HOW TO GET INTO SKI TOURING
Ski touring is a type of backcountry skiing, also called alpine touring or Randonnée. Ski touring makes use of special adapted touring skis and touring bindings that convert from free-heel to fixed-heel mode. These allow you to go uphill on your skis, with your heels moving freely, using climbing skins to provide grip and glide, aka. skinning. When you get to the top, you remove your skins, lock your heels back into the bindings and ski down again, just like you would on the piste. It’s a great means of accessing natural winter mountain landscapes.
Ski touring is also a good way of combining fitness training with regular piste skiing – where skiers skin up the sides of the pistes and then ski down on the piste.
As with any backcountry or off-piste skiing, it is essential to have the right equipment with you and be fully versed in the use of avalanche safety equipment and rescue procedures.
Ski mountaineering or skimo is a type of ski touring or backcountry skiing that also incorporates technical winter mountaineering skills, and where the focus is on reaching the summit of a peak before skiing back down. The more mountaineering skills – ice axe, crampons, glacier traverses etc. – needed on a particular tour, the more likely it is to fall into the ski mountaineering, rather than ski touring category.
Ski mountaineers can access remote couloirs, summit big peaks, and drop onto steep faces far away from the mêlée of commercial ski resorts.
Ski mountaineers typically use alpine ski touring equipment to travel across snowy slopes and glaciers but will also make use of equipment like boot crampons, ice axes and ropes. Ski mountaineers need to have a high level of mountain knowledge and skills and also be fully versed in the use of avalanche safety equipment and rescue procedures.
The thrill and tranquillity of carving turns through fresh, untracked snow, far away from resort crowds is what draws many people to ski touring or snowboarding in the backcountry. To get started for big or multi-day tours with lots of ascent try to keep the kit to an essential minimum. Making sure the equipment you use is as lightweight as possible will ensure you arrive at the summit/ highpoint with plenty of energy to burn on the descent. Aside from touring skis and bindings, or snowshoes and snowboard or even a splitboard, the most important equipment in the backcountry is of course your avalanche safety equipment.
4.1. Ski touring or backcountry skis (snowboarders can consider a splitboard)
Generally speaking, ski touring skis need to be lightweight (for less exertion on the uphill) but this can be difficult to balance with downhill performance. The lightest skis would be thin ones, or skinnies. But although these are great on hard snow, they don’t have the float you’d want for deep pow days. There is no perfect do-it-all set-up, but depending on your personal inclination, you can opt to go for more uphill efficiency or more downhill performance.
Typically for ski touring / ski mountaineering you’re looking for skis around or slightly taller than your height, with a width underfoot of between 80 and 100 mm and that are as light as possible. As a rule of thumb, the longer the ski, the better the float and stability. But length usually comes at a cost in weight. That said, recent innovations in skiing technology particularly with regards to weight mean it is now possible to size slightly bigger than in the past, especially at the waist. Touring skis are usually fitted with either a notch at the tip and tail or a hole at the tip, to affix skins.
4.2. Touring boots
Touring ski boots are lightweight with good flex or walk mode feature that releases the ankle and makes it easier to move. They also come with a non-slip, profiled sole at the front and back for better grip over snowy, rocky terrain.
4.3. Touring or touring capable bindings
These are bindings that lift at the heel for the ascent and clip back in for the descent. Touring bindings are also much more lightweight than regular alpine bindings. Ski touring bindings usually come with a riser wedge which eases the pressure on your hamstrings when climbing up sustained inclines.
There are two types of ski touring binding to choose from:
- Frame alpine touring bindings
- Tech alpine touring bindings – commonly referred to as pin bindings
Frame bindings are perfect if you’re new to ski touring and want to see if it suits you. Frame touring bindings have become much more lightweight, durable and responsive over recent years. The biggest advantage of frame models is that they tend to work with both dedicated ski touring boots as well as regular alpine downhill boots. The frame models are built around a base plate, with toe and heel unit that pivots for free heel ascending in hike mode. In downhill mode, frame bindings perform virtually the same as regular alpine bindings.
Tech or pin bindings were first developed by Dynafit over 30 years ago but are now available from several manufacturers. These bindings have pins in the toe and heel of the binding to old the boot in place, which means they only work with special tech-compatible or (pin compatible) ski touring boots with fittings that match the binding unit. This construction makes tech bindings much lighter than frame bindings (saving up to 1 kg per ski), and well suited to regular ski tourers and ski mountaineers.
4.4. Touring poles
Touring or telescopic poles are useful when ski touring because they can be adapted in length to suit the gradient of the slope – longer on the downslope side and shorter on the upslope side, or longer for pushing off against uphill – and then back to their regular length for the ski down.
