Ski touring

Ski touring
Ski touring up a mountain slope.

Ski touring is a form of backcountry skiing (or off-piste skiing) involving traveling over the winter landscape on skis under human power rather than through the assistance of ski lifts or snow vehicles. It can take place in terrain ranging from perfectly flat to extremely steep. Since, unlike alpine skiing, backcountry skiing involves extended stretches over flat and uphill terrain, the skiers' heel must be free to allow a natural walking motion while traversing and ascending. Ski touring has parallels with hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering.


Requirements and reasons

Ski touring requires cardiovascular fitness, mental toughness, and a firm understanding of mountain craft. Touring involves navigating and route finding through potential avalanche terrain, and often requires familiarity with meteorology along with skiing skills. For advocates who possess the skills to safely enter the backcountry in the winter, the rewards of touring can be exceptional. Ski tourers can access mountain ranges and experience solitude, even in areas that would typically be quite crowded in the summer.

Competent ski tourers also get to experience the self reliance that few others ever get to experience in the modern world. In many mountain areas, cell phones are worthless and the ski party must rely on self-rescue should something go awry.

Ski touring—or hiking for turns—is also popular with people looking for powder snow since these conditions do not last long after storms inside ski area boundaries due to intense use.

Spring touring can also access corn snow which some consider to be equal to powder snow. Corn snow forms when the snowpack freezes solid at night and then partially melts during the warmth of spring days. In this process, larger snow grains gradually grow at the expense of smaller ones until the surface of the snowpack takes on the consistency of a snowcone. The tourer tries to descend just as the sun softens about an inch of slushy snow on top of the firmly frozen snowpack. Descend too soon, the snow surface will be icy & difficult for skis to grip. Descend too late & too much snow softens, leading to mushy, collapsing snow & rising avalanche danger.

Whether a tourer is looking for winter powder or spring corn, the emphasis is on being self reliant in the mountains and skiing wild snow.

The greater surface area of a ski prevents "postholing" which renders hiking in snow very energy-consuming, slow & inefficient. While snowshoes can also address the hiker's tendency to sink in snow, the fit ski tourer can cover far longer distances because the downhill sections are skied much faster than they could be hiked or snowshoed. Even traveling on flat sections is made more efficient by the ski's ability to glide, which extends the stride but does not require expenditure of additional energy.

Ski touring can also be faster and easier than summer hiking in some terrain and some conditions (like on talus slopes, for instance), allowing for traverses and ascents that in some ways would be harder in the summer. In this way, skis can ameliorate access to backcountry alpine climbing routes during the spring & early summer when snow is off the technical route, but still covers the hiking trail.


Original Seal Skins for Ski touring, c.1950s

Going uphill or across a flat also requires grip, so that the ski will glide forward but not slide backwards when weighted. Dedicated cross-country touring skis may have a fish-scale pattern engraved into the base of the ski to enable the ski to grip, but most types of ski require the use of sticky wax or climbing skins for their smooth surface to grip. Skins are removable pieces of nylon fabric whose nap runs at an oblique angle, allowing the ski to glide forward, but not back. Originally, these skins were actually made of furry seal skin.

If the snow is particularly icy or the skin track very steep, then the ski tourer may choose to attach ski crampons, sometimes called Harscheisen (German), couteau (French), or ramponi (Italian). Crampons are like knives that cut deeper into the snow.

As the slope angles increase, the climbing ski-tourer will make switchbacks, using so-called "kick turns" to change direction, typically resulting in a line that climbs at a moderate angle of 20-30 degrees. Skin tracks can be seen as zig-zags heading up a snowy mountain. Ski-tourers try to maintain the "up-tracks" in avalanche-safe zones as they head up the mountain, staying out from under dangerous cornices or slide paths. Setting a proper and safe skin track requires a great deal of skill and avalanche knowledge as the tourer spends most of their time climbing. Traveling quickly up the hill is important for safety as well. Thus physical fitness is one of the most important elements of safe mountain travel in potential avalanche terrain.

On reaching the summit or other intermediate destination, skins (if used) are removed and the skiers prepare to descend. In traditional cross-country skiing equipment and more robust telemark equipment, the skier's heel is also free on the descent, while AT skiers lock down their heels for the descent in typical alpine skiing style.

