Backcountry Skiing

The rec.skiing.backcountry FAQ is a work in progress and is maintained by David Eyre ( Additions and corrections to the FAQ are welcome. HTML markup by Shamim Mohamed (

The rec.skiing.backcountry FAQ is a compendium of questions and answers that frequently appear on rec.skiing.backcountry. Neither the contributors to the FAQ, the posters of the FAQ, nor their employers make any claim whatsoever regarding the accuracy or safety of ANYTHING in the FAQ. Any item that may appear to be offering either medical or legal advice is doing neither.

See rec.skiing FAQ for more skiing related material. This FAQ is periodically posted to rec.skiing.announce.


What is backcountry skiing all about?
What are the types of b.c. skiing?
Is backcountry skiing safe?
What type of skis do I need?
How about the ski boots?
What are these different ski bindings?
Do I need adjustable ski poles?
Can I use a snowboard in the backcountry?
What else do I need?
How about telemark racing?
Where can I get gear?
Are there any good books on the subject?
Guide services, instruction and organizations


The material in this FAQ is directed to novice backcountry skiers. It contains brief descriptions of the basic ideas and techniques of backcountry skiing, comments on the equipment used during backcountry skiing, and safety concerns related to backcountry travel in the winter. For more detailed information on these topics, the reader should consult the resources presented at the end of this FAQ.

This FAQ does not contain equipment reviews. These and available from various other sources, including magazines and this newsgroup.

Finally, this FAQ does not contain information on specific ski routes. The bibliography contains a list of guide books, sorted by location, that contain this information.

Editorial note

So far the emphasis of this FAQ is on mountain skiing. This reflects the interests of the maintainer/author, and not an editorial bias. If you have comments on topics that are included or not included, please feel free to write a paragraph or two and it will be included in future versions.


1 What is backcountry skiing?

That's a tough one, even the readers of this group have argued over what defines backcountry skiing. However, a reasonable definition may be that backcountry skiing is the sport (and art) of skiing in places and terrain that have not been altered by people, and away from snow that has been groomed for skiing.

While many people would argue about what defines backcountry skiing, not many would have trouble answering a better question.

Why do people backcountry ski? Simply because its fun.

Backcountry skiing is one of the most relaxing, pleasant and rewarding activities of our lives. We enjoy the terrain we travel through, and we enjoy the solitude that a little effort will bring. We enjoy the company of our companions, and we find the skiing to be unmatched in quality. What more could a skier ask for?

2 What are the types of backcountry skiing?

There are basically two types of backcountry skiing. One approximates cross-country skiing while the other more closely approximates alpine skiing. However, the lines between these two activities are very blurred, and on any given ski tour, you could easily participate in both types.

2.1 What is overland ski touring?

Overland ski touring is the cross-country like skiing. The focus here is on covering terrain, seeing the sights and simply being away from more well traveled roads.

This type of skiing may take place at just about anywhere patch of ground where there is snow and there aren't any roads. Examples would include a mountain hiking trail, a forest, on rolling hills, or even in the artic regions.

2.2 What is mountain ski touring?

Mountain ski touring focuses on climbing mountains and downhill skiing. Your legs, lungs, and stamina replace ski lifts, but again the most important factor is getting away.

This type of skiing is usually done in mountainous regions outside of alpine ski resorts.

There are two downhill skiing styles of mountain touring. One of the styles is called telemark skiing. The telemark is a type of turn that requires that the heel of the boot not be attached to the ski (thus the terms, free heel skiing). Telemark skiing uses boots and bindings specifically designed to allow this turn. The other style of mountain touring uses "alpine touring equipment". This equipment is used to execute parallel turns with the boot heel firmly attached to the ski, like standard alpine bindings.

3 Is backcountry skiing safe?


you learn the skills that are needed, and
you choose ski routes that are appropriate for
your skill level and for
the weather and avalanche conditions on that day, and
if you exercise caution when you make decisions, then yes, backcountry skiing might be safe. Without these skills and without thoughtful decision making, backcountry skiing is not safe.
"Nature cannot be fooled." -Richard Phillips Feynman

Every year skiers of all kinds are killed. We cannot assure complete safety. You voluntarily partake of this activity by your choice. Do not fool yourself.

The basic skills required for backcountry skiing can be learned in many ways. The possiblities include;

hiring a guide,
taking a course with one of the numerous schools (such as NOLS, Outward Bound, etc...) that teach outdoor skills,
skiing with friends that are experienced backcountry skiers, or
taking a course at a college or university that offers outdoor education.

The following general rules of thumb for safety are parapharsed from Hanscom and Kelner's book Wasatch Tours. They should be exercised by all backcountry skiers, regardless of experience or ability.

Consider and prepare for the worst.
Consider the needs of you body for water, food and warmth.

Be aware of winter hazards such as weather and avalanches.

Travel with enough people to rescue or evacuate a person.

Tell someone where you are going, and when you will return.
(Editors note: Thanks to Eugene Miya for helping to clarify this section.)

3.1 How do I prepare for the weather and exposure?

Backcountry travel in the winter exposes the skier to potentially severe weather. Travelers should be prepared with enough gear and supplies to safely handle extreme cold, high winds, snow/ice and sudden severe weather changes. Backcountry travelers should also have plans for an emergency due to weather or injury, and should consider how they would survive the night if circumstances forced that upon them.

In the Fall of 1996, rsb had a discussion of what people carried with them on backcountry ski tours. The following lists are some of their suggestions. These are not exhaustive lists, and they don't include the obvious such as extra clothing and food, they are just what some people carry with them for emergencies.

