Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding in the United States
Backcountry scene and vibe
The backcountry scene in the USA is established and has a long history relative to other parts of the world. The number of backcountry ski movies coming out each year based in the US is testament to this.
The sheer size of the country means there are several lifetimes of terrain to explore for backcountry touring. The number of people going out each year in the backcountry is substantial, and you will generally find a lot of local knowledge in each mountain town about backcountry.
The upside to this is that there are a good number of resources to help you get started or improve your skills. These include local avalanche advisory services, local guides, plenty of courses to train up for avalanches, first aid or other technique, easily accessible gear to rent or buy and established rescue services.
When to go
Snow starts to fall across North America around the end of November. The snowpack generally needs to settle and develop, so backcountry starts to take off around January onwards, though December trips are certainly possible.
Access to backcountry
Backcountry is a popular and growing part of skiing and snowboarding in the US. As such, there are a number of resorts which sanction access to backcountry through specific gates. This lets you ride the lifts up in the morning and spend the day out the back, before making your way back in at the end of the day. Of course, once you leave the resort boundary, you are on your own.
Many people will choose to do this. Some more adventurous types will simply pick a cool mountain away from the resorts and hike it.
Within the ski area boundary of a resort
Open runs will generally be avalanche controlled by the avi crew at the mountain. When a run is closed, it’s closed for a reason.
Closed runs may not be avalanche controlled, and may be dangerous, including not enough snow and uncovered rocks. Often, they are illegal to access and punishable by fines or loss of your pass.
Outside the ski area boundary of a resort
Once you leave the resort boundary, you’re in the backcountry. Some people refer to ‘slackcountry’ or side-country being terrain just next to the resort, but it’s important to realise that this is still in no way avalanche controlled and is subject to the same dangers as any other backcountry.
Avalanche safety precautions and gear is necessary as soon as you leave the resort boundaries, whether just next to a resort, or far away from the crowds.
In general, you are allowed to ski onto public land, which is land where you enter through a U.S. Forest Service gate at the boundary of the resort. These are generally safe access points, though once you go through the terrain is completely uncontrolled.
There are also chunks of private land around the mountains. This is not open to the public and you risk trespassing fines if caught. Make sure to check before you go.
Best backcountry skiing in the United States
There is so much good terrain in the United States for backcountry skiing, but generally the west of the country offers a little more in terms of terrain, season length, and scenery. Below are just a few of the highlights across the country. Of course, each area itself is massive, and plenty of research is required before you go to pick a good route within these areas.
- Lake Tahoe and Sierra Nevada
The Sierra Nevada range is an excellent spot to get into the backcountry. With 500 inches of snow or more per season, and plenty of sunny days, the options for glorious days are limitless. A lot of people living in San Francisco Bay area will get up on their weekends into the Sierra Nevada and Tahoe area for some backcountry touring. Other great options in the area include around Yosemite National Park, which is gloriously blanketed in snow from December onwards. Bases include Squaw Valley, or Heavenly ski resort around Tahoe, as well as Mammoth Mountain further south.
If you are starting out in backcountry in the US, this area is a very good place to start. That’s because the snowpack is safer compared to the Rockies (Colorado/Utah/Wyoming). You really need a very good local understanding of snowpack in Utah/Colorado/Wyoming before you go backcountry there.
- Jackson Hole and Wyoming
Jackson Hole is often pointed to as the mecca for backcountry riding. You only need to look at the number of ski movies coming out each year that are based around Jackson Hole and in Wyoming to know this is one of the prime locations in the country. The movies is partly explained by the fact Teton Gravity Research is based outside Jackson, and they are one of the biggest ski movie producers in the world.
Other parts of Wyoming that consistently rate highly for touring include out the backside of Grand Targhee, the second biggest, but highly underrated resort of Wyoming.
The Wasatch Mountains around Salt Lake City contain some of the United States’ best known resorts such as Park City, Alta and Snowbird. In addition, you will find some great backcountry touring spots around here, all accessible from the convenience of Salt Lake City. The famous Utah interconnect runs through here – a 25 mile route linking Deer Valley, Park City, Brighton, Solitude, Alta, and Snowbird ski areas.
Through Colorado, you will find numerous backcountry access gates from the resorts. The popularity of the resorts during winter means many people are now seeking solitude out the back. There is 71,000 acres of State Forest State Park in Colorado, in addition to many more times that of Federal U.S. Forest Service National Wilderness area. Top places include Aspen and Crested Butte, the San Juan Mountains outside Telluride and Silverton (where you will find great hut touring – see below), the region around Summit/Eagle County (including Vail, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain), and the Rocky Mountain National Park up in the north.
However, be careful out there. Colorado has recorded the most avalanche deaths in the US, by quite a margin. Since records began in 1950-51, up to 2016-17, 276 people had died in avalanches in Colorado, compared to the next highest number in Alaska at 152.
Check out the Bridger Range near Bozeman, and the area around Cooke City. Montana touring options are great, and even more remote than other parts of the country. There are over 60 mountain ranges in Montana, so the choices are enormous.
Glacier National Park is a beautiful national park in Montana home to bears, lakes, peaks and tons of snow. This is also a really popular place for wilderness backcountry touring, away from all the ski resorts.
- New York State
That’s right – the east of the country also has some good backcountry options. In fact, with gentler terrain, sometimes this can be a better place to learn given the lowered terrain risk. Mt Marcy is the state’s highest peak (at 5,344 feet) and offers some nice touring options, with long vertical drops. You can actually ski into Whiteface Mountain resort to get the longest vertical in the East. This is the beauty of backcountry – you don’t need the biggest mountains or gnarliest terrain to have an awesome day.