Ski touring requires the ability to ski off-piste, good navigation skills, and good awareness of the risks of the mountain environment in winter. In particular it requires the knowledge to assess and test snow conditions to minimise the risk of avalanche. Avalanche rescue equipment including radio transceiver, probe and shovel should be carried, and the ability to use them quickly and efficiently is required.

Additionally, ski mountaineering implies climbing a mountain with the intent of skiing it, often from the summit and/or down an elegant "line." Ski mountaineering blurs the line between mountaineering and skiing, as advocates typically choose peaks that are both worthy climbs and challenging descents. Ski mountaineering may require kicking in steps up steep sections while carrying the skis on a backpack. Ski mountaineers may also use ropes, ice axes and crampons for ascending slopes too steep for skinning or kicking steps. In some areas, ski mountaineering involves glacier travel, a whole subject unto itself. When skiing on glaciers it is wise for the party to wear harnesses, carry crevasse-rescue gear, and sometimes rope together to allow crevasse rescue techniques to be employed.


All ski touring equipment has the common ability to free the heel for level and uphill travel. However ski touring can be carried out using a variety of equipment. The choice of equipment is determined by the ski touring goals and to some degree, the other types of skiing the individual participates in. Generally speaking, steeper, more difficult terrain requires a more supportive, heavier equipment choice:


Nordic ski touring is skiing with bindings that leave the heels relatively free all the time. Thus, Nordic skiers do not have to change back and forth between uphill and downhill modes, which can be advantageous in rolling terrain.

Traditional Nordic

At the lighter, simpler end of the scale, Nordic skis may be narrow and edgeless cross-country types for groomed trails or ideal snow conditions, used with boots that resemble soft shoes or low boots.

These traditional Nordic skis have a "double-cambered" construction with a "wax pocket" to hold sticky wax under the foot for grip going uphill. Slicker "glide wax" is applied to the base of the ski in front of and behind the foot, for glide. The idea is for the ski's base to stick to the snow when the skier weights the ski going uphill, but glide along smoothly when the skier is on the flat or going downhill.

The most popular versions of these skis have bases with a grip pattern molded into the base under the foot, in a "fish scale" pattern, which can be used without kick wax. These "no-wax" skis are not as fast as waxable skis, but are more convenient to use and can perform better when the snow is at or very near the freezing point (0 degrees Celsius or 32 degrees Fahrenheit).

Either way, these traditional Nordic skis allow for very natural, seamless travel up and over mildly hilly terrain due to the lack of a need to change modes for ascending and descending.

The telemark turn was invented as a means of turning these lightweight skis with soft shoes that can't efficiently translate leg force to the ski.

Backcountry Nordic

There's also a mid-range solution. The backcountry Nordic ski is somewhat between traditional Nordic and Telemark. The ski's width at the tip can be anywhere from about 70 mm to around 90 mm, with the waist of the ski (the area underfoot) about 60 mm to 65 mm wide. Backcountry Nordic bindings designed for backcountry skiing are wider and more stout of construction, allowing more stability and better energy transfer between boot and ski. Many skiers use the 3-pin, 75 mm Nordic Norm or Telemark Norm boot/binding system for additional turning and speed control, even though it is somewhat slower than the newer NNN-BC (New Nordic Norm-Backcountry) binding "system." Backcountry Nordic boots are usually semi-rigid (usually the side is rigid), and the skis also have more carving "sidecut" similar to telemark/alpine skis, as well as metal edges. These features improve the skier's ability to turn and control their speed as slopes begin to get steeper.


At the heavier end of the Nordic skiing equipment spectrum lie Telemark skis for steep backcountry terrain or ski-area use. These skis are similar to alpine skis and AT skis: heavier and wider than other Nordic skis with a smooth base and metal edges for carving turns in steeper terrain. Telemark gear, like AT equipment, is frequently used for ski touring because of the additional control the equipment provides on the descent. Like AT equipment, telemark equipment is heavier than other Nordic gear so the tourer is sacrificing the heavier weight on the uphill for ski ability on the descent.

Like all Nordic boots, telemark boots flex at the toe for more natural walking and striding, but they are heavier and more supportive than other forms of Nordic ski boots. Telemark boots conform to the 75 mm Nordic norm, which provides for a duckbill at the front of the boot with 3 holes on the bottom. The soft soles of telemark boots make kicking steps or front pointing with crampons difficult.

Traditional "3 pin" telemark bindings clamp the duckbill with the 3 holes in the boots aligned with 3 pins on the bindings to provide rotational rigidity. Most modern bindings have a spring-loaded cable that attaches around the heel of the boot, and most do away with the 3 pins entirely, since they tend to eventually shear out. The cable improves control, but can squeeze the arch of the foot painfully, so many cable attachment systems include a provision for relaxing the cable for climbs.

Telemark binding springs have become progressively stiffer to add downhill control by holding the ski tight to the bottom of the boot, but this also adds undesirable heel lift resistance when hiking. This added resistance makes ascending & traversing less efficient, especially when breaking trail through deep snow. Recent telemark binding designs add AT style free toe pivot with the addition of a catch that is released for hiking then locked for downhill skiing.

Telemark boots have gradually increased in stiffness and height to improve control. The increased forces have led to increasing desirability of releasable telemark bindings. However, the design constraints of the 75 mm Nordic norm do not allow the boot to release from the binding effectively. Instead, this type of releaseable telemark bindings leaves part of the binding attached to the boot when release occurs. New Telemark Norm [NTN] is an emerging solution to the releasability problem that employs a plastic tab molded into the sole of the boot. This tab engages in a special binding that offers step-in convenience and releasability.

However, due to the physics of the problem, it is very difficult to design consistent release into a telemark binding, so there is currently no DIN-certified releasable telemark binding available. The free heel of Telemark equipment appears to help prevent knee injuries common to alpine skiers or AT skiers even without releasable bindings <>, but non-releasing bindings still present a serious hazard in avalanches where attached equipment creates drag that increases the possibility of injury and deeper burial—not a problem in ski resorts, but a serious consideration in the backcountry.


Alpine Touring (randonnée)

Alpine touring ski boot, binding, and ski crampon

Alpine Touring (AT) or randonnée equipment is specifically designed for ski touring in steep terrain. A special alpine touring binding is used that allows the heel to be clipped down for more support when skiing downhill, and allows it to be released to swing resistance-free from the toe when climbing. Like telemark gear, this equipment is popular with people from an alpine skiing background; unlike telemarking, it requires no learning of a challenging new type of downhill turn.

Most AT bindings have DIN safety release as in an alpine binding. Since the AT boot heel is locked for descending, the rigidity of the boot sole allows for reliable release and adds strength to the binding. This means that the bindings can be lighter in weight since they do not have to address the difficult physics of always-free-heel telemark bindings that place intense levering and twisting force on the toe piece. Some heavier AT bindings are also available and popular with users who cross over ski area boundaries and bring resort-style skiing with them, including jumping and high speed skiing, often using a heavier, more stable ski.

Special ski boots are also used, something of a cross between a downhill ski boot and a hiking boot, which are light and flexible enough to be comfortable to walk up in while still being stiff enough to provide good control when skiing down. These boots have specialized soles for traction and the ability to hold a crampon when climbing steep slopes with the skis on one's back.

Like downhill skiing boots, most AT Boots have rigid soles, which is advantageous for climbing steep snow slopes with or without crampons. However, all supportable ski boots—telemark, AT or alpine—are less than comfortable for hiking approaches over bare ground, so most skiers will carry their ski boots & use a lightweight hiking or trail-running shoe when approaches are dry & it is not possible to drive to the snow.

Alpine Modified

Alpine skiing equipment can be used for ski touring with the addition of a removable binding insert that allows for free heel swing on ascents. The advantage of this set up is maximum support and safety release at higher speeds, in more difficult snow conditions and on steeper slopes as well as no new ski equipment needs other than the insert (assuming one already has alpine ski gear and avalanche rescue equipment).

The major downside of this equipment arrangement is that it is very heavy, stiff and uncomfortable on uphills and long traverses. Also, the wide, deeply side-cut skis currently popular for resort skiing are optimized for downhill turning and are less effective than narrower (by today's standards), straight sided skis for "survival" techniques sometimes used by ski tourers to cope with steep, difficult or unskiable snow conditions, for instance: jump-turns of various flavors, side-slipping, traversing, snowplowing, uphill herringbone and side-stepping.


