Pro Style Backcountry Transitions

Backcountry transitions, meaning the transition from uphill to down or downhill to up, are a hidden source of massive time wasting.  Don’t believe me?  Maybe this sounds familiar:

You and your friends arrive at a transition zone and slowly spread out to get ready to shred. Larry pulls off his jacket and gloves, tossing them in a pile, and starts looking for a Snickers. Curly has taken both skis off and stuck their tails into the snow, and he’s sitting on his backpack.  Inexplicably, he hangs his skins from the skis by their tip loops. Moe has unpacked his entire backpack, trying to get to the helmet at the bottom. He looks up at Larry, who’s now freezing and putting back on his snowy jacket. Curly has headed off to chase down the skin which blew off of it’s hanging place.  Moe’s taking a pee. Larry stares off into space, a half-eating candybar in his hand, the wrapper long blown away in the wind. The transition zone looks like a bomb has gone off…

All told, the turnaround takes 15 minutes at best, and as much as 40 in high wind.  Even if the the skins-on transition at the bottom of the run is faster, these inefficient transitions kill 35 or more minutes per lap.  That’s a lot of skiing that the stooges are missing.

Better transitions mean more time, more powder, more respect.
Better transitions mean more time, more powder, more respect.


There is a cure for stoogery, and it’s simply to have a step-by-step plan for your transition which you follow Every. Single. Time.  The technique below is adapted from randonnée racing.  You don’t have to be wearing a speed suit to appreciate them, and you don’t have to follow them to the letter, but there is no reason why backcountry skiers shouldn’t look to the people who practice and streamline this process in competition for some technique pointers.

Having a process makes you faster, it makes you a better partner, and you get to ski more.  And the stakes are more than just time saved;  Among backcountry skiers, no single process says more about a person’s experience and perspective than how they transition. The transition reflects the degree to which you’ve considered your whole kit, from top to bottom. If you’re not dialed, you can’t hide it.  If you are, others will see this and appreciate it. It’s no substitute for good decision making and all of the other factors that contribute to backcountry skiing, but it is a very effective proxy for the characteristics of a good partner.  Want to be invited back next weekend for more powder skiing?  Read on.

The steps below rely on two assumptions; first, that you will complete all transitioning before eating or doing anything else.  This allows you to get up and go without screwing around when the pack decides to descend.  Second, it assumes that you carry your skins inside of your jacket.  I do this 95% of the time, breaking this rule only when I know that I absolutely won’t be putting my skins back on before I reach the car.  This has the two advantages of warming your skins so that the glue remains in good condition throughout the day (don’t be that guy), and that you needn’t remove and replace your backpack at every transition, which is a stoodge-style time waster.

[highlight_light]Pro-Style Transition (Up to Down)[/highlight_light]

  1. As you approach your transition, unzip your jacket to just about your waist belt to prepare to receive skins. Look ahead for a good sheltered spot that his be a viable transition zone.
  2. At the transition, stomp securely into a small platform so that you won’t go sliding around as you complete the following acrobatics.
  3. Go one ski at a time in the order boot -> bindings -> skin (or top to bottom if you remember this more easily).
  4. Boot: switch from tour to ski mode, then buckle any additional buckles.
  5. Binding: Rotate heel unit into ski mode, kick down to seat heel, unlock toe.
  6. Skin: Reach forward or back, to your ski fastener, and unfasten it from the ski. Using an arm motion like the butterfly (swim stroke) swing your arm in an arc to rip the skin from your ski.  Take multiple tubs if necessary.
  7. Fold skin and place into jacket.  Repeat with other foot. Zip jacket.

All told, when well-practiced, this process takes about 1 .5 minutes (if you’re not a rando racer). What you do with your poles is up to you.  Set them down as a pair or use them for balance in one hand.

[highlight_light]Pro-Style Transition (Down to Up)[/highlight_light]

  1. At the end of the amazing powder run, high-five your friend and stomp a platform for yourself.  This platform is more important because you will remove one of your skis so having some solidity is always preferred. The process again goes one foot at a time, boot -> binding -> ski
  2. Unbuckle and return your boot to tour mode.
  3. Pop your boot out of the binding. With your hand, rotate the heel into tour mode, holding down the break if you have one. Press down the toe unit so that it’s ready to recieve your boot.
  4. Ensuring that it is clear of snow, apply your skin to the ski base.
  5. Place boot into binding and lock out the toe piece.
  6. Repeat with your other foot.

Bonus points: If your clothing system, eye-wear, and helmet (should you use it) are all such that you don’t need to adjust them at transitions, pat yourself on the back.  Your clothing is just warm enough for the down, just cool enough for the up.  Your eye-wear protects your eyes while skiing but doesn’t fog while you climb. Your helmet is light and breathable, and so can be worn during the climb.  Most of all, you use a boot like the TLT 5, Alien, or similar, so that your boot requires only one action to both buckle down tight and go from tour to ski mode.  More on this is a later entry.

Consider the below video of ra randonnée transition from the Powderkeg race in Utah.  This is knowledge that comes from a sport where the most efficient transition possible save a lot of time.  It is a refined practice.

The soundless video is of poor quality, but note, it is 18 seconds long. Annotations inserted to note each step.

On your next day out, make transitions your technique focus and you’ll reap the benefits for the rest of your ski career.  Just remember, Boot, Binding, Ski, top-to-bottom.

Category: Knowledge & TechniqueSkiing


  1. Top to bottom, boots-bindings-skins, that’s a great way to memorize it.
    And for sure the gist of the post to focus on efficient, orderly transitions.

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