A beginner’s guide to backcountry skiing

If you haven’t already discovered the pow-haven/adrenalin-pumping/awe-inspiring thrills that ducking under the ropes brings, here’s our concise(ish) guide to all things backcountry.

Transitioning from an expert piste or pow skier to backcountry supremo is no easy feat – not only does the technique take some practice, there’s also numerous safety measures to contend with. So before you go planning your trip across the Haute Route, consider spending a day or two in- resort learning the basics.

Our backcountry editor Martin Chester suggests starting gently by just venturing slightly off the piste while you work up courage. Fall-Line’s other backcountry officionado Eric Kendall recommends joining a starter course: “Not only do you get taught to do things properly, it’s the best value guiding you can buy, as the costs are shared and you get to know potential ski-buddies.” Plas y Brenin and Piste to Powder both offer courses that will help you find your way in the deep stuff.



The drawback of leaving the crowds behind is that it also means leaving the safety of patrolled, groomed, avalanche-protected pistes, so at the very least make sure you include these on you, or in your rucksack:

  • Avalanche transceiver
  • Shovel
  • Probe
  • Spare clothing (don’t forget a spare pair of gloves)
  • A compass, map and altimeter

And, above all, make sure you know how to use them!

Anything else? Well, a pair of skins and touring bindings can really open up the mountain – booting it up
is longer, more exhausting and not always possible. Boarders don’t need to be left out either, splitboards will change your life!


  • Make sure your insurance covers off-piste and touring – believe us, you don’t want to find yourself on the receiving end of a hefty mountain rescue bill…
  • Those Yanks can get pretty strict, with some resorts even confiscating lift passes from those who dare slide under the rope, so check before you shred!
  • Book a guide. Not only can they reduce the chance of you getting into trouble on the hill, they’ll also help you get the very best out of every corner of the mountain!
  • Even if you ski with a guide, know how to the read the mountain. Lots of resorts offer good old-fashioned paper pamphlets that are well worth a scout.


  • Whatever you do, don’t skimp on equipment – get a metal shovel, not a flimsy plastic one, and invest in a digital transceiver – dodgy analogue ones don’t cut it in an emergency.
  • Start off somewhere with plenty of wide, open terrain without the added risk of crevasses.
  • Company is a blessing so find some fellow ski-buffs – try a ski club such as the Eagle Ski Club.
  • There’s more to life (and skiing!) than the classic Haute Route between Chamonix and Zermatt .
  • Buy some comfy, well-fitted touring boots – you’ll never look back.
  • Learn what 30° looks like: that’s the angle above which snow really starts to slide in spectacular ways…
  • Forget your pole straps – in trees, rocky terrain and avalanche-prone slopes they’re a hazard (and they can even do your thumb in a simple fall); they are not nearly as crucial as some suggest and I never seem to drop my sticks…
  • Clothing: comfortable for sitting round drinking beer = uncomfortable for climbing. Get the best technical kit you can afford – you’re looking for fit, stretch, and not too many pockets or bells and whistles.
  • Camelbacks suck. Hoses and bags leak and freeze… Take a mineral water bottle instead – they’re light and durable.
  • Duct tape: wind a long strip round your water bottle and/or pole for repairing feet (or Camelbacks!). Not medically approved, but field-proven and unlikely to exacerbate the problem unless the person happens to be allergic to the glue…