Hut-based backcountry skiing
One of the cool things about the American backcountry is that there are number of places where you can do tours based on the huts in the areas. This is in the great European tradition of huts in remote places. Although Europe is still king and queen for hut-based touring, the United States would probably be the second best in the world. The great thing about the US is how few people use the huts compared to Europe, where the huts are sometimes bursting with people throughout winter. Nonetheless, the huts do book out, particularly in California for popular ones like Ostrander (Yosemite) and Ludlow.
The first of these types of huts was actually built out east, in the Appalachians in the Carolinas back in 1888. Some of the famous routes include through the West Elk Range in Aspen, Colorado where you find the 10th Mountain Division Huts and Aspen’s Braun Huts.
The Williams Peak hut in the Sawtooth Range in Idaho, which include hand-built yurts are another highlight.
The Baldy Knoll Yurt over in Wyoming, in the Teton Range, is another classic point from which to start your day.
The Ostrander Hut in Yosemite is a particularly popular one too.
Snow and Weather Conditions for USA backcountry skiing
Given the size of the country, snow and weather is a highly localised situation. Before going out into the backcountry, you will want to be sure you have a good grip on local weather and snow conditions, and particularly avalanche conditions.
An advantage of touring in the United States is that many of the popular spots will fall under the radar of an avalanche forecast center, which provide the useful service of generating daily backcountry reports that will guide your decision-making. These are based on members of their crews going out into various spots to test the snowpack. They base these reports on snowpack stability, slope aspects, specific elevations and weather conditions.
www.avalanche.org is an initiative of the American Avalanche Association and the US Forest Service National Avalanche Center. If you go to the site, you can find local reports for the area you would like to tour.
The https://avalanche.org/us-avalanche-centers/ has a list of the local resource centers for avalanche advisories.
Another resource to look through includes the https://www.americanavalancheassociation.org/ where you will find publications on avalanches such as the Avalanche Review and other documents to learn from. You will also find avalanche course providers.
You absolutely need good avalanche knowledge before going into the backcountry in the United States, whether in the Sierra Nevadas, the Rockies, or out East. Doing a good avalanche course is vital to ensure you have the requisite knowledge in case something goes wrong.
A good list of avalanche course providers can be found at https://avalanche.org/avalanche-courses/#course-providers
The American Alpine Institute is another body that offers courses on mountaineering http://www.alpineinstitute.com/
https://www.swsmtns.com/ in Mt Shasta is another good option.
Check to see if your course provider has been certified by a credible organisation such as the AAA.
If you don’t know the area, or even if you are inexperience in backcountry, then going with a guide is a good idea to get out in the backcountry. https://57hours.com/ is an app with a list of guides across the country. https://tetonbackcountryguides.com/our-guides/ has guides across the Tetons. https://www.explore-share.com/l/ski-touring-trips-united-states/ has guides around the country and specific tours.
There are lots of good guidebooks out there too. A good one for the eastern Sierras is called “Backcountry Skiing California’s Eastern Sierra”.
Availability of rescue options
It is always advisable to carry a Personal Locator Beacon – sometimes referred to as an EPIRB (Emergency Positioning Indicating Radio Beacon). This will send out a signal that can be detected by a satellite, and then beamed to the nearest emergency rescue crews. Bear in mind that this can take several hours, and they won’t be able to come if it’s already dark or the weather too inclement. This is far too long if you or your crew are caught in an avalanche, so you need to know what to do in case you need to perform a rescue. EPIRB would more likely assist in case of a broken leg, or if you are lost, for example.
American Alpine Club membership
If you’re a member with AAC, you get free air-lift/ helicopter rescue up to $10k (or something like that) – it’s a good deal, and it can help with the fact that many travel insurance providers don’t cover accidents from skiing out of bounds.
If you are a foreigner, you can also be an ‘international member’. Another reason to join is they provide annually a book called “Accidents in North American Climbing” which is great for understanding common accidents and how to avoid them.
Mountain rescue is generally handled by professional teams within each national parks, as well as some volunteers.
The Mountain Rescue Association (MRA) http://mra.org/ is the preeminent body for search and rescue in the United States. It is split into eight different regions in the United States, and is mostly volunteer-run. The MRA is mostly made up of accredited volunteers, while there are some units that are paid by the government.
As far as rescue goes, these associations are as good as they get. They are professional and generally well-trained. Some are actively opposed to charging for rescue, such as http://www.rockymountainrescue.org/charging-for-rescue, but you should still have adequate insurance coverage if going out into the backcountry.
Nonetheless, despite their professionalism, you should always be self-sufficient out in the backcountry and know that, despite their best efforts, there are often situations where a quick rescue is impossible due to weather conditions or terrain.
Beacon, shovel and probe is essential out in the US backcountry due to avalanche risk. It’s not like Australia, where people can get away without these due to the lower avalanche risk.
Check out Backcountry Gear for further information on the necessary gear to head out into the backcountry.
https://www.backcountry.com/ is a good US-based store for getting some of the gear you will need.
REI (https://www.rei.com) is another company with stores all over the country who provide excellent gear.
Most ski towns will have the requisite gear to rent, as the industry is quite well established.
A good rental shop for BC gear in Lake Tahoe is: https://sierraskiandcycleworks.com/