How to get into riding the backcountry for the first timer
Ask every established skier and snowboarder about their ‘best mountain day’ and generally it might involve surfing untouched powder in a remote location outside the resort boundaries.
The name of the game here is quality over quantity. Sure, you will likely will clock more ski miles bombing around the resort but the feeling of hiking / snowshoeing / touring / splitboarding up a mountain is immensely humbling and rewarding making the descent memorable and sweet. I can honestly say I can recall every turn I have made on a backcountry descent and the joy that particular day brought me. Oh, and usually the views are pretty good too.
So, in true ethos of The Milk Run, we love to share the stoke and help get others into this wonderful extension of mountain activity. If you’re curious about getting into riding off piste or backcountry read our tips below:
Never consider going out of bounds without the appropriate safety equipment; the transceiver, probe and shovel and knowing how and when to use them.
Ride lots of bumpy terrain in resort -
To enjoy riding powder and uneven terrain I would recommend being competent on red runs in Europe, or in North America, black diamond runs. With this, make sure you can ride bumps and choppy terrain. Riding through the trees at the side of a run can help to dial in that timing and coordination, as you might need to turn in unexpected places and make a variety of turn shape and size! You’ll have a far more enjoyable and safer experience in the backcountry for this.
Up the fitness game
As stated above, accessing the backcountry usually involves hiking or touring in a vertical manner at altitude. Thinner air at altitude means you’re heart and lungs will work harder to get oxygen around your body. Being able to walk /cycle /run longer distances before taking on the backcountry will make you have a far better experience and have the energy to enjoy the all important run down.
Book onto a freeride camp
Theres plenty of companies in Europe that will cater for all ability levels. To name a few, Mint Snowboarding and The Rider Social operate in the Portes du Soleil. Some North American resorts offer day camps, too. You’ll learn to ride in lots of varied terrain, read the signs of avalanche terrain and may cover avalanche rescue techniques. Within a week, you’ll hugely consolidate your skills and confidence in the backcountry.
The only caveat, however is that it’s a big commitment for one week and can be expensive, a cheaper option might be to take one day out of your next trip and…
….Hire a local guide for a day
A local guide can tailor the day to your needs and ability. You’ll cover everything thing above but in a condensed format. This is a great thing to do with like-minded friends that have the same level experience and it will make it cheaper, usually.
Take a ride in a Cat
If you are in North America, a popular option to ride fresh powder is Cat Skiing. You are taken up mountains in a repurposed piste basher into various ‘zones’ and you simply ride down. Guides are on hand to lead you down the pitch and point out hazards or features. You’ll be equipped with safety equipment and cover their basic use. Expect to get about 7 - 10 runs in for a day, which can exceed the vertical of a heli-ski! A beer or cold beverage of choice for the ride back to the lodge is also highly recommended.
Get Avy Savvy
Avalanche awareness courses are excellent resources to gain knowledge of navigating backcountry terrain, reading local avalanche reports and practising search and rescue techniques. These are great if you eventually want to plan your own tours. Best done with like-minded friends. The AST 1 operating in Canada is a good introduction and taking further courses can be ‘industry recognised’. European equivalent can be found here.
Layer up and down
Think about investing in good clothing layers. Merino wool base layer is breathable and moisture wicking when we inevitably sweat whilst going up. In spring conditions - this is what I’ll consider wearing on an ascent. Bit colder, I might have a thin fleecey mid layer, or micro fleece, and any colder than that, I’ll have an insulated mid layer jacket, down (for dryer conditions) or Primaloft (for damper conditions). Shell jacket over the top if it’s heavily snowing and for the descent down. Stopping for lunch or a break I’ll almost always put a insulated jacket on to stop getting cold.
Never stop the quest for knowledge
Ever changing weather conditions and developing climate issues will constantly change terrain and overall snowpack from season to season. Never assume that “you know that zone or pitch” or take anything for granted. Always refresh your avalanche education at the start of every season. Keep practising rescue techniques throughout the season.