds. An adjustable (telescopic) pole gives the skier or splitboarder freedom to set the length. Adjustable poles are best for ski touring because they can be adapted to the terrain. When skinning uphill, extendable poles can be adjusted to match the terrain and then set to the rider's preferred length for descents.

Touring Backpack

Bags designed specifically for ski touring offer several features to keep you safe and organised throughout the trip. Pockets for avalanche safety equipment ensure it is protected and accessible. These integrated sleeves for your shovel and probe make them easy to find in avalanche rescue situations which are time-sensitive. The fabric of touring bags is durable and water-resistant, protecting precious cargo from the elements. Packs come in different sizes, so it’s worth considering how long your average trip will be.

A day trip doesn’t require the same volume as a multi-day hike, but a tour-specific bag is always important. The pack should fit comfortably on your torso wearing ski gear, so try it on with your layers to make sure it sits well. Other handy features include straps for carrying skis and snowboards plus loops for poles. If you need to navigate some technical terrain during a ski tour, it’s not always safe to carry skis over the shoulder. Attaching them to your backpack is a more secure option which gives you hands-free movement.

Mountain safety equipment for touring


A transceiver is a small electronic device which emits a signal allowing the wearer to be located if they are buried in an avalanche. Also known as a beacon, it is used to search for other devices if the wearer is the rescuer. When switched to search mode, the device has a small screen which tells the user which direction other signals are coming from and their distance in metres.

If a group is caught in an avalanche, rescuers must work quickly to find anyone stuck beneath the snow. The searcher follows the direction of the arrows on the transceiver, reducing the distance by monitoring the numbers on the screen. Once they get as close as possible, there is an option to mark that point which is useful in the event of multiple casualties. Once the rescue point has been established, the probe and shovel are used to dig out the victim.

Transceivers are secured on the skier with a strap which crosses the chest, positioning the device at the abdomen. They can also be stored in a pocket provided it is zipped. Mobile phones must be stored away from the transceiver and should be off or in flight mode during ski tours because they can interfere with the transceiver signal. During a backcountry trip, all members of the group should have a transceiver, shovel and probe and know how to use them. Each transceiver should be set to send so that it continuously emits a signal, meaning that it can be located as quickly as possible. And all members of the group should test their equipment thoroughly before heading out into the backcountry.

Avalanches can be triggered in many different ways so everyone in the group should be ready to spring into action at any time. If you want to ski or snowboard in the backcountry, it is absolutely crucial to take all of this equipment and understand how to use it. A group is only as competent as its weakest member, so the safety of everyone relies on thorough education.

To bring your mountain safety knowledge up to scratch, take an avalanche skills course. Formal education will explain the functionality of all the equipment in detail and give hands-on practical experience. Mountain safety courses also offer in-depth explanations on how to read the terrain and weather, two crucial skills for backcountry skiing. The task of planning a safe route and continuously monitoring conditions is best left to a trained mountain guide. The skills can also be learned, but nothing matches the experience and expertise of professionals.


Probes are used to measure the depth of an avalanche victim by penetrating through the snow to find the exact location. Their appearance is similar to tent poles, with several metal cylinders connected by a durable cord. However, their construction is different, with one end pointed to go into the snow and the other lockable. Probes are designed to be functional in seconds and should be retrieved from a bag and assembled easily by the user. Once locked into the place, the rescuer can penetrate the snow in the search area to pinpoint the exact burial depth. The length of the probe should be no shorter than two metres, around 240-300cm is a good length.

Aluminium and carbon are the most popular materials on the probe market. Carbon is lighter but more expensive and favoured by ski tourers who want to set a fast pace and minimise weight. Aluminium is cheaper, more durable and better at penetrating dense snow. These qualities make it the material of choice for many ski patrollers.

A probe is an essential part of your avalanche safety kit and compulsory on any backcountry trip. Practice using it with gloves regularly to familiarise yourself with its arrangement. If its protective sheath slows you down, don’t take it.


Once an avalanche victim has been located using the transceiver and probe, a shovel is used to dig them out. It is important that equipment can be assembled quickly and without any complications, so buying a shovel specifically for mountain safety is paramount. For storage, the handle should be detachable. Look for a model which is light and packable but sturdy enough to dig through snow and ice. Plastic is not adequate for avalanche rescue so opt for a blade with high strength and low weight such as aluminium.

Different blade shapes are available, for example, a scooped blade reduces snow falling over the edges whereas a serrated blade cuts into ice easily. A flat blade is ideal for digging and some models have a hoe feature, allowing the blade to be turned to 90 degrees. This allows the user to scrape and chop the snow downwards.

For the handle, there are two different shapes so you should choose whichever one is most comfortable. A T-grip has less weight but is challenging to use with mittens whereas a D-grip is heavier but more spacious for any type of glove. In the backcountry, snow shovels can also be used to dig a snow pit to analyse the snowpack or build a shelter.

Avalanche Airbag (optional)

Avalanche airbags are safety devices built into touring backpacks which inflate by pulling a cord in case of an avalanche. The inflated bag should, in theory, help the wearer to rise to the top of the avalanche, increasing visibility to rescuers and decreasing the likelihood of burial and blunt trauma to the head and neck.

There are two systems currently available on the market: pressurised gas cartridges and battery-operated fan systems. Both rely on the wearer pulling a cord to activate. The drawback of gas cartridge systems is that the canisters are single-use so must be replaced after discharge. Additionally, there can be airport restrictions attached to them, so it’s important to double-check transport conditions. Bags which inflate using fans can be used multiple times once charged and offer the advantage of practising at home. Airbags are not compulsory pieces of backcountry equipment but their popularity is growing. Research suggests that the chance of survival is increased using this method but of course, it is never certain.

Plan the route

And finally, no trip to the backcountry is complete without a plan. Check the weather forecast, find the relevant avalanche bulletin for your area and take time to map out a safe route. It’s always better to travel with a trained mountain guide but also possible to go without one if you have the correct knowledge. Knowing the terrain and understanding the implications of fast weather changes are essential backcountry skills. A solid plan with competent companions is the bedrock of a successful touring trip, never leave the house without them. And never, ever tour alone.