Do you ever notice tiny-ant-people traversing across far away mountains when you are heading up the chair lift for your first run of the day? Or spot tracks zig-zagging up steep, snowy pitches leaving behind a trail like that of a snail and wonder who the heck got up there and how? This is ski touring.
For the early bird that is beyond keen for fresh tracks, an early morning touring expedition is the best start to the day and an afternoon touring journey is the best escape from lift lines. If ski touring is on your to-do list this winter season, we’ve got just what you need to get started.
What is Ski Touring?
Ski touring is a means of transportation over snowy terrain often used for back-country skiing although it can be combined with hiking and climbing as well. In some instances, locations are more easily accessible by touring then by foot.
A touring set-up allows a person to ascend and descend without having to remove their skis thanks to a set of skins. (Skins get their name for the fact that they look like sealskin.) This can be a quicker option than snowshoeing or hiking in some cases and also allows explorers to enjoy hiking routes that may be covered in snow in the winter months.
The skins are strips made of nylon or mohair (or a combination of the two) that are attached to the bottom of the ski with a sticky adhesive. The texture of the mohair or nylon lays flat when the skis slide forward and sticks up to prevent the skis from sliding backwards. Generally touring bindings allow for free movement at the heel so you are able to walk normally at a regular walking pace and cover snowy terrain.
Multiple brands carry a variety of skins so you can find the perfect set for your skis and your needs. Some skins are better fit for more experienced skiers or racers while others are suitable for beginners. The two main brands that carry skins you can find on Altitude Sports are Pomoca and Black Diamond.
Ski touring has become increasingly more popular over the years and is an option appealing to experienced skiers should they not want to purchase resort passes. Most people will set out for a one-day touring trip and others will set out for multi-day adventures. They will skin to a location, set up camp then they may spend the next few days skinning up peaks and shredding fresh lines.
It is not recommended to try ski touring if you are not an advanced skier as it usually comes with more technical terrain. Ensure that you and the friends you tour with are all at a comfortable level in your skiing abilities.
No matter how close you are to the resort, proper avalanche safety knowledge and equipment is required. Mountains can be unpredictable and even the most experienced people can be caught in a dangerous situation. Before you embark on a ski touring journey you must take an avalanche safety course to ensure you know what to do should you get caught in an undesirable situation.
There are multiple organizations that offer avalanche safety courses around the world. These courses are generally taken over multiple days and in some cases, the course will be spread over two or three weekends. In these courses you learn how to use your safety equipment, how to read snow-packs and avoid avalanche terrain and how to react should you and your crew get caught in an avalanche and a rescue needs to be made.
Certain brands specialize in backcountry equipment and safety gear. If you are looking for shovels and probes you can check out Black Diamond, Mammut, MSR and Backcountry Access. Some of these brands listed above will also carry avalanche transceivers too, Backcountry Access being one of them.
Avalanche Safety Equipment List:
- snow knife
- backpack to fit all your gear (some bags are equipped with avalanche air bag systems and others are equipped with a built-in avalanche equipment checklist.)
This is a list of just a few items that should be in your pack at all times while you are out touring or if ever you plan to stray from the groomers in a resort. Make sure your equipment is working properly and that you are 100% certain on how everything operates.
What Goes Inside Your Pack?
The pack that you ski tour with should be at least 20L and have enough room for all your avalanche equipment and then some. In some cases, a 20L pack may be too small so don’t be too shy to go for one with a little more volume like the Norrona Lyngen Pack 35L or the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol 25 Backpack.
Along with your avalanche safety gear, here are a few extra pieces that you should make a habit of keeping in your ski pack:
- water bottle for hydration
- fully stocked first aid kit
- whistle that is easily accessible
- waterproof matches or lighter
- warm layers: toque, spare gloves, dry socks, base layer and mid layer
- energy-boosting snacks
- fully charged headlamp
- map and compass or GPS
- fully charger cell phone or communication device
- sunscreen, lip balm & sunglasses; the glare of the sun can be harsh and even grey days can have their effect so be protected
You should always be prepared when you are heading out into the mountains so don’t rely on your buddies to bring the first aid kit or waterproof matches. Everyone needs to look after each other but you need to be responsible for your own gear too.
How to Dress For Ski Touring
When it comes to ski touring, you are covering long and sometimes very technical distances (flat, uphill and downhill) so proper apparel and layering will be essential for staying dry and keeping yourself warm while you are perspiring.
Multiple brands will have an assortment of products to choose form that are perfect layering pieces and great for an assortment of activities. Other brands such as Dynafit, will have a collection of products dedicated to ski touring and be designed for just that. From insulating mid layer tops and bottoms to breathable and waterproof outer shells, Dynafit has you covered for all your ski touring wardrobe needs.
Like all outdoor activities, you want to avoid cotton garments because they are not moisture-wicking or quick-drying. Base layers should be garments made of merino wool or synthetics that have exceptional moistuer-wicking and quick-drying properties.
A mid layer is your insulation layer and can be anything from a fleece or softshell to a down or synthetic hoody or vest. The type of mid layer you choose will depend on the weather and there should always be an extra one stowed away in your pack.
The outer layer is your climate shield or shell so pick a shell that is waterproof and breathable. Gore-Tex is your best bet for an outer layer although it can be pricey. If you find something more in your price range with a DWR coating, it will also do the trick.
The most important feature for a shell aside from the waterproofing is that it is breathable. Look for armpit zips or vents that can be unzipped to promote airflow. The idea of layering is to keep your body temperature balanced and adapting to the elements. If you’re sweating inside your shell and it has nowhere to go, your other layers will become wet and make you cold.
Some jackets will have overall-like-straps inside so the jacket can be worn without properly putting your arms through the sleeves. Some people may find this a handy feature so you can remove the jacket but avoid having to throw it in your pack. If you are someone that is constantly bouncing between being hot and cold, a jacket with this feature may be great! Eliminate having to stop every 15 minutes to pull the jacket out of your pack or stuff it back in.
For ski pants; look for a waterproof and breathable shell similar to the jacket. Insulated pants may get too warm, especially with base layers underneath and quite often, there are only small mesh vents for ventilation. A proper good, waterproof shell pair of ski pants will have a zipper up the side of both legs. This zipper allows you to unzip and get airflow through your bottoms. These type of ski pants are ideal for touring and will promote exceptional breathability on your lower half.
At the end of the day, one of the most crucial elements for ski touring (and any other outdoor activity for that matter) is proper layering techniques to keep a balanced body temperature. It may be very cold, but when you’re active and sweating you’ll feel warm and want to remove a layer. This is fine as long as you keep that layer close by so that when you stop or your body temperature regulates again, it can be put back on. It is very easy to catch a cold when you are sweaty so whenever you stop, throw on the layer before you feel chilly.
Headwear, Gloves & Socks
If you normally ski with a helmet, you may wear it while touring if it’s a colder day, otherwise, strap it onto your pack and throw on a dry toque. Keeping your head and hands covered are key to keeping your body heat inside so don’t forget to cover them up!
Whether you wear a thick, wool toque or a thin helmet liner, as long as your ears and head are covered, anything works! Buff products are great as well! They are interchangeable and can we worn in multiple ways from a toque or headband to a balaclava. They have an assortment of colours and patterns to choose from so you can get funky and pick something fun.
Keeping your feet warm can be tricky sometimes but with the right sock combination you shouldn’t have any problem. In cold weather where you know you’re going to be sweating, it is best to start with a sock liner like the Icebreaker Hike Light Liner Crew or the Icebreaker Skier Liner Over the Calf. Both models are unisex and pair well under a mid weight sock. This thin layer will wick away the moisture and keep your foot from getting too clammy while the mid weight sock will keep your foot warm and cozy.
Gloves & Mittens
Layering for your hands is similar to layering for your core; start with a base layer, add a mid layer and finish with a shell if needed.
Because our hands are generally quite warm, you may be able to go majority of the day with just a thin glove liner on and save your proper ski gloves or mitts for the descent. In saying that, it is always a good idea to keep a warm, dry pair of gloves or mittens in your bag for breaks.
What Equipment Do You Need?
Skis, Boots & Bindings
First of all, you need a pair of skis with touring bindings and boots. This set-up allows your heel to move freely so you can take a regular step. As you step, the front of your boot stays attached at the front of the binding thus sliding the ski across the snow.
When shopping for skins there are a few things to take into consideration; the width, the length and the tip and tail shape of your skis. Once you know the length of your ski you can start having a look at skins that will fit that length. If your skis are 175cm in length, you’ll want a skin that is between 170cm-180cm.
As for width, you want to take the measurement at the thickest part of your ski which is generally near the tip. With that measurement you can browse the widths of skins and keep in mind that you may have to do some trimming. If you are not able to find the proper width for your skis or your skis are in between sizes, you can size down but be aware. Ideally you want to have the entire base of your ski covered up to the edges. (Don’t cover your edges because you need to keep the metal edges available for edging in hard snow if it is necessary.)
When fitting the skin to your ski, ensure that the entire base underfoot is covered except for the edges from 2mm in front of your toe cap to about a foot behind your heel. This is your main traction area so if the edges are completely covered, you will have a hard time gaining traction for climbing.
Once you have chosen a pair of skins for your skis, make sure that the tail and tip hardware will be compatible with your skis. Some skins will come with hardware that is more or less compatible with all skis so make sure you check that out before purchasing. Using the tip hardware is compulsory but the tail, not so much. Some people will choose not to use the tail hardware although it is suggested so you don’t end up with any unpleasant surprises while you’re in the middle of a climb.
Ideally for ski touring, you are going to want adjustable poles so that you can adjust the length depending on the terrain you are traveling on. MSR and Leki have a variety of poles to choose from so you can find the pair that works right for you!
This Year is the Year To Ski Tour
Challenge yourself this winter season. Gain some knowledge about avalanche safety then hit the snow in search of some fresh lines. Do your best not to venture out into the back-country alone and always ensure that you share your plans with someone. There is so much untouched beauty to be discovered by the few lucky ones, so have fun and play safe out there!