Andrew McLean
Lowell Skoog
Zdarsky tent - It is lighter, more compact, and more versatile than a sleeping bag or bivi sack. You can put three people under one.
Zdarsky Tent

Use a rectangular piece of waterproof fabric about 10 ft by 5 ft. Fold it in half so that each half is about 5 ft by 5 ft. Get a piece of fabric about 5 ft by 1.5 ft and cut it in half along the diagonal so you end up with two triangular shaped pieces. Get two climber's quickdraws about 1 foot long each. Sew the triangular end pieces onto the tent roof, sewing the quick draws through each apex so that you can clip into them from either the inside or outside of the tent. Sew a pair of tunnel vents on one side of the tent about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way down from the top and in from the ends. The finished tent looks as shown above. The O's are tunnel vents and the single quotes are quickdraws. The tent has no floor.

Steve Cali

3.2 What should I know about avalanches?

If you travel in avalanche prone terrain, you should know as much as you possibly can! The reasons why are obvious. In the 1995-96 ski season, avalanches killed 27 people in North America. These people ranged from backcountry novices to a professional ski patrolman working on avalanche control. The avalanches ranged from quite small slides with little power to slides that snapped 100+ year old trees like they were twigs.

3.2.1 Do I have to worry about avalanches?

Almost certainly, unless you're sticking to particularly flat terrain. Anywhere where snow accumulates on slopes may well be an avalanche risk, and as a backcountry skier, slopes where snow accumulates are just the sort of places you're likely to be.

However, there's a lot of difference between "worry" and "fear". If you make a point of learning about avalanches, as long as you have respect for them and use that knowledge, then you needn't be afraid of them, as you shouldn't end up in one.

3.2.2 What are the consequences of avalanches?

This varies from nothing to death, but you cannot assume anything about escape if you're in one. There is no sure way of escaping from an avalanche intact, except by not being caught in the first place, which is what you should concentrate on.

3.2.3 Are avalanches avoidable?

Yes, they are, but before you can reliably avoid an avalanche you need to have a reasonable understanding of what causes them and in what conditions you can expect them. Once armed with this knowledge you can make use of multiple sources of information, including maps, weather forecasts, visual and structural inspection and even "6th sense gut feelings" in order to avoid them. Note that nobody knows everything there is to know, so don't try and learn everything at once. Just like learning ski turns, if you build up gradually it's easy, but if you try and emulate Olympic slalom champions on your first run you'll come unstuck.

To get the information you need for this, look at Questions 4 & 5...

3.2.4 Where can I find out about avalanches?

There are plenty of good sources available, both general and local. For general sources, widely available, see Question 5.

Local sources are primarily people-oriented, and represent local knowledge of conditions and tendencies in an area. It is well worth seeking out such information in advance, as it can reveal persistent black spots and good avoidance routes. Areas may publish local avalanche forecasts, which should always be read if available, along with local weather forecasts. If specific mountain forecasts are available, make sure you read them. Make a point of asking other backcountry users in the area their opinions if you feel there is possible danger: the more information you have, the better you can forecast and avoid activity.

In mountain areas there are often avalanche professionals who will gladly spend time on lectures to interested groups. If this facility is available, make use of it. Find out if an area has an avalanche service and contact it if it does for information and guidance. Nobody knows all there is about avalanches, and the more information you have, the better your chances of avoiding them.

3.2.5 What resources are widely available?

Numerous courses on avalanches and safe backcountry travel are available, and if you are planning backcountry travel, you should take a course. For a list of courses see CSAC Courses Aside from an avalanche course, the groundwork theory is easiest to pick up by videos or reading, either books or Web sites. Following is a list of various of each.



Web sites:

3.2.6 Am I safe with a beacon, probe and shovel?

Don't rely on it. The only sure way of being safe is not to get caught. Probes and shovels are for getting other people out, not you. Beacons (radio transceivers for locating buried victims) can be a big help, but they require PRACTICE in their use and though certainly a good idea that could save your life they are not a substitute for avoidance. Don't let safety items like these lull you into a false sense of security by reducing your respect for avalanches.

3.2.7 Do I need to practice forecast and avoidance?

Yes. And preferably practice some more afterwards...

3.2.8 Is there a place that I can get beacons at cost?

Yes. Its called the EKW fund.

Erdme Kuljurgis-Worswick's tragic death in an avalanche in the spring of 1984 alerted the communities of Southwest Colorado to the lack of information available on the subject of winter mountaineering and backcountry travel. Erdme perished in a small avalanche while cross country skiing on relatively non-threatening ground in the San Juan Mountains. Shortly after Erdme's death, the EKW Memorial Mountain Safety Fund, a non-profit educational organization, was created to increase public awareness of avalanches and their potential hazards in the backcountry. Dissemination of information that might prevent injuries and death has always been the primary purpose of the fund. Through donations and fund-raising activities, the EKW Fund is now able to provide free avalanche seminars in southwest Colorado. The avalanche safety seminars focus on avoiding potentially dangerous situations. Free emergency first aid seminars involving cold weather medical problems are also offered. An important aspect of safe winter backcountry travel is safety gear. The Fund determined that the possession and trained use of avalanche rescue equipment was also vitally important to backcountry safety. Avalanche rescue transceivers, collapsable shovels, and ski pole probes are well-known as the basic safety gear for backcountry travel. The EKW Fund makes transceivers and shovels available at wholesale cost to the communities in Colorado. This outfits many who may not be able to afford the necessary equipment with important safety devices needed for safe travel on avalanche terrain. The EKW Fund continues to grow each year, thanks to donations of time and money from concerned people. Contributions take many forms. And each little bit counts to help save maybe another life. Spread the word. The more people who know about the fund, the stronger its message will become.

The EKW Fund
P. O. Box 300
Ridgway, Colorado 81432
Editors Note: This is a non-profit service provided by the the friends and family of EKW. PLEASE treat these people with the respect and kindness they richly deserve. Furthermore, if you can afford it, please add a donation to the fund with your purchase.