4.5. Climbing skins
When ski touring or ski mountaineering, climbing skins are used to make uphill progress. Originally made from seal skins, these are strips of fabric or plastic polymer with either synthetic or natural (non-animal based) fibres that act like fur i.e. are smooth when stroked in one direction and create resistance or grip when pushed in the other direction – in other words they allow your skis to glide in forward motion, while preventing backward slippage. The underside is coated in tacky glue so that they stick to the base of the ski and they are attached by some means either to the tip of the ski or both the tip and the tail of the ski. Climbing skins come in a variety of materials, widths and lengths and with a range of different attachment options. A racing ski mountaineer will opt for lightweight, thin skins that only reach two-thirds of the way own the ski, whereas someone skinning up beside the piste will tend to go for greater surface area coverage and therefore more uphill grip.
4.6. Avalanche safety equipment (probe, shovel, transceiver)
When ski touring or ski mountaineering, never leave home without your avalanche safety equipment and know how to use it! There is no point in having only one or two of the set (shovel, probe and avalanche transceiver) it takes all three for them to be effective, and training in how to use them is also a must.
4.7. Ski helmet / climbing helmet
A ski touring helmet should be lightweight and well-ventilated so that it is comfortable to wear both when skinning up and skiing down. The dangers on the ascent include rock or ice fall and losing your footing, and on the descent, from a fall. A ski touring helmet should be certified not only for alpine skiing but also for mountaineering.
4.8. First aid kit
Anyone leaving the confines of the patrolled piste area should have a first aid kit with them. It should be packed in a fully waterproof bag and include items such as pain killers, tape, bandages, swabs, gauze etc. For more advice on what to take, consult a ski/mountain guide or your local ski shop.
4.9. Ski crampons
Ski crampons are metal extended cuffs with jagged protrusions that can be placed over the bindings for added grip in the snow when skins alone aren’t enough. In good snow, you will never need ski crampons and they may seem like added weight for no purpose. But when you’re making an exposed traverse on hard snow, they are invaluable.
You should be able to fit everything you need for a day, or even a multi-day ski tour, into a 30/35-litre pack. A mountaineering-standard pack is a good option. As with all your equipment for ski touring, weight is a big issue, so make sure your pack is lightweight yet rugged enough to withstand bumps and scrapes against rock (especially for skimo) and that it has snow-specific features, like attachments for your skis/snowboard, poles, helmet or ice axe. The carry system should also allow for perspiration and a hydration system is also a handy feature. Whether or not you choose an ABS backpack is personal preference, but most are still significantly heavier than standard mountaineering packs.
You need to have the best equipment you can find, and you also have to know how to use it. Good mountaineering schools have the newest and best equipment for rental. It makes sense to use rental equipment for your first lessons. Your guide can then advise you on what to buy if you want to continue with it. The Dolomites are home to several excellent ski schools with the option of hiring a private guide to take you off-piste or booking onto a backcountry/ ski touring course.
It is essential that you are well versed in using avalanche safety equipment before you set out on your first ski tour. Take one of the many courses on offer in any ski region, or in the Dolomites. Most ski schools will offer these. It is also important to keep practicing the techniques learned or update your training.
Once you’ve reached a level where you are more confident in your ski touring skills, you could join a guided ski tour group. Eventually, you can then head out independently. This naturally requires a much higher level of knowledge of mountain weather and snow conditions. You have to be able to assess avalanche risk by making a snow profile and judge the best routes to take. Do not even consider embarking on an independent ski tour without having a considerable amount of experience under your belt.
Ski touring obviously means moving uphill as well as down, so it’s worth putting some time and attention to detail into improving your skinning.
To help you skin and pace with more ease and efficiency, here are a few tips and tricks:
- Think slow and steady. When you take a step, push your toes forward to slide up the mountain and not lifting your ski to step up the mountain.
- Find your rhythm, keep your weight on your heels, take small steps and take your time. Slower is ultimately faster.
- Plant your poles level with your feet to allow you to push off more easily. For powder snow, using wider diameter baskets will give you a better push-off.
- Keep your skins warm, dry and free of snow and ice. Once folded up for a descent, store them in your jacket to keep them warm and let them thaw. Carry a scraper and a block of wax for on-the-go maintenance. Make use of this time to maybe pull put on another layer of clothing so that you don’t start to get chilled. Hot drinks and energy bars are good, so make sure you put some in your pack.
- Avoid kick turns if you can, winding your way up the mountain is best. However, if the slope gets too steep, don’t climb straight up, but traverse it instead using uphill kick turns to turn yourself around. And make sure you’re confident about your kick turn technique before you set out.
Once you’ve got it dialled, your skinning will become second nature.
Ski mountaineering started in the 19thCentury. Pioneers such as John Thompson, used skis to deliver mail over the Sierra Nevada to remote California mining camps and settlements. The climber and explorer Cecil Slingsby was one of the earliest European practitioners and crossed the 1,550-metre-high Keiser Pass in Norway on skis in 1880.