Snowboard touring is a variation of the activity in which a snowboard is used for the descents. To ascend, the snowboard tourer removes the board and uses snowshoes, stubby skis or a snowboard that can split in two pieces lengthwise (splitboard) to be used like skis with skins on the ascent. Of course, with snowshoes or stubby skis the snowboard must be carried whilst ascending adding to the weight carried. Whereas a split board is more akin to skis and must be converted before the descent by removing the skins and fixing the two halves together.

Snowboards are the tool of choice for some difficult snow conditions like breakable crust, spring slush or dense new snow. Many people also prefer them for powder. Unfortunately, travelling over flats and uphill is somewhat contrived and difficult, with transitions taking much longer than skiers.

Ski Touring Regions

Nordic Countries


Iceland offers ski touring, back country skiing and ski mountaineering. The Troll Peninsula in northern Iceland has vertical descents of up to 1500 m (5000 ft), thousands of peaks and slopes for all abilities. The season lasts from around mid March until the beginning of June and with the continual daylight of the Arctic Sun overhead and mild temperatures, snow conditions remain favourable well into June.


Spring ski touring on Hardangervidda, Norway

Ski touring in Norway has a long tradition. Skiing was originally a practical means of winter transportation. Ski touring formed the basis of the polar expeditions of Norwegian explorers like Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen .[1]

There are thousands of kilometers of marked ski routes, both in the forested areas and the mountain areas above the tree-line. The trails are maintained by organizations like Skiforeningen in the Oslomarka area and Norwegian Mountain Touring Association in mountain areas like Hardangervidda, Rondane and Jotunheimen.


Although most of Sweden is relatively flat in the fells, there are wide mountainous areas in the west to practise ski touring. Most Swedish mountains have gentle slopes suitable for ski touring. The northern half of Sweden is usually snow covered from December to at least March, but in areas like Abisko Natianal Park snow may last until May in the lowlands and until August in the massifs.


The European Alps are popular for ski touring, with tremendous terrain changes, an elaborate and interconnected ski lift system for high mountain access, open ski area boundaries and excellent public transportation within and between mountain valleys, allowing for unplanned escapes & elaborate link-ups.

The extreme elevation gain of the Alps—over 12,000 vertical feet in Chamonix, for example—leads to a long season, glaciers and dramatic descents. This challenging alpine environment favors the greater stability of spring snow and many routes are in a dangerous condition until then.

Point-to-point ski tours are facilitated by a system of manned alpine huts that provide food, heat and shelter, eliminating the need for carrying massive packs of camping gear and enabling skiers to go high and stay high over long distances rather than having to drop way down into a valley at night. Many point-to-point and multi-day Alpine ski tours have become popular and famous, the best known undoubtedly being the spectacular Haute Route. Examples of other tours of this type in the Alps include the Berner Oberland, Western Bernese Alps, Monte Rosa Circuit and Tour Soleil.

Skiers touring from point-to-point encounter highly variable snow conditions and potentially extreme terrain and should be familiar with such ski mountaineering techniques as climbing with an ice axe, rope and crampons, mountain navigation, and crevasse-rescue. Traditionally, a mountain guide is engaged. Increasingly, Alpine Touring equipment is used.

Popular ski-touring areas


The extensive, largely unpopulated mountain ranges in western Canada offer world class wilderness ski touring opportunities. Overnight accommodation, where it exists, is a mix of basic huts run by local clubs, and high end commercial lodges. Extended wilderness ski traverses are frequently undertaken in the spring, visiting the many of the more inaccessible ranges and icefields.

Remote lodges offer basecamp style skiing. Accessing and stocking the lodge by helicopter or snowcat, ski tourers then make day-trips into the surrounding area, with or without the services of a mountain guide who may own the lodge.

Popular ski-touring areas


Ski touring takes place anywhere there is snow in the U.S. In much of the country, this means skiing in low-angle terrain, often on snow-covered roads packed down by snowmobiles. Skiing along prepared tracks on golf courses, proprietary developments or in city, county or state parks is generally referred to as cross-country skiing rather than ski touring; the difference is that the decision of where to ski is predetermined by the track setters.