3.3 Is it ok to ski by myself?

Solo backcountry skiing is generally not recommended due to weather and avalanche hazards, and the possibility of injury. After having stated the obvious, solo backcountry skiing can be an enormously rewarding experience, but it involves risks that cannot be taken lightly.

4 What type of skis do I need?

4.1 What the difference between double and single camber skis

Loosely speaking, the camber of a ski is the amount of bow in the ski, and different amounts of camber are used on skis designed for different purposes. Double camber skis have a large bow, and they are primarily designed for touring in rolling or flat terrain with a kick and glide style. Single camber skis have a smaller bow, and they are designed to ski downhill and turn. To tell if skis are double cambered or single cambered, place the skis bottom to bottom and squeeze. If you can make the bottoms touch in the middle of the ski without much exertion, the skis are probably single cambered. Because these double camber and single camber skis are designed for different types of skiing, many experienced skiers will have at least one pair of each kind of ski. If you can only afford one pair of skis, then you should buy double camber if you plan to use your skis mostly for overland travel and single camber skis if you are skiing in the backcountry skiing for downhill runs.

4.2 What are overland touring skis?

Overland touring skis are generally double cambered and are designed to ski in rolling terrain. Waxable and non-waxable versions are available. Generally, the waxable skis perform better when the skier is knowledgeable about the use of wax, but the non-waxed skis are easier to use for inexperienced skiers. Narrow and wide overland touring skis are available. The wide skis are used for overland backcountry skiing in deep snow, while the traditional narrow skis are generally used where a ski track has been set. Narrow skis can still be used to ski in deep backcountry snow as well. Skating ski gear is only appropriate for skiing on a groomed track.

The proper length for narrow skis is generally about 10cm longer than the skier is tall. The proper length for wide skis is about 5-10 cm shorter than the skier is tall. Annual ski reviews are available in the magazines such as Backpacker and Cross Country Skier.

4.3 What about telemark skis?

Telemark skis are usually single cambered and designed to ski downhill using the telemark turn. Most telemark skis have metal edges and have a relatively soft uniform flex. Different telemark skis are also designed for use in different snow types including powder, hard pack and racing. Beginning telemark skiers should look for a ski with a softer flex, a broad tip and tail and a narrow waist. This ski profile will make learning the turn easier.

The proper length for telemark skis depends on the type of ski purchased, but generally a wide single camber skis should be about the height of the skier, a narrow single camber should be about 10 cm longer than the skier is tall, and a double camber ski should be 10 to 20 cm longer than the skier. Annual reviews of telemark skis are available in magazines such as Backcountry, Couloir, and Powder.

4.4 What are randonee and AT skis?

Alpine touring skis are generally short, wide and light skis that are designed to ski hard snow with tight turns. They are used for mountain skiing and ski mountaineering where steep slopes and difficult snow conditions will likely be encountered. Models are also available for soft snow conditions. Most alpine touring skis range from 160cm to 190cm in length and are more than 80mm wide in the shovel. Many alpine touring skis weigh 3kg or less (about 2/3 the weight of an alpine ski of equal length). Most alpine touring skis have hole in the tip and a notch in the tail. The notch in the tail is used as a attachment point for climbing skins, and the hole is used build an emergency rescue sled from the skis.

Annual reviews of alpine touring skis are available in magazines such as Backcountry and Couloir.

4.4.1 What are those holes for?

Two answers. To see those funny columns of snow coming through when skiing really good powder.

To make an emergency rescue sled (requires a shovel about 4-5 meters of rope and a ski pole too.)

4.5 Can I use alpine skis for backcountry skiing?

Regular alpine skis have been used by generations of backcountry skiers in the mountains. Many telemark and alpine touring skiers use all mountain alpine skis, and some skiers use alpine equipment exclusively in the backcountry. The biggest disadvantage of alpine skis is that they are heavy to carry up the mountain. To learn more about alpine skis, see the rec.skiing FAQ in rec.skiing.announce.

5 How about the ski boots?

5.1 My feet hurt, what should I do?

First and foremost, consult a knowledgeable boot fitter when you purchase ski boots. Beyond being uncomfortable, poorly fitting ski boots can be dangerous in the backcountry.

5.2 What are overland touring boots?

Overland ski touring is somewhat akin to summer hiking, so boots for overland ski touring are quite similar to hiking boots. Fit these boots for comfort and consider warmth when selecting a boot.

Most overland touring boots are now equipped with an integral binding system. See the discussion of these bindings systems in the binding section of this FAQ for more details.

Anyone care to add/subtract/rewrite this?

5.3 What about telemark boots, should I use plastic?

Shortly after the telemark turn was popularized (again)in the 1970's, telemark boots were similar to heavy hiking boots or were converted from old leather downhill ski boots (called Steincomps). Since that time, some telemark boots have remained virtually unchanged from their hiking boot origins, and others have undergone radical transforma- tions. The latter boots include models with a full plastic buckled shell (similar to alpine ski boots), models with an upper plastic cuff that is buckled and a lower laced leather boot, models with a lower plastic shell but are fully laced and models with plastic underneath the leather exterior.

There are two big differences between plastic and leather boots. Generally the more plastic a boot has, the better that boot is at controlling the ski during a turn. On the other hand, plastic boots are usually less comfortable and weigh more than their leather counterparts.

Most telemark boots are constructed with a 75mm nordic-norm toe that uses a three-pin or cable style binding. Some telemark boots are constructed to use with the NNN-BC (New Nordic Norm - BackCountry) bindings. NNN-BC boots and 75mm toe boots are incompatible with each others bindings. The primary advantage of the NNN-BC system is that the boots are generally lighter than their 75mm counterparts. The 75mm toe is used on most heavy telemark boots designed for downhill skiing. See the binding description in this FAQ for more information on the 75mm vs. NNN-BC binding systems.

