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What is Backcountry Skiing and Splitboarding?

The author backcountry skiing Mt. Shasta, California. A long hike with epic views and 4000ft corn descent.

backcountry skiing colorado powder

The author skiing powder in Colorado’s backcountry.

As owner of a Backcountry Skiing company, I find myself explaining backcountry skiing a lot!  It usually starts with people asking what I do for work.  When I tell them I own and operate Backcountry Babes…it usually goes something like this:

“Oh, wonderful. What’s Backcountry Babes?”

“We’re a backcountry ski guiding service for women. We have ski trips, avalanche education courses, hut trips, etc in British Columbia, Japan, Truckee, Alaska, Colorado, Iceland…”

“Oh, backcountry skiing! Like cross-country skiing?”

“Sort of. Backcountry Skiing is similar to cross-country skiing, except that the focus is on hiking up and skiing downhill.  We have bigger skis with touring bindings and purposely seek to gain and lose elevation…to get sweet powder turns in the backcountry.”

Backcountry Skiing:

Backcountry Touring is skiing and riding away from ski resorts.  You’re in the wilderness, hiking through the forest, and then gliding down powdery blissful, untracked snow in the quiet, winter setting.  Or charging through a blustery, snowy, stormy landscape, as the case may be.  You can tour on alpine touring skis, telemark skis, or a splitboard.

By definition, there are no chairlifts in the backcountry.  

So how do you get to the top?

You hike! Hiking comprises the majority of the day when you’re backcountry skiing.  Most people use backcountry touring bindings (AT = Alpine Touring Bindings or Telemark Bindings) and a pair of climbing skins.  

What are climbing skins?

Skins are like carpets that you stick to the bottom of your ski so you can hike uphill without slipping backwards.  Your skis provide the float you need to stay on top of the snow, and your skins make you stick to the snow so you don’t backslide.

backcountry ski guide shows climbing skins and kick turn demoLeslie Ross, Backcountry Babes founder demonstrates a kick turn and you can see her skins on the bottom of her skis.

What are backcountry ski boots and are they necessary?

Backcountry Ski Boots are nice and yes, they are essential.  Backcountry ski boots fit with your backcountry bindings, and are considerably more flexible and comfortable for uphill travel.  Backcountry ski boots are necessary to fit with tech bindings (g3 ion bindings, dynafit bindings) because they have little holes for the binding pins to fit into.

a closer look at backcountry bindings and backcountry boots

Here you can see instructor Anne St. Clair in Scarpa Alpine Touring boots with Dynafit bindings on DPS skis.

Can you backcountry ski with regular ski boots?

Yes, you can backcountry ski with regular ski boots.  This is possible on the frame-style binding (non tech-binding.)  This is a much heavier set up; and people often get blisters from hiking uphill in stiff, inflexible boots.  However, it’s a good way to try out backcountry skiing a few times without spending a fortune on new boots. Once the backcountry skiing addiction sets in, almost everyone purchases true backcountry specific ski boots. 

Another option is to put your skis on your backpack or shoulder and bootpack up.  This is best for shorter hikes, usually from the top of a chairlift to a backcountry area adjacent to the ski resort.  You may see advanced skiers bootpacking up a slope where the terrain is too steep for skinning (like a chute). 

bootpacking in colorado backcountry near silverton

Here are the Backcountry Babes bootpacking a short-ish distance from the top of Silverton Mountain’s chairlift to access awesome terrain.

Can you snowshoe and put your skis on your backpack?

Yes, you can backcountry ski this way. It’s much less efficient than skinning. Snowshoeing is considerably harder and slower than skinning, so people who can afford to buy true backcountry gear usually do.

hiking in snowshoes with a snowboard on the backpack

Splitboarding Babes with snowshoes and regular snowboards on a backpack.


What are backcountry ski poles?  

Backcountry Ski poles are adjustable and lighter than ski poles designed for resort skiing.  They are often collapsible, so you can pack them on your backpack if you get into terrain where you are using your hands for an ice axe or something like that.  

What if I want to go backcountry snowboarding?  Is backcountry snowboarding possible?

Yes, it is! Many people use snowshoes and snowboards when getting into the backcountry for the first few times.  Once the backcountry riding addiction sets in, almost everyone upgrades to a splitboard set up.

What’s a Splitboard?

A splitboard is a backcountry snowboard that can be taken apart for uphill travel. You unclip the board, put it on your two snowboard boots, and hike uphill like a skier.  When it’s time to go downhill, you put your snowboard back together so you can surf downhill like you want to. Splitboarders still bring backcountry ski poles with them so they can hike uphill and traverse better.

splitboard in 2 pieces, skins, and bindings

A Backcountry Babes AIARE Level 1 Avalanche student shows off her splitboard.

Speaking of avalanche education…be sure to check out your avalanche forecast and enroll in a 3-day avalanche class to build a foundation for making good decisions in the backcountry.

avalanche shovel and probe practice in class

Backcountry Babes practicing using a probe and shovel in Breckenridge, Colorado at one of our AIARE Level 1 Courses. Check out our schedule to register for one of our avalanche courses: