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What can you expect off the beaten path of track skiing? Sheltered bowls that beckon you to carve the first tracks in the hillside, windswept summits where you can lunch among spectacular vistas, a creek you can glide alongside while savoring winter's beauty — the surprises are innumerable.
Although traveling in the backcountry is a slower process than following groomed trails, you gain solitude and freedom by choosing your own route among the magnificent and unspoiled Sierra. If you feel uncertain about your map and compass skills, or decide that route-finding is too worrisome a task, you can still enjoy backcountry skiing by relying on friends to be your guide or by participating in organized group tours.
However, if you feel confident enough to strike out on your own, this guide contains valuable information for planning a backcountry tour.
Not all backcountry route finding is difficult
Not all backcountry ski routes are difficult to follow. Choose a tour on snow-covered roads or marked but ungroomed trails if you have no experience navigating with a map and compass. Bring along the appropriate topographic map and a compass, and develop your ability to interpret the contour lines and to locate landmarks and your position from the terrain. You can tackle more difficult and challenging routes after you have mastered these basic route-finding skills.
Backcountry skiing requires different techniques
In the backcountry, expect to encounter a variety of snow conditions — fine white powder to muck to ice. The Sierra is known for fast changing snow conditions. Also, do not be surprised if your track skiing techniques are somewhat inadequate for backcountry terrain and conditions. You may need to refine your old techniques and learn new ones, such as climbing in deep, untracked powder, traversing steep slopes and turning without the aid of a groomed track, in order to enjoy the backcountry in winter.
Suggestions for a safe trip
If you are planning your very first experience in the backcountry, consider these suggestions:
Pick a relatively short tour and allow extra time to complete it. Remember, five miles of backcountry skiing will take much longer than it would on a groomed track.
Choose a tour from which you can easily return. If the terrain is more difficult than you had anticipated, if the weather takes a turn for the worse, or if the route-finding becomes too difficult, you should turn back immediately. Unfortunately, you cannot depend on following your own tracks out since they can be covered by windblown snow or a new snowfall.
You should inquire about current avalanche conditions, and learn to recognize them yourself.
Never ski alone and always let a responsible person know where you are going and when you plan to return.
You don't need special equipment
You do not need special equipment, often heavy, to enjoy backcountry skiing. With lighter equipment, you can ski with greater ease and comfort. If you are considering renting or purchasing equipment for backcountry skiing, look for equipment that gives you greater control for maneuvering on ungroomed slopes.
The trend in backcountry skis is toward wide, soft camber, pronounced side-cut, metal-edged skis. They offer advantages in difficult terrain and facilitate the elusive telemark turn. But they come at a cost — greater weight. The same goes for boots. The trend is toward heavy boots that maximize torsional rigidity, ankle support and control. These may or may not be for you.
Your bindings need to match your boots both in design and sturdiness. It goes without saying that 75-mm (Nordic norm) boots require bindings that accept them. You also need to match the weight or beefiness of your boot to the binding. A light 75-mm boot should probably be matched to a bail-type binding. Plastic boots are usually matched with cable bindings. But within cable bindings there is a spectrum. Lightweight cable bindings are adequate for less aggressive skiers. The converse is also true. There are a number of non-Nordic norm boot-binding systems that will work adequately too.
Regardless of whether your equipment is old or new, owned or rented, always make sure that every piece is in good repair. Check that your bindings are attached firmly to your skis, that neither your skis nor poles are cracked, and that the soles of your boots are in good repair.
Carry the essentials
Since you must be self-sufficient when traveling in the backcountry, make sure that you or your group are carrying all essential items.
A small waterproof tarp is very useful in emergencies and adds comfort to your lunch stop. For additional comfort, you can splurge and carry a small piece of closed-cell foam to sit on. Or simply plan to sit on your pack.
Picking a great tour is a learned skill
The conditions on every tour, no matter where it is located, will be different from day to day. Somedays they will be great, somedays good, and somedays poor. But on any day there are good, or at least better, tours. Knowing which one to choose is a learned skill. Here are things you should consider when picking a tour:
Skiing may be better at a low elevation during or soon after a heavy snowfall.
An extremely cold storm is another good opportunity to do a low elevation tour.
New snow at low elevations quickly turns to muck after the storm passes. However, that snow consolidates quickly.
South-facing slopes, at any elevation, turn to heavy muck soon after a storm. They also consolidate first.
North-facing slopes, at any elevation, retain powder conditions much longer.
It goes without saying that there are other considerations too. Plan as many tours as you can for spring, corn-snow conditions. Corn-snow is created after well-consolidated snow melts and re-freezes over and over again. Many people consider this the best skiing the Sierra has to offer. The days are longer than in winter, travel is easier and faster, and turning is a dream — you fell like you can do no wrong on your skis. This is the time to practice linking turns or to enjoy those big descents. Some people call it "ego snow."
Flexibility is a key factor in optimizing the quality of your tours. Be prepared to change your plans in the event of a new snowfall or a drastic change in temperatures.
Ski often and enjoy
Finally, ski as often as you can. Not only will your technique improve, but you will be more likely to experience those elusive "perfect" days.
Careful and conscientious planning will maximize your enjoyment and minimize the dangers in the wilderness. The self-confidence you develop from traveling in the wilderness, the sense of excitement and adventure that accompanies each backcountry tour, and the sheer unspoiled winter beauty of the Sierra are the rewards.