When deciding which boots to purchase, first and foremost, only buy boots that fit. Second, you must decide how much plastic you need. If your primary backcountry skiing activity is a hike in the mountains, then you should opt for lighter (most likely leather, possibly NNN-BC) boots. If your primary skiing activity is telemarking on steep terrain, then you should opt for the control of stiff boots.

Annual reviews of telemark boots are available in magazines such as Backcountry, Couloir, and Powder.

5.4 How should I choose alpine touring boots?

Alpine touring boots are constructed with a plastic shell and a removable inner lining. The soles of these boots have a "Vibram" style lug, they are rigid, and they are designed to be used with Alpine Touring bindings only. Some AT boots are designed more for walking comfort while others are designed more for skiing control. A good salesperson that has several models of AT boots should be able to explain the differences.

Since AT boots have a rigid sole, a proper fit is critical to have a comfortable boot. AT boots should be fit with more room than alpine boots, particularly in the ball of the foot and the toe box. Yet they should still be snug to prevent blisters. Remember you are going to walk in these things, not just ski in them.

Annual reviews of AT boots are available in magazines such as Backcountry, and Couloir.

5.5 Can I use my alpine ski boots?

As with alpine skis, alpine boots are regularly used in the backcountry. For an overview of alpine boots, see the rec.skiing FAQ. Generally alpine boots that are comfortable when the buckles are open are best for backcountry skiing because during the ascent many people leave their buckles undone. The two biggest disadvantages of alpine boots are that they are heavy and uncomfortable when walking.

6 What are these different ski bindings?

6.1 What are integral touring bindings?

There are three major types of integral systems which are mutually incompatible. NNN (New Nordic Norm) is a system in which the three holes in front of the boot toe are replaced by a horizontal metal rod which is locked into the binding by a lever. The heavier-duty NNN-BC (Back Country) system moves the rod under the toes, rather than in front of it, which many find to be more comfortable than either standard NNN or three-pin systems. Both NNN and NNN-BC boots and bindings are made by a variety of companies.

The third system is Salomon's Profil system, a version of which is used by most racers. They also make a backcountry version. Profil, like NNN-BC, has the pivot point under the toes rather than in front of the boot. A few other companies make Profil-compatible boots.

All three of these systems partially interlock the sole of the boot with the surface of the binding under the foot, reducing or (for the Profil) eliminating the role of the heel plate. You must use a boot compatible with your particular binding type.

6.2 Should I use three pin and cable bindings for telemarking?

Telemark bindings are available in two basic design styles, the 75mm Nordic Norm and the NNN-BC. Boots designed for one system are not compatible with the other.

The 75mm Nordic Norm telemark bindings are designed to accommodate the large square toe of a telemark boot. Two basic binding types exist. The three pin binding consists of a 75mm toe piece with three vertical pins protruding off of the base and a sturdy metal bale that clamps the boot onto the plate and pins. When using this type of binding, be careful to ensure that the pins are inserted into the holes on the boot toe. The other binding type consists of a 75mm toe piece and a cable that forces the boot forward and into the binding. There are also bindings with both pins and cables. Both binding types are accompanied by a small heel piece design to keep the heel from slipping. Which binding type you use depends on your personal preference and pocketbook. The cable bindings are generally more expensive, but since they don't use pins they are less damaging to the boots.

The NNN-BC binding system can also be used for telemark skiing with NNN-BC boots, but generally the NNN-BC system is not available with heavy telemark equipment. Opinions about whether it will be available in this type of equipment and how well it performs are mixed.

In addition to the bindings, devices can be purchased which allow the ski to release during a bad crash. The effectiveness and need for these devices is a hotly debated topic, but they may save your knee from a surgeons blade.

6.3 What about alpine Touring bindings?

Alpine touring bindings are a hybrid of free heel and alpine bindings. They are designed to be used in one of two modes, climbing and skiing. In the climbing mode AT bindings are free in the heel and hinge at the tip of the boot toe so the heel can lift. AT are also equipped with heel "lifters" which attempt to keep the boot heel and toe level while climbing. In skiing mode, the heel and toe are clamped down on the ski like downhill ski boots and bindings. Most AT bindings have some ability to release during a fall.

Models of AT bindings exist that are designed for a particular boot and other models exist that will accept any AT boots. AT bindings should not be used with regular alpine ski boots because the release mechanism is designed to use a Vibram soled boot.

6.4 Do any alpine bindings work?

For an overview of alpine gear, see the rec.skiing FAQ. Alpine bindings have improved greatly in the last 20 years, but for backcountry use they still clamp your heel to the ski and so they are not easy to use when hiking. Fortunately for alpine skiers, a recent addition to the spectrum of backcountry gear is a hinged device which fits into alpine bindings and allow alpine skiers to hike with more comfort in their boots, bindings and skis.

7 Do I need adjustable ski poles?

7.1 How long should my poles be for overland touring?

These poles are generally sized to the arm pit of the skier. They are used for locomotion while skiing, so they should be quite stiff. If you plan on skiing in deep soft snow, you should purchase poles with a large basket.

7.2 Will my alpine ski pole work?

These poles are generally sized to about the elbow of the skier. They are used mostly for balance (going uphill and downhill) and not as often for locomotion. Most styles will work, and $2 poles from the local thrift shop are not an unreasonable possibility. Beware that the basket on many alpine poles are far too small, and that larger baskets are available.

A useful hint: If you have a set of poles that will be only for ski touring, get them about 3 inches longer than the standard alpine length. Then at the standard alpine length (i.e. elbow height), wrap each pole with enough duct tape to create a comfortable handle. This gives you "adjustable pole" on the cheap. You have short poles for climbing (and possibly the descent) and long poles to help with locomotion on the approach. You will also have a ready supply of duct tape.

