Ski touring 101

Posted on | ~8mins
outdoors ski backcountry

(Last update: 2023-01-16)


Ski touring 101

First: Don’t do it, the back country is full, no more people allowed ;)

This is some notes I made after getting into ski touring over the last couple years. Mostly it started as an email attempting to convince a specific set of my friends to join me in the backcountry; their skiing and mountaineering skills vary greatly.

After writing most of this I discovered Kyle McCrohan’s excellent article on the same subject. Highly recommend you head over there and if you want a less articulate take, come on back :)

What is ski touring

Despite what you may think, backcountry skiing is not the same as big mountain / free ride skiing vis a vis what you typically see on Red Bull or TGR’s youtube channels.

A better mental model, for where I am willing to go anyway, is simply an uphill hike with a nice ski descent.

In fact, that’s partly why I prefer the term “Ski Touring” over “Backcountry Skiing” because the latter seems to sounds more scary to folks. To me they mean the same sport.

Some other related terms you might hear: randonée skiing (from french, synonymous with ski touring), ski mountaineering / skimo (a bit confusing, but can either be the more aggressive mountaineering aspect or more commonly the spandex clad racing offshoots of ski touring 🤷🏽‍♀️ naming is hard).

Reading Material:

Learn to ski

I’ve been doing the snow sports since I was a kid, skiing a few times a year until high school (10 yrs maybe), then snowboarding a few times a season or less until 2014 (maybe 20yr), and finally back to skis in resort since.

All that to say, the first thing to learn is a good base of skiing skills, a decent descent if you will. You do not need to be the best skier on the mountain to go into the backcountry, but you do need to be comfortable getting down most everything safely, even if it doesn’t look pretty (cough side slips cough).

I think even more generally, getting comfortable in snow is a big benefit; tromp around in boots and feel how to ascend something steep, descend back with plunge steps, slide somewhere safe and self arrest, build some confidence. In taking the Scrambling course with the mountaineers when we did snow workshops, there was a pretty big break between people who had spent any time in snow and the complete novices, mostly just in confidence level not inherent skills.

Reading Material:


Gear list

Presuming you have layers from mountaineering and/or resort skiing at a minimum you will likely need to pick up:

  • Safety
    • Beacon
    • Shovel
    • Probe
  • Basics
    • AT boots
    • Bindings
    • Skis
    • Skins
    • Poles
    • Pack

Be prepared for a bit of an up front cost, I spent around $3200 on gear the first season, and I was reusing some stuff from my alpine setup. A cheaper way to get started may be to get the safety equipment and fitted boots but rent skis. Can generally pick up deals on gear at the end of the season.

Random gear thoughts:

  • Prefer a pair of skis without twin tips. This is not critical, both my sets have a mildly upturned tail, but it would make it easier for certain kick turns, and perhaps for building an anchor (not something I’ve needed to do).
  • Don’t go overboard with wide skis (I made this mistake with some 101mm underfoot. Later I remounted my Rossignol Sin 7, 96mm underfoot, as AT skis and slightly prefer that setup most of the time). On that note I would also not size down your backcountry skis, mine are the same as my resort skis and I think I actually wish they were longer for better grip and stability.
  • Boots that fit well are far and away the most important piece of gear. Go to a reputable boot fitter and spend a couple hours there. Ignore brands and prices.

Some shop recommendations in the Seattle Area

  • Pro Ski (North Bend)
    • I love these guys, used their guiding service a couple times (including AIARE1), but haven’t actually used their shop as it is a bit of a trek for me. They recently added a rad café to the shop too, swing by for a coffee and a snack.
  • Pro Ski (Seattle) – not related to ^Pro Ski (North Bend)
    • This place is now my main tune up shop, they always seem to have a quick turn around and do a fantastic job. And their ski shop runs a tad later in the season than some of the others – for when you need that volcano season tune up. I saw online they recently moved off of Aurora, haven’t been to the new location yet.
  • Ascent Outdoors
    • Mostly I’ve used them for mountaineering gear, but a pretty rad shop in Ballard
  • Alpine Hut
    • Did a boot fitting and picked up my boots from them, been pleased with the results.
  • Cripple Creek Backcountry
    • Have not shopped there, but I hear good things
  • Thread full of opinions on shops

Learn to go uphill

I was way more stressed about getting into the backcountry and just the physical usage of the equipment than was warranted.

To alleviate those fears I found some very beginner uphill travel courses in the Snoqualmie pass area. WAC / Wednesday Night Gatherings (which are the same class, sign up through the WAC though, they are good people and they get a kickback from the resort – Also take note to sign up for the uphill component or you’ll just be taking a ski lesson which is also great :P). Randy Oakley who manages the class (or did when I took it) is also active in many Facebook groups related to PNW skiing.

If for no other reason this class was helpful as it motivated me to get my ass up to the pass each Wednesday. You will learn the basics using your equipment, transitions, kick turns, etc.

Continue to gain uphill fitness and skills by taking laps at the Snoqualmie pass resorts, they have a pretty liberal uphill policy.

There is also a downhill class on those same Wednesdays that I recommend to pick up some drills to dial in your downhill skiing.

The Mountaineers also sometimes offer Backcountry Skiing Courses that might be worth looking into; I did not do that one.

Reading Material:

AIARE / Avalanche dangers

Take an AIARE1 course! This is considered mandatory for getting into the backcountry.

I suggest overlapping this with the basic uphill travel course. You don’t want your first time on skins to be your AIARE1 course, but you also do not need to be an expert yet.

I took my AIARE1 through ProGuiding in North Bend and cannot recommend them highly enough.

Reading material:

Get out there!

Gain some experience, here, depending on your friend group may be helpful to take ProGuiding’s 3-day beginner backcountry skiing course. I did and this was absolutely fantastic! You’ll learn different skills than an AIARE1 course, pick up some tips and tricks from extremely experienced guides, and discover some zones to ski unguided with your pals.

Other guiding services in the area offer similar courses, I’ll withhold links since I have not personally used any of them though; the google is your friend.

Reading material:

Beta / Planning / Community

Some Ski Touring focused Facebook groups, good for beta, trip ideas, and community:

Some other sites worth a visit, some with individual’s trip reports:

I’ve also collected a set of people I am stalking on instagram and strava for trip reports / ideas, but I’ll keep that list to myself for now :P

For trip planning, I am now fully in the caltopo camp (I started with Gaia, but have made the switch. I’ve yet to try out OnX Backcountry). The caltopo app is sufficient and the online tooling is phenomenal. Here’s a couple community maintained maps to get you started:

Reading material:

Get Stoked

Get Stoked: The fifty

Even the New York Times has an article on it.

Be safe, be respectful, and have fun!

If this was helpful or if you noticed any obvious mistakes/omissions, please reach out to me on twitter or on ig and let me know.