Despite unprecedented increases in the cost of lift tickets + season passes (Vail’s daily ticket is $165+ per day!), ski areas continue to see historic crowds. One of the best ways to avoid the financial and mental burdens of resort skiing, is to hit the backcountry. While many skiers immediately think of lavish heliskiing trips as their only way to reach the pow, a simple alpine touring setup and local guide will suffice, which will allow you to reach much of the action you see in ski magazines and movies at a fraction of the cost.
Hiring a guide is always the smartest and safest way to attack the backcountry. Local guiding companies will have the best knowledge of terrain, snowpack, finding lines within your ability level, and getting you home in one piece at the end of the day. There are many qualified outfitters throughout Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, + California, so do your homework and find out who has access to the terrain you want to ski. Many guides offer trips for first timers, and can set you up with all the necessary gear as well as educate on the technique of uphill skiing.
If you have completed a Level 1 AIARE course, are carrying a beacon, probe, + shovel, as well as traveling with a friend who has also completed a level 1 course, and are comfortable with your local avalanche forecast, then you may be ready to begin exploring the backcountry on your own.
A few things you’ll need to get started with your alpine touring experience are skins and some AT compatible bindings. For AT enthusiasts, choices quickly become endless once you start considering AT specific boots, bindings, + skis. Scarpa, Dynafit, and Black Diamond have been leading the way for years, but traditional brands such as Fisher have been investing immensely in the backcountry market.
For those of us who don’t want to maintain separate alpine and AT setups, almost every binding manufacturer is now selling a dual purpose binding that can give you benefits of a true alpine binding with the flexibility to release your heel and skin uphill. At Hinterlands we are big fans of Salomon’s Kingpin and Mtn Lab setup.
One major downside of full frame touring bindings, such as the Marker Baron, is increased heft, but for quick skin trips, these may work well for you. If you choose to skin with a traditional alpine boot, you probably won’t be able go more than 30 minutes before incurring some discomfort. Most boot manufacturers are also now selling dual purpose boots, with a “walk” mode, designed for those of you who don’t need an AT specific boot, and would prefer more of a traditional fit for the ride down.
Whether you’ve been skiing the past 40 years or are just getting into the sport, there has never been a better time to invest in an AT setup. Technology and innovation has made gear lighter, stronger, and more reliable than ever before. So what are you waiting for!