7.3 Do I need avalanche probe poles?

Alpine probe poles are adjustable length alpine-style poles. They can be assembled together to form a probe for use in recovering an avalanche victim (among other uses). They can also be adjusted to a short length for downhill skiing and long lengths for climbing or pushing on flat terrain. They are a nice "extra" piece of equipment but not essential.

Generally, avalanche probe poles are not very good avalanche probes, and you might want to invest in an actual avalanche probe (see safety equipment) if you ski in avalanche terrain frequently.

Older avalanche probe poles that used a twist mechanism to adjust the pole length were difficult to use because either they would collapse or get stuck. Therefore, beware of used poles.

8 Can I use a snowboard in the backcountry?

Sure, but its a bit harder to get around with a snowboard than it is with skis.

8.1 What should I know about snowboards?

Basic snowboarding is discussed in the rec.skiing.snowboard FAQ.

8.2 How do I carry a snowboard in the backcountry?

There are three methods to carrying a snowboard up a hill that you plan to board. The first method is the least expensive in terms of gear. Use your hands.

Long leashing straps are also frequently used. This is easier than using your hands and not expensive, but its also uncomfortable. To make a leash, just get a long piece of medium width webbing and two adjustable buckles. Size it at home and cut off the excess webbing.

Finally, the most comfortable and most expensive option is to purchase a pack that can carry your board. Many manufacturers are offering packs that have an exterior pocket specifically designed for a board.

8.3 What are split boards?

A recent addition to the spectrum of snowboarding equipment are split boards. A split board is a snowboard that has been cut into two separate pieces, and has a simple system that hooks the two pieces together. So for uphill travel, you use one piece of the board on each foot, and a pair of climbing skins (see Section 9.1). For downhill travel, the pieces of the board are attached to each other to create a full snowboard. The bindings on these boards have the ability to rotate so they are comfortable for both modes of travel. These boards are reasonably stong, but probably not strong enough for really big air, dOOd.

8.4 What can I use to climb?

The most common way snowboarders climb a hill to board is to is simply to walk up in their boots by kicking steps in the snow. Should you choose this method, please do not walk in the skiers skin track.

Other options include lightweight snowshoes and cutoff skis with skins.

9 What else do I need?

9.1 How do I get uphill?

9.1.1 What are climbing skins (or skins)?

Climbing skins are long textured pieces of fabric that are attached to the bottom of the skis and provide enough friction for a skier to climb rather steep hills. Once upon a time, skins were actually made from seal pelts (thus the name), but now they are made from mohair or nylon. The fabrics have a dense mat of directional "fur" that prevents the skier from slipping backwards but still slide forward. Using skins, you can walk up amazingly steep trails.

Skins are attached to skis by two different systems. The first system is a mechanical system of straps. The second system is a special type of glue where the ski-side of the skin is coated with an adhesive which sticks to the base of the ski.

The mechanical system is relatively carefree, but the straps interfere with ski edges, and it does not climb as well as the glue system.

The glue system requires the ski base to be fairly clean, dry and free of sticky wax. The tip of the skin has a loop which goes over the ski tip; usually there is no attachment at the tail, just the glue, but you can buy "tail-fix" kits which provide a hook for the back end of the skin. (Duct tape works in a pinch.)

Use and care:


To recoat skins with glue:

Or pay your local shop to do it (preferred).

9.1.2 Should I use waxes?

Waxes are used more by overland touring skiers than by downhill skiers because waxes are most effective for shorter climbs where the hill is not very steep.

When the work well, waxes are much more convenient than skins. This includes using wax for mountain skiing too.

There are two schools of thought on waxing: some people use a glide wax such as Maxiglide on the tips and tails, and kick wax in the kick pocket (under the foot); others use a colder kick wax (which functions as a glide wax) on the tips and tails, and the temperature- indicated kick wax in the kick pocket.

Many people suggest beginning with a "two (or three) wax system". These use two hard (solid) waxes and one klister (gooey liquid) wax. The hard waxes are for new snow - one for cold/dry snow and one for warmer/wet snow. The klister is for old snow or snow that has thawed and refrozen.

The next step up is with a hard wax system that uses a color-coded progression of waxes that correspond to the snow temperature.

9.1.3 Are the any other alternatives?

You can purchase skis with fish scaled bottoms. These are great when they work, but unfortunately they don't work well on steep slopes and in many snow conditions. Still they are an excellent "hassle free" alternative for overland skiing in relatively flat terrain.

There are some skiers that use a router to put very deep fish scales into their skis. With a router and a bit that has the following shape

Adding fishscales

create about 25 cm of scales. On the hill, these scales allow you to climb slowly but steadily, but the require a low angle climbing track.

Finally a strong piece of cord can be tied around the ski to help with climbing. The idea is to take a long piece cord (about 10 meters if memory serves me well) and fold it in half. Loop the cord over the tip and tie it in place. Then alternating on the bottom and top, tie a square knot cord for at least half the length of the ski. This isn't something you would want to do for a lot of up and down skiing, but it works in a pinch. Keep this in mind if a skin fails too.

9.2 Is there safety equipment that I need?

See also the hazards section of this FAQ.

9.2.1 Do I need the 10 essentials?

It makes sense to have some extra clothes, extra food a small first aid kit, a map and compass, a knife, some matches and firestarter, a whistle, a mirror and maybe a few other basic things for safety. See any book on hiking for good lists on safety equipment.

9.2.2 Why do I need a shovel?

YES. When you are skiing in avalanche terrain, you must always carry a sturdy snow shovel. If a member of your party is buried, a shovel is needed to dig them out (skis, boards, gloves, poles, packs, etc don't work).

