How to Learn to Backcountry Ski

When Paulina Dao, the founder of Bay Area Outdoor Women and an advocate for diversity and inclusion in outdoor media, asked us if she could learn how to splitboard on our Sojouner Splitboard, we couldn't say no. Here's her take on how to learn to backcountry ski and snowboard.

Learning new skills as an adult is difficult. Backcountry skiing or snowboarding is no exception. Transitioning from inbounds to outbounds is tough if you don’t know where to begin. For me, it gave me lots of anxiety when I first started. Growing up in an immigrant household, there was always an expectation to excel at everything, from grades to sports. Being mediocre was not an option, and it’s something that’s been ingrained in me since. I had a mini-breakdown when my partner tried to teach me with his limited knowledge. Not wanting to jeopardize our relationship, I decided to look elsewhere to learn. Here are all the resources I found.

Find Experienced Friends

The most affordable way to learn is to head out with experienced and safe friends. Friends with experience can teach you a lot about being in the backcountry, but first, make sure they are safe partners with an AIARE 1. Experienced friends are great because you aren’t learning with complete strangers. No one is judging you. Plus it’s a great bonding experience. If you haven’t any friends, like me, you still have options.

Use Your Resort's Uphill Policy

Many resorts allow you to skin up and ski down their runs. This allows you to learn how to skin up, transition, and fine tune your downhill skills while lowering avalanche risk. This doesn’t mean that there is no avalanche danger; it means that there’s less, as resorts work to mitigate avalanches the best they can. Uphill access is generally when the resort is closed, but there are some, like Sugar Bowl in California, that allows access even during operating hours.

Silverton Resort in Colorado is an interesting exception to this. The resort has backcountry-like territory with avalanche control, and no groomed runs or cut trails. Practice your out-of-bounds downhill skills without the huffing and puffing. You can find your resort’s uphill policy by googling “the name of your resort uphill policy” or by calling customer service.

Go Heli Skiing

This expensive way of uphill travel won’t teach you how to skin or transition, but you will get tons of experience on untracked snow. However, for the price of a heli ski, you might as well hire a private guide to take you out for several days to teach you how to backcountry ski. (You can also go snowcat skiing in California, which is less expensive than heli-skiing and caters to a wider ability level. Check out High Sierra Snowcat and Yurt for snowcat skiing on the East Side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.)

Take A Clinic

Or you can take a clinic, which is what I ended up doing. I didn’t know where to start. I was incredibly nervous leading up to the class. I didn’t want to be last or “the worst.”

There’s no shame in paying money to learn new adventure skills. Guides are there to teach and help you have a good time. If you’re not a fan of large group scenarios, you can also hire guides to instruct you privately. These clinics walk you through beginner backcountry skiing as if it was your first time touching your gear. Your guides explain everything you need to know, like setting up your equipment and how to travel safely in the backcountry.

With the increase of women in the backcountry, there are more clinics popping up only for those who identify as women. Alpenglow Expeditions, Backcountry Babes, Northwest Mountain School, SAFE AS Clinics, and SheJumps all offer women-specific clinics for getting started in the backcountry.

Learning how to get into the backcountry doesn’t have to be scary, the way I worked myself into a giant stress ball. Hopefully you can learn from my anxious experiences and begin your backcountry relationship on a more positive note.