Ski mountaineering is much more technical than ski touring and therefore requires a more safety equipment and climbing equipment. As with any type of backcountry skiing however, weight should always be taken into account when choosing equipment, as you’ll be carrying it all uphill with you.
- Boot crampons: It’s nearly always worth putting a set of crampons (make sure they fit your ski boots before getting on the mountain) in your backpack for narrow ridges, steep hard snow and small sections of mixed climbing.
- Ice axe/ mountaineering axe: A single walking ice axe you can arrest with is sufficient for the majority of tours. If you’re planning on technical mixed climbing, then you’ll need two.
- Climbing harness
- Climbing rope / rack
We recommend our quick drying, wicking baselayers with either a wool-synthetic blend or full synthetic fabric. Wearing leggings on the bottom is the best way to keep your legs warm. You can choose between ¾ length legwear (that stay clear of your ski socks and boots) or full-length ones for full coverage. For your top, choose one with a zip, to allow you to dump heat more quickly.
A ski touring midlayer needs to be warm enough to provide a good amount of warmth, but not so warm that you overheat at the first signs of an uphill slope. For your midlayer, we recommend Polartec® Power Grid™ insulation with its grid design structure that reduces weight but increases wicking efficiency and breathability. Or for colder days, go for Polartec® High Loft™ fleece. Its soft and fluffy structure creates large air pockets and offers a huge warmth to weight ratio.
- Shell layers
Your bottom shell layer should not be too warm – your legs will be working hard on the ascent. For warm spring days, softshell pants with good ventilation are the way to go, but if it’s really cold and windy, or it’s going to snow, then hardshell pants are the better option. For your upper shell layer, softshells tend to be softer, more comfortable to wear and more breathable. They are a better option in most weather conditions – unless it’s really going to be grim out there. But if you need to wear a waterproof shell, it’s important you have one with you.
This is an important layer to keep you warm while you stand in a blizzard belaying or you’re having a rest break at the top. It should be compact yet insulating – a jacket you always have in your pack. Down or synthetic – it’s up to you.
It’s a good idea to have regular, insulated ski gloves with you for the descent, and thin liner gloves for the ascent.
A breathable, yet warm and possibly windproof beanie hat is a good option. A thin neck gaiter is a versatile piece, especially for warmer times of year. And a headband can be very effective for the ascent – to keep you warm, but ventilated and also keep perspiration/ hair out of your face.
You’ll want ski goggles for the descent but perhaps only sun glasses for skinning up.
Whilst backcountry skiing / mountaineering is undoubtedly more difficult on a snowboard, recent innovations in splitboards have made it a realistic option. A splitboard is essentially a normal snowboard which splits into two halves. These halves become skis for travelling uphill, or touring. Splitboards may not perform as well as standard snowboards on the descent, but they do narrow the gap with skis on the ascent. It is generally harder to fit crampons to snowboard boots as opposed to ski boots due to their softer nature. Make sure you pick up a crampon-compatible boot. It is also possible to use snowshoes for the ascent, with your board strapped onto your back, but if you’re doing long or multi-day tours it’s hard work keeping up with skiers in deep powder.
In the backcountry, there’s no lodge, mountain restaurant or ski patrol. Whether you’re setting off into the wilderness or skinning up the side of the piste and skiing out of bounds at a ski area (aka. “slackcountry” or “sidecountry”), you’re in an uncontrolled environment. Before you head into the backcountry, it’s essential that you seek out avalanche safety training and maybe even backcountry skiing skills training.
Backcountry skiing requires a number of new skills, like using touring bindings, skinning uphill, doing uphill kick turns, managing terrain and planning your tour. By signing up for a ski touring course, you’ll learn the right way to do these things from experienced professionals, rather than trying to figure them out on your own.
You need to be able to ski to intermediate level, but you don’t need to be an expert skier to enjoy ski touring. You should be able to get down any red run in a ski resort and it’s a definite advantage if you’ve got experience skiing in lots of different types of snow, including off-piste.
The other important factor is fitness. As you spend more time skinning up than actually skiing down, it is important to have a good level of fitness.
For ski mountaineering on the other hand, alpinism and mountaineering skills are required.
The beauty of skimo/ ski touring is that you don’t really need much gear. But you do need the right gear. You need a good baselayer, a warm but breathable midlayer, a lightweight shell layer, and don’t forget your headband, beanie and gloves.
Ski touring clothing is very similar to what you’d wear for winter mountaineering. In other words, don’t wear your thick, insulated ski jacket, or else you’ll be too warm on the ascent. Touring clothing is all about layering, reduced weight, comfort and adaptability. When skinning uphill, you’re likely to get very warm and this can be as much of a challenge to regulate, if not more, than it will be to keep warm. This is where your layers come into play.