Lightweight shovels are available from many manufacturers and they are inexpensive. So buy one. Shovels are made of aluminum or plastic. Both are adequate, but many people would prefer that you to have an aluminum shovel.

A persistent and untrue rumor is that metal shovels can interfere with beacon signals. See Couloir Magazine for the test.

9.2.3 And how about those beacons?

When you are skiing in avalanche terrain, you should also carry an avalanche beacon. These are radio based devices that transmit and receive a radio signal. This radio signal is used to locate buried avalanche victims.

The internationally accepted frequency for avalanche beacons is 457 kHz. Older North American beacons operated at a different frequency (2275 Hz) and should be retired. For this reason, you should not buy a used beacon unless you are sure that its frequency is 457 kHz.

Beacons retail for about $250 US (1997). They are expensive, but you've got to have one if you want to decrease the risk to get killed by an avalanche.

Just having a beacon is not enough to ensure your survival. To successfully use one requires basic instruction and lots of practice. Beacon use and practice is part of the curriculum of every avalanche class, so take one.

9.3 What should I wear?

You should think of backcountry skiing as a full-on aerobic sport that is conducted in a cold climate. You will be very warm (and possible sweaty) when you are going uphill, and unless you put on additional clothes, you will get cold if you stop for very long.

Therefore, it is important that your clothes be as versatile as possible, and this can only be accomplished by layering your garments.

Most manufacturers of high quality outdoor clothing recommend that you have 3 basic layers, a inner layer that wicks away perspiration, a middle insulating layer and a outer shell layer that keeps the snow and wind out.

This system works well, but there seems to be a nearly infinite number of ways that you can accomplish it. For example, the middle insulating layer can be as light as another piece of underwear, or maybe its a pile vest or jacket, or it might even be a down vest or jacket. This is complicated by geography, i.e. what works well in British Columbia is probably far too warm for New Mexico.

Because good quality outdoor clothing is expensive, use what you already have at first, and add clothing as you find needs. As a target point, you should dress a bit warmer than you would for track skiing (and have extra, warm garments), and you should dress considerably cooler than for resort skiing. Good things to wear that you might already have include cold weather running clothing, nordic ski clothing, and alpine ski clothing. Avoid using insulated jackets and pants for the outer shell because they are just too warm. Finally, other than wool, avoid most natural fiber clothing (i.e. cotton) because they get wet and cold.

It will take some trial and error to find the clothing system that works best for you and the area you ski in. You can learn a lot from watching what other people are wearing.

9.4 What do I need for winter camping?

Winter camping with skis is a lot like summer backpacking with a few big exceptions that are the result of the cold temperatures. You should consult books on winter camping before going to get a better picture of the difficulties you may encounter. To get an idea of these difficulties, a few are listed here.

9.5 What does your checklist look like?

There is an extended checklist at Couloir Magazine It contains too much stuff for an ordinary day tour, so filter as needed.

Personally, for a day tour in the Wasatch, I bring

Your mileage may vary. My pack is not as light as a lot of people I know, but its not really heavy either.

10 How about telemark racing?

compiled by Mark Kinoshita, Telemark Canada
Last updated November 1996

Please e-mail comments and corrections to: Mark Kinoshita at

For event calendars:

10.1 Introduction/History

The turn first originated in the Telemark region of Norway around the 1860's. Sondre Norheim is often credited for first demonstrating the turn in ski races, which included cross country, slalom and jumping, in Norway around 1868. Sondre Norheim also experimented with ski and binding design, introducing side cut to skis and heel bindings (like a cable).

Telemark skiing was reborn in the 1971 in the United States. Doug Buzzell, Craig Hall. Greg Dalbey, Jack Marcial, and Rick Borcovec are credited reintroducing the style after reading the book "Come Ski With Me" by Stein Eriksen. Telemark skiing gained popularity during the 1970's and 80's. Of course Telemark racing, generally giant courses, were a part of the growth.

In 1981, the first Berzerkebeiner race at Mazama, Washington was held in reaction to the specialized telemark slalom competitions. The berzerkebeiner had uphill and downhill components more like today's Telemark Classic race. In 1986, first modern Telemark Classic race called the Skiathlom or Telemark Combination was held in Vradal, Norway.

Today, there are two basic camps in Telemark racing: Those who wish to pursue a more alpine approach - faster and more exciting slalom courses - to Telemark racing; and those who prefer to preserve the roots of Telemark ski racing with competitions including downhill as well as uphill and jumping.

10.2 FIS Telemark

Telemark Skiing became officially recognized by FIS in 1995 at the World Championships at Hafjel, in Lillehammer, Norway. Until then, Telemark Racing was governed by the ITF (International Telemark Federation) which disbanded at that time.

Telemark Racing has 2 official disciplines: Telemark Classic and Telemark Giant Slalom. A third, the Telemark Sprint Classic has been introduced for the 1997 season. Rules for the competitions are available but have not yet become part of the FIS ICR.

FIS World Cup races are scheduled in pairs in the 2nd, 5th and 12th weeks of each year. The locations rotate between North America, Central Europe, and Scandinavia. Each World Cup race consists of 2 events: the Telemark Classic and Giant Slalom. World Championships are held in odd years and usually have additional races such as the Parallel Slalom, Super G or Sprint Classic at the organizers discretion.

Race organizers interested in hosting FIS races should submit bids or proposals to their National Telemark organization before March of the preceding year.

The FIS Telemark Committee currently consists of the following:
Leif Jaeger (NOR)
Luca Gasparini (ITA)
Per-Erik Hansson (SWE)
Claude Muff (USA)
Craig Munroe (GBR)
Dominique Pessey (FRA)

In addition, the FIS Telemark Committee holds an international Telemark conference (meeting) at every World Championships or World Cup final. One member from each competing nation is welcome to attend. At this meeting, recommendations are made to the FIS Telemark Committee.

