How to plan your best ever backcountry trip

From plotting a raid on a sidecountry stash to devising a multi-day ski tour, here’s our mini-guide to asking the right questions of your mates (or guide) to give you the best chance of nailing a trip of a lifetime

They say you can’t get what you want… until you know what you want. This is certainly true in skiing and ski touring. Add to this the challenge of a group adventure, and the chances of misaligned expectations in the team can be quite high, and even hazardous.

Almost all the information on ‘planning a tour’ revolves around managing the risk, the route choice, and the decision-making on route – but in my experience, the way we report success or failure is usually measured in big fun and big grins.

“In my experience, the way we report success or failure is usually measured in big fun and big grins” |

Making sure everyone gets what they want requires getting the right ingredients, in the right proportions, with the right people. And that includes any hired hands (guides, travel operators, ski instructors) you may wish (or need) to involve. Of course some things, like the snow and the weather, are out of our control – but the secret to success is to focus all our planning on the bits we can do something about. Here goes:

The first priority is ‘compatibility’. When booking onto courses or tours on a web page, the sun always shines, the snow is always blower pow, and the team are always immaculate skiers.

Trust me, this can be a long way from the truth. This is a holiday like any other, and the best way to enjoy yourself is to be in a compatible group of like-minded people. So how do we get this right?

Ski skills

 Traditionally, course descriptions and prerequisites focus on skiing skill level. This is a good start, as we all like to be stretched but no-one likes to be left behind – so touring in a team of folks of a similar standard (whatever that may be) is better for all of us.

The Ski Club of Great Britain ( grades skiers, so we all know what standard we are. The reason this works is that it includes descriptors: quantifiable details that help you work out whether you are in the right team, or whether you should go up or down a grade. Of course there is nothing to stop you using these questions and descriptors to weigh up your own team.

Mountain skills

 Ski touring is not all about the skiing – some element of mountaineering skills and mountain craft is often required. Especially if you intend to undertake the tour yourselves.

Many a good ski adventure has become a bit more gripping when that ace rider hops off the skis and onto the crampons for a summit bid. Tied to your mate on an icy ridge, is no place to ask about their cramponing experience for the first time…

A good system is that of the Eagle Ski Club ( Their trips are graded one to five in three categories: S for Skiing; M for Mountaineering and E for Effort or…

Take me to the top! Does your party have well-aligned skills and motivation? | Martin Chester
Take me to the top! Does your party have well-aligned skills and motivation? | Martin Chester


Some like it hot, and some quit… Just about any level of fitness is OK so long as all the team are compatible. Being forced to go too fast is a bad idea in the mountains, and being forced to wait and get chilly can be dangerous – so this matters more than just the crack and banter on the way up the hill.

Personally, I like to line up a load of challenging questions in my head before I go. That way I can spring them on my super-fit mates as we start the climb, and force them to do all the talking. Fitness usually becomes a question of why we are there, and what we want from the day. This leads nicely on to our next chapter:


For me, when preparing trips for my clients, the most important questions are all about what folks want from the trip. Do you want to be involved in every detail of the planning, or would you rather delegate that? Do you want to learn new skills in the mountains, or would you rather I manage all that, with careful route choice and the odd rope here and there? Are we craving mountain huts and starlit nights; or hotels with a fancy sauna?

Given that this is such a crucial feature of a bespoke commercial trip, why wouldn’t you want to have those conversations with mates? Little is more frustrating on a powder day than the techy-ski-school-geek who wants to discuss the pressure on his little toes, while all you want to do is rip down those powder fields. Now!

So try to find yourself on a trip with a group that are like-minded, as well as similar in ability. I’ve recently been involved in writing a report for Sport England, entitled ‘Getting Active Outdoors’. Check it out if you like (, but to save you the time, I can tell you the research identified eight types of motivations for getting outdoors. We are not as alike as we think: some like to be comfortable; others to be stretched. Some like to rise to the challenge of an advanced group; others to be the fastest in a slower team. Some embrace struggle; others hate it.

Spending time together in the mountains is one of the fundamentally best things us humans can do – so go the extra mile and find out what your mates want from the trip. To ask those questions of a guide or instructor in advance will help them deliver the goods. Otherwise, we are all (particularly us Brits) quite good at keeping this sort of stuff well hidden on the day – and by then it is often too late.


This is the final word in our planning tour. Where are you going to satisfy those motivations and how? What are the ingredients? Are we after summits, fresh tracks, lofty ridges, wild adventure? What are the things that will make the trip a success? Write a wish list, and compare notes with your mates.

Write a wish list of your dream trip |
Write a wish list of your dream trip |

If you plan to join a commercial trip, or book the services of a professional, share that list with them and see what they make of it. Any pro worth their salt will make sure they either try to deliver the goods, or will hook you up with the right person for the job.

I can think of loads of clients whom I have put in touch with the ideal ski instructor to fulfil their needs, and had many skiers in search of greater adventures back in return. Mountain guides and ski coaches are a well-connected source of expertise in advance, as well as on the tour.  FL