Imagine skiing in waist-deep powder. In some places it’s so deep you can’t see your skis. You’re cruising through unchartered territory and there’s little sign that anyone’s been here before. Up ahead you can hear the whoops and hoots of your friends as they hit pockets of fresh powder and go off short drops knowing they’ll land in a soft cushion of snow. Welcome to the backcountry.
Freeriding goes by many names: backcountry, off-piste, slackcountry, side country or all mountain skiing. You’ll need to be brave and daring to venture into freeriding territory. Unlike the crowded, groomed slopes, the backcountry lets you escape into the wilderness and ski ungroomed, all-natural slopes. There are no rules, goals or set courses here. You’ll need to find your own way between the trees, hitting the deepest powder.
Freeride skiing, by nature, is rebellious. So, it’s not surprising that freeride skiing originally started in response to the strictly controlled atmosphere of the competitive ski world. Freeride skiers are all about breaking the rules as there aren’t any rules.
Freeride skiing gives you, as the name suggests, the ultimate freedom and gets you away from the crowds. You can go anywhere and ski anything -- nothing is off limits. More advanced skiers often prefer freeriding, especially in the backcountry as it’s here that they make some of their best memories. It’s an incredible experience and, if you have the necessary skills, we certainly recommend giving it a go.
You need a certain degree of expertise to ski in the backcountry. You’ll need to keep your skis parallel and make quick turns to avoid trees or sudden drops. Stemming out is not an option.
Some mountains are more prone to avalanches than others, so depending on where you’re skiing, you might need to take some precautions and be aware. We’ll talk about the safety equipment later on, but it’s also important to understand the risk factors that can trigger avalanches:
- Slopes with angles greater than 25 degrees
- Recent heavy snowfall and high winds
- Spring conditions, when slushy snow is above your boot
- Areas with a history of avalanches
You can use the avalanche incident database to see high-risk areas.
Freeride skiing is more challenging than on-piste skiing. When you’re thinking about skiing the backcountry for the first time, there are a few ways to make sure you have the best experience.
Novice freeriders should team up with a ski buddy as skiing with a pal will not only keep you safe but will also create unforgettable memories. If you decide to go off piste alone, make sure you tell someone where you plan to ski.
Once you’re on the trail, welcome the speed. It’s unavoidable that you’re going to pick up some momentum and this will help you navigate through deep powder. Going too slow can cause you to get stuck in the snow!
When you’re skiing off-piste, you’ll also want to adopt a slightly different posture than when skiing on groomed trails. You have to battle more weight as you push through the powder, so you’ll want to lean forward on the balls of your feet and crouch slightly (like a heavyweight boxer). It’s also best to try to make long, sweeping turns rather than short ones as this will help you avoid burying your skis.
Top Tip: After a fall, make an X with your poles and push up in the centre to regain your feet. Simply using your hands could cause you to sink deeper in the snow.
Before you head off trail, you’ll need slightly different gear than on-piste skiers. Freeride ski equipment is designed to handle all types of varying snow conditions, so you can ski freshly groomed, corduroy trails AND waist-deep powder. We’ll walk you through the basic freeride equipment:
- Freeride skis. Freeride skis are normally wider than on-piste skis so that they can handle the powder of the backcountry. Most of the big name brands, like Salomon, Head, Rossignol, and Wed’ze, make freeride skis.
- Freeride ski boots. Sometimes when skiing the backcountry, you’ll need to hike to the best spots. Freeride ski boots have a hike or walk mode and are made of lightweight, but stiff plastic which makes hiking into the backcountry much easier.
- Freeride ski helmet. Whether you’re skiing backcountry or on-piste, everyone should always wear a helmet. It’ll protect your brain should you take a fall.
- Freeride ski poles. Ski poles are essential for backcountry skiing as they help you stay balanced and make smooth turns. They’ll also help you get back up after a fall in deep powder.
- Avalanche Equipment. If you’re skiing in an area prone to avalanches, you’ll want to carry some safety equipment like a rescue beacon, shovel, backpack with extra clothes and food, and air backpack.
Before you head into the backcountry, make sure to read our article on how to stay safe off piste.