10.3 FIS Points

As FIS points are new to telemark racing, there will be a few years of adjustments. Each competitor who gets less than 200 points in the Classic or 250 points in the Giant Slalom are registered for FIS points. Each competitor receives a code number, which will not change. Racers are required to register with their National Telemark Association (usually associated with their National Ski Association)

Competitors who have only one or no results this year will be assessed a double penalty. If racers are unable to compete for medical reasons or for their studies, a single penalty may be assessed. However medical certificates are due before May 1st and applications for single penalties (studies) are due before the beginning of school.

The single penalty is 22added to the racers points.

Note that all races which can be considered for FIS race points must be sent to the FIS no later than 3 days after the event. Only National or International Cups or Championships held on Alpine GS homologated hills (National homologation is sufficient) are considered for FIS points.

10.4 Telemark Events

There are currently 2 official FIS Telemark Events: the Telemark Giant Slalom and the Telemark Classic. There are also several other "unofficial" telemark race events.

10.4.1 The Telemark Giant Slalom

The telemark giant slalom (GS) resembles an alpine GS with a few notable exceptions. The course includes 1 jump and all turns must be telemark turns. At each gate (The finish is not a gate), a proper telemark turn must be made; failure to do so results in a 1 second penalty. The telemark jump has no kick, but requires the racer to clear a set minimum distance. Failure to clear the distance results in a 1 second penalty; failure to land in a telemark position results in a 1 second penalty. The jump must allow for distances of 5 to 25 m following the profile of the hill.
For FIS races, a GS must be set on a FIS (or national) homologated Alpine GS hill.

10.4.2 The Telemark Classic

The Telemark Classic is the premier event of telemark racing. It includes cross country and downhill portions with best times of 3.5 - 4.5 minutes.

The classic course includes:

10.4.3 Telemark Sprint Classic

A telemark Classic with a shorter cross country portion, and perhaps no Super Telemark. Specific rules have not been set.

10.4.4 Parallel Slalom

Two racers simultaneously, side by side race down two identical and easy GS courses each with 12-18 gates and an average best time of 20 to 25 seconds. Jumps (no distance requirements) are permitted, and the landing should be in a telemark position.

10.4.5 Slalom

Similar to the Alpine Slalom. Characterized by quick telemark turns and lots of armour. Sometimes included in Classic courses or in the Parallel Slalom.

10.4.6 Other Races

Mountain Man - Please send me a description or your rules!!!
Mogul events - Please send me a description or your rules!!!

Anything else ????

10.5 Telemark Race Equipment

There are several rules regarding Telemark race equipment. For unofficial and "citizen" races, these rules may not apply.

10.5.1 Telemark Skis

Skis may be modified as per the following:

10.5.2 Telemark Ski Bindings

Note: - I am not aware of any maximum height to the riser in Telemark racing although the Alpine guidelines may apply here.

10.5.3 Telemark Boots

10.6 Racing Tips and Suggestions

Telemark racing is a great way of learning to smooth out the rough spots in your telemark style. It is much easier to make a perfect turn when YOU decide where to turn; however, in gates, you have no choice. The gates dictate where to turn. Hopefully, skiing gates will take you to the next level of control.

So where do you turn in gates? Before the gate. If you ski directly towards the next gate, then you must quickly make a panic turn to get around the gate. The general rule of thumb is to make your turn above the gate so that you have finished your turn as you pass the gate. That is, as you pass the gate, you are facing across the hill and finished the turn (not heading downhill and starting the turn). If you turn before the gate, your turns will be rounder and you will carry more speed down the hill.

Skiers tend to freeze and cease being dynamic in a course. It's this "hold on for dear life" outlook which often causes the dreaded fall. Try to concentrate on constant compression and extension of the body all the way through the turn. We are good at compressing into the turn; however, at the bottom of the turn we try to dig in with our edges and freeze in the compressed position. Instead of holding this low telemark, try to stay dynamic and immediately start your slow extension into the next turn. It's surprising, but you'll actually edge better if you do this.

10.7 Gate Keepers and the Perfect Turn

So what do those gate keepers do at the edge of a race course? As in alpine skiing, they perform minor course repair and determine whether the gate was negotiated properly (both ski tips and both feet pass over the gate line). But in telemark racing, those gatekeepers also check that each racer performs a perfect telemark turn. They look for three things in each turn:

The inside ski is trailing the lead ski such that the trailing boot is at least one boot length behind the lead foot.
The heel of the trailing ski is visibly off the ski.
Once the trailing foot begins to move forward, the foot must move continuously forward, without hesitation, into the next telemark position.

Each imperfect telemark turn is penalized by ONE second added to your time. It is this requirement, to try to stay in a telemark position, that makes telemark racing so challenging. Practice this smooth transition when you are free skiing.

10.8 FIS Telemark Racing Issues

Gate Judging
New Events
Ski Width

10.9 National Telemark Associations

I will try my best to keep these addresses up to date... Last update of most addresses was March 1995.

