Backcountry skiing ain’t easy, especially when you are starting out. But, as you gain experience, it gets easier and way more enjoyable. In an attempt to shortcut that learning curve for you, we asked backcountry legend Eric Hjorleifson and ACMG Ski Guide Martin Lefebvre for a few tips.
Every year, these two team up on the Freeride Camps at Golden Alpine Holidays, a series of four-day camps out of remote lodges that offer skiers deep powder, pillows, and as much or as little instruction as they want.
Martin Lefebvre, who’s been guiding the camps for almost a decade, and Eric Hjorleifson have a lot to teach would-be backcountry skiers, so we asked their campers to chime in with some of the best advice they’ve received from the duo.
Martin Lefebvre, “Minimal style tech bindings work great out here.”There really aren’t many unexpected forces on your bindings when skiing powder, and pre-releasing is rare. The exception is icing, which can happen in different parts of the binding and build up with every change-over from touring to skiing and back. If unchecked, that icing can lead to pre-ejecting from your bindings. The number one cause of binding issues in the backcountry is ice buildup. Any binding works well with care and attention, but the more basic the binding, the less icing you generally get. So light is right again.
Eric Hjorleifson, “The Rotation is Dynafit’s best selling binding. In testing, it has the best elasticity and retention, and it’s pretty light and minimal for what it is.” The Rotation is heavier and more complicated than the basic Dynafit Radical or Salomon S/LAB MTN Tour, which is the kind of binding both Martin and Hoji use. People always ask what bindings Hoji films on, and the answer is a simple Dynafit Radical without brakes. If you don’t think that a basic tech binding can handle your skiing, watch Hoji in Blank Collectives Tales From Cascadia and reconsider.
-Where to learn-
Eric, “It’s very beneficial to spend some time at a ski resort and learn how to ski first. Downhill skiing fundamentals are easier to learn at the ski hill, and they help a lot when you go backcountry. You can’t get that kind of mileage backcountry skiing.”
Martin, “Learning to ski in the backcountry is hard.”
Eric continues, “If you’re getting into bc skiing with downhill experience, it’s good to understand that there is just as much uphill technique as there is downhill technique. There’s so much efficiency that’s learned.”
Martin, “Start with gentle terrain to learn basic movement skills for the climbing and to get practice with the change-overs.”
On the efficiency front, the climbing skins you choose make a difference. You need enough grip to prevent slipping out on the skin track until you master the technique, but you also want easy glide so that you aren’t pushing high-friction carpet uphill all day. Martin says, “Skins with too much grip wreck your efficiency, too. Glide really helps. You need a balance [of glide and grip].”
Eric says no matter what skins you use, when you peel and apply them multiple times during the day, it’s crucial that you keep the glue snow-free, “Skin maintenance will make your trip.” Most people ski down with their climbing skins inside their jackets to help keep the glue warm and tacky.
-The Most Obvious Tip-
Martin and Eric, “Take an avalanche course early.”
Martin, “Don’t have your probe and shovel on the outside of your pack [You can’t risk losing them]. Get a backpack with a separate pocket for your rescue gear. It doesn’t need to be huge. You don’t need to bring the kitchen sink because it all just weighs you down.”
Eric, “A tea thermos is way nicer on a cold day than a water bottle that will just freeze anyhow.”
Bonus Pro Tip: Eric fills his thermos with miso soup, a warm, salty treat that encourages you to drink more on cold days.
Martin, “Layering is important and different than how most people dress for the ski hill.” It’s nice to be able to tour up without your shell on so that you sweat less. So think about what mid-layer or light jacket you can use. A windshirt or fleece works well. And it’s always nice to have a lightweight puffy jacket to throw on over all your other layers when you get to the top and take a break. There’s simply no way to dress for the aerobic output of walking uphill and for sitting on top of a mountain. You need different layers for both, and they all need to fit in your backpack when you aren’t using them, so they can’t be too bulky.
Ski boots matter more than ever when you walk in them all day. Martin, “People buying ski boots for touring sometimes go for the downhill fit - super tight - and then their feet just get frozen. They are getting boot fit like they are ski racing, and then they go on a weeklong hut trip and walk in those boots for hours and hours a day.”
Guests on the Freeride Camps repeated this last tip over and over. Bryce B., “Get boots that fit!” Any painful spots just get exacerbated every day you tour.
There’s more to touring boots than fit, though. How comfortable and efficient they are to walk in makes a big difference. Geoff G. was worried his new Dynafit Hoji boots weren’t broken-in enough, so he used his Scarpa Maestrales all trip and regretted it, “The Hojis are way easier to walk in. It’s very noticeable every step.”
The best advice we can offer for a backcountry trip? Make sure you are with a crew that’s good at having fun. That way, you can all laugh off the difficulties and share the good times. We had that on the Freeride Camps again this year. Here’s the camper’s list of pointers Hoji shared with them to either make them laugh or help them through the trip:
What do you recommend when people start touring? “Reconsider your choice.” Or “Learn how to suffer.”
This forest is tight. “Ski good or eat wood.”
After a fall: What do I need to do differently there? “Just be better.”
How do I get my partner into ski touring? “Sandbag them with all your old crappy gear.”
I fell again. “Don’t suck.”
That terrain looks technical, and there’s some consequence if I fall. Any tips? “Just keep it together and don’t have a jazz attack down there.”
Any other advice? “Every turn is a sign of weakness.”
My legs are tired. “Turning is harder than not turning.”
After 2 weeks of testing the new skis in the backcountry, we love how they ski in deep powder! Try the lightweight UL version for ski touring.