In steeper terrain, U.S. ski touring is in large part driven by the desire for pleasant descent conditions such as powder snow or spring corn snow. Peak ascents, traverses and other ski mountaineering considerations are generally secondary since logistics tend to be challenging. Mountain access typically takes place from high paved and plowed roads and passes (or from ski areas boundaries), so elevation gain and loss is moderate and horizontal distance traveled tends to be minimized. A typical tour may rise 1,000-3,000 vertical feet over 3–5 horizontal miles, and skiers may "yo-yo" to make several runs on the best descent sections, increasing the elevation gain for the day. It is, however, possible to find much more striking vertical relief in places like the Pacific Rim volcanoes, e.g. Mount Rainier, Mount Shasta and in abrupt fault-block mountains like the High Sierra and the Tetons where up to 7,000 feet (2,100 m) of descent (and ascent) is possible for the truly energetic in some seasons.

The taste for backcountry powder skiing has caused several problems. First, in-area skiers crossing over to the backcountry for off-piste or lift-assisted ski touring without learning the additional skills of avalanche awareness, first aid, self-rescue and winter mountaineering frequently run into serious, media-grabbing problems as they slip under ski area ropelines. Second, the skiers come into conflict with ski area operators, who are understandably unwilling to accept liability for injuries and deaths in the backcountry outside the ski area's controlled terrain. Attempting to minimize this potential liability in the past, resort managers typically enacted blanket prohibitions on backcountry access via their boundaries. While skiers are entirely free to hike into these same areas from the parking lots, most U.S. backcountry skiers prefer to spend as much of their day as possible making downhill turns rather than slogging up long approaches. Since most ski areas are partially or entirely on public land, the issue failed to die and many ski areas are accommodating with open boundaries or backcountry gates as they receive support in the courts against claims resulting from backcountry accidents.

Due to the almost complete absence of public transportation in remote U.S. mountain areas, ski touring from point-to-point requires often lengthy and onerous car shuttles; a spectacular example is the 5 hour car shuttle required for the Sierra High Route: that's 5 hours there to drop a car, 5 hours back and 5 hours to return with the car at the end...15 hours of driving.

Although most U.S. ski touring is out-and-back, multi-day hut trips are becoming more and more popular. Colorado has the most extensive network of huts, but several good options also exist in Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and California. There are also some skiers who are willing to carry all required camping gear, food and fuel for multi-day trips. And Spring "corn camps" are reasonably popular in the west, with skiers packing in and setting up a base camp for several days of ski touring in the area during this period of warmer weather, stable snow and longer days.

In the east, a skier can tour from Massachusetts to Canada on Vermont's 300+ mile Catamount Trail. The Catamount Trail is divided into 31 sections, each of which can be reasonably skied point-to-point in a day, using a car shuttle. There are also some sections that are routed to make overnight inn-to-inn trips possible.

Popular ski-touring areas


The Andes offer a wide variety of back country skiing possibilities.

Most ski centres in Chile and Argentina operate from June through September (obviously the southernmost resorts have longer seasons) and there are endless opportunities year round in mountains, inner valleys, reserves like (Huilo-Huilo Biological Reserve, volcanoes such as Villarrica (volcano), etc.

Needless to say, backcountry skiing can also be done in Perú and Bolivia.

Cordillera Blanca

The Cordillera Blanca with the mountain Perlilla is a prime destination for cross-country skiing and snowboarding practice.


Ski touring is popular in the Victorian and New South Wales alps, with the season running from late June to October. New South Wales, in particular, has extensive rolling snow country in Kosciuszko National Park which is well suited to this activity. Most of this park is designated wilderness, and skiers require snow camping skills to access much of it. The Victorian alps are somewhat more broken than those of New South Wales, often with deep snowless valleys between the ski fields. However, excellent ski touring opportunities are found at places such as Mount Bogong, Mt Feathertop and Falls Creek.

See also


  1. ^ Skiing and the Creation of a Norwegian Identity Norway info
  2. ^ "Online guide to backcountry skiing on Teton Pass". Retrieved 2010-04-09. 
  3. ^ "Online guide to backcountry skiing on Loveland Pass". Retrieved 2010-04-09. 
  4. ^ "Online guide to backcountry skiing on Berthoud Pass". Retrieved 2010-04-09. 

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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Look at other dictionaries:

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  • ski touring — ☆ ski touring n. the sport of cross country skiing …   English World dictionary

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  • ski touring — noun Date: 1935 cross country skiing for pleasure …   New Collegiate Dictionary

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  • ski tourer — noun see ski touring …   Useful english dictionary

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