FIS Telemark Committee (1996)
Leif Jaeger
FIS Telemark Committee
c/o Norges Skiforbund
POB 3853
Oslo, Norway

Federacio Andorrana D'Esqui
Carrer D'en Privat
No. 6, Andorra


Austrian Telemark Committee
Josef Preis Allee 14
A-5020 Salzburg, Austria

Belgium Telemark Organisation (BTO)
Maastruichter Steenweg 53
3700 Tongeren, Belgium

Canada (1996)
Telemark Canada
1930 Yonge Street
Suite 1154
Toronto, Ontario
M4S 1Z9

Keplersgade 12 II T.H.
2300 Kobenhavn. S

Great Britian
British Telemark Association
161 Findhorn
Moray IU360Y6
Scotland, UK

Finish Telemark Association
Harri Kallioualkaus
Uiputie 9, 36200
Kangtsala, Finland

Commission Telemark
50 Rue Des Marquisats
BP 2451
74011 Annesy Cedex


Italy F.I.S.I.
Italian Winter Sports Federation
Sig.Ra Sioli
Via Piranesi
44B, 20143
Milano, Italy

Telemark Ski Association of Japan (TAJ)
Attn: Tamae Mitani
c/o Calafate
3-2-12, Shimo-Ochiai
Shinjuku, Tokyo 161

Norwegian Ski Association
PO Box 3853
Ulleval Hageby
N-0805 Oslo


Association Espanola De Telemark (AET)
PO Box 164
Puigcerda 17520
Girona, Spain

Swiss Telemark
Christian Bircher
Postfach 210
CH-3778 Schonried

Swedish Ski Association
123 87 Farsta, Sweden

United States (1996)
Scott McGee

compiled by Mark Kinoshita, Telemark Canada
Last updated November 1996

Please e-mail comments and corrections to:
Mark Kinoshita at

11 Where can I get gear?

See the rec.backcountry FAQ for an extensive list of backcountry equipment suppliers. Also see the Couloir Magazine link page . Finally, support your local shop. They are the ones that can help you when you need it, and it motivates them to help you if they know that you have purchased stuff from them.

12 Are there any good books on the subject?

12.1 Skiing technique books

Steve Barnett, Cross Country Downhill and Other Nordic Mountain Skiing Techniques, 3d ed., Globe Pequot Press, 1983.

Vic Bein, Mountain Skiing, The Mountaineers, 1982.

Peter Cliff, Ski Mountaineering, Globe Pequot Press, 1987.

Lito Tejada-Flores, Backcountry Skiing, Sierra Club Books, 1981.

Paul Parker, Free Heel Skiing, The Mountaineers, 1995.

12.2 Periodicals

Periodicals that may interest readers of this FAQ include

Backcountry Magazine
7065 Dover Way
Arvada, Co. 80004

Couloir Magazine
P.O Box 2349
Truckee, CA 96160

CrossCountry Skier Magazine

Powder Magazine

12.3 Internet Locations

See the avalanche section of this FAQ for avalanche specific sites

Couloir Magazine Tele skiing Backcountry homepage Steep skiing Telemark Canada Books store

12.4 Guide books (sorted by location)

The Alps

Baud, Les Trois Vallees: Off Piste, Vamos, 1991.

Paul Parker, Grande Traverse & The Mont Blanc Tour, Diadem Books London, 1986

Labande, Haut Valais Randonnee Ski Guide, Olizane, 1992 (in French)

Labande, West Switzerland Randonnee Ski Guide, Olizane, 1986 (in French)

Roberts, High Level Route: Chamonix, Zermatt, Saas Fee, West Col, 1991

Steiger, Val D'Isere/ Tignes Off Piste, Vamos Publishing, 1991 (in French with English translation)


Steve Barnett, The Best Ski Touring in America, Sierra Club Books, 1987.

Douglass, Ski Touring the Eastern High Sierra, Bittersweet Publishing, 1990.

Marcus Libkind, Ski Tours in Lassen Volcanic National Park, Bittersweet Publishing, 1990.

Marcus Libkind, Ski Tours in the Sierra Nevada: Carson Pass, Bear Valley, Pinecrest, Bittersweet Publishing, 1985.

Marcus Libkind, Ski Tours in the Sierra Nevada: Lake Tahoe, Bittersweet Publishing, 1995.

Marcus Libkind, Ski Tours in the Sierra Nevada: Yosemite, Huntington and Shaver Lakes, Kings Canyon, Bittersweet Publishing, 1985.

John Moynier, Backcountry Skiing in the High Sierra, Chockstone Press, 1992.

Canadian Rockies

Chic Scott, Ski Trails in The Canadian Rockies, Rocky Mountain Books, 1992

Chic Scott, Summits and Icefields: Alpine Ski Tours in the Rockies and Columbia Mountains, Rocky Mountain Books, 1994.


Louis W. Dawson, Colorado High Routes, The Mountaineers, 1985.

Louis W. Dawson, Colorado 10th Mountain Trails, Who Press, 1991.

Brian Linz, Colorado Hut to Hut, Westcliffe Publishers, 2nd ed. 1995.

Brian Linz, Skiing Colorado's Backcountry: Northern Mountains Trails and Tours, Fulcrum, 1989.

New England

David Goodman, Classic Backcountry Skiing in New England, Appalachian Mountain Club, 1991.

Goodwin, Tony. Northern Adirondack Ski Tours. Glens Falls, NY: Adirondack Mountain Club Books, 1981.

New Mexico

Matthews, Cross-Country Skiing In Northern New Mexico, Acequia Madre Press, 2nd ed., 1993.


Alexis Kelner and David Hanscom, Wasatch Tours, Volume 1 - An Introduction to Ski Touring in the Wasatch Mountains, Wasatch Tours Publishing, 1993.

David Hanscom and Alexis Kelner, Wasatch Tours, Volume 2 - Intermediate and Advanced Ski Tours in the Northern Wasatch Mountains, Wasatch Tours Publishing, 1995.

Alexis Kelner and David Hanscom, Wasatch Tours, Volume 3 - Intermediate and Advanced Ski Tours in the Southern Wasatch Mountains, Wasatch Tours Publishing, 199?. not published yet


Rainer Burgdorfer, Backcountry Skiing in Washington's Cascades, The Mountaineers, 1986.


Tom Turiano, Teton Skiing: History and Guide to the Teton Range, Homestead Publishing, 1995.

13 Guide services, instruction and organizations


Exum Mountain Guides
7350 South Wasatch Blvd.
Salt Lake City, UT 84121