10 Real Mistakes For New Ski Tourers

Every year, I find myself following fewer blogs. There are great ones out there, to be sure, but I used to be a glutton for outdoors media. As the years pass, I have less time to read articles and have little patience for low-quality content. One by one I’ve been unsubscribing. That time is better spent actually doing things outside.

Don't read about it. Go do it.
Don’t read about it. Go do it.

A tough cull for me this Fall was the WildSnow blog. It used to be definitive about many things backcountry skiing, and remains definitive only about new Dynafit products and Austrian pastries. The signal to noise ratio is too low. I love it, but it needed to go.

Still, like checking your ex-girlfriend’s activity on Facebook, though you know you shouldn’t, I occasionally look at what they’ve been publishing over there. Usually I’m satisfied with my decision to walk away.

Wildsnow recently published the “10 Essential Mistakes for the Backcountry Ski Touring Beginner“. Besides having a nonsensical title that’s been SEO’d to death with keywords, the article is doing no one any favors. Neither funny to experienced folks, nor informative for beginners, I though we could do better over here. Not that anyone cares…but here we go.

These are mistakes:

Buying gear before you know what you like.

So you’ve decided that you want to become a backcountry skier! That’s awesome. Now put on the brakes. Don’t just walk into your local REI and buy those pow skis you’ve been dreaming about. Before dropping a lot of cash (and it’s going to be a lot), try out some loaner gear. Go touring 2-3 times on other people’s equipment or rentals and see what you do and don’t like. What you ski in the resort is likely bigger and stiffer than what you’re going to want to tow around on your foot all day. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and energy by buying something you like the first time.

Buying bad gear.

Did I mention that this stuff is expensive? At retail, boots+bindings+skis+skins will range from $1000-2000. If you just cringed, that’s ok. But believe me, you want good gear. Get tech bindings, even if that means getting new boots. Get boots with a real walk mode. Don’t buy Fritschis, Day-Wreckers or other stopgap gear because you’re afraid of the price. You’ll end up hating it or breaking it, and paying anyways. Make the commitment to good gear, or wait to buy until you can.


Thinking you know how to ski.

Skiing skill in a resort is a prerequisite for backcountry skiing, but it’s not all that you need. Resorts are manicured, and most people stay home when the snow sucks. It takes one skill set to go upside down off the Broom Closet double, and an entirely different one to make it home thorough breakable crust with intact knees. Importantly, you need to be able to ski variable snow without falling and without hurting yourself. Rescue is far and daylight is short. This kind of skiing takes some learning. Ease into it.

Trying to learn to ski in the backcountry.

This is a big one. Because snow in the backcountry is variable, and it’s harder to learn to ski in powder than it is on a groomer, the backcountry is not a place to learn the basics. In the backcountry, you’ll have a few thousand feet of skiing per day if you’re in ok shape. In the resort, you can rack up hundreds of thousands of feet of experience using those high tech uphill chairs they’ve got there. If you can’t ski, you endanger both yourself and your partners. If you twist a knee, or trigger a slide by bomb-holing mid-run, the ski patrol isn’t there to help you. When the resort is boring you, you’ve just hit the low end of the bell curve.

Packing in the parking lot.

When going out for a day of backcountry skiing, pack at home. Whether you’re getting the alpine start or the crack of noon start, when you reach the trailhead be prepared to roll. Your partners will appreciate it, and you’ll stop forgetting things at home or in the car. While you’re packing, check the batteries in your beacon. Replace as necessary and then put your beacon on. Before you dress further, read below.

Wearing goretex.

I love Goretex… when it’s raining. Ski touring will not make you rich, or sexy, or well known, but it will make you sweaty. Use soft-shell unless the ice coming at you sideways and sticking to your face. Most poor backcountry clothing choices come from fear of cold and fear of snow. Embrace these. Goretex will make you hot, which will make you sweat, which will make you slow down, and force you to walk around with all of your zippers open looking like a 3-masted schooner running downwind.

Using heel risers.

If I see someone struggling with a skintrack, nine out of ten times it’s because they’re using heel risers. No matter whether you pronounce them Dine-a-fit or Dean-a-fit, ignore the high riser position on your new tech bindings. Traction on a skintrack come from weight through the heels. Risers push you forward onto your toes. Leave the stiletto setting alone and focus on technique until you know who Andrew McLean is and why this is a joke.

Wearing goggles.

Goggles are for the resort and for Goretex days. Under almost no circumstances should they be worn while skinning uphill. You might as well spit in your eye for how well you’ll be able to see when those babies fog up. A good pair of sport sunglasses will ventilate better and will work for everything but the snorkle-scuba-pow. Carry goggles in your pack every day for when it gets all Donner Party out there, but don’t use them until you feel the whites of your eyes.


Never going past Avy 1.

Avalanche education has become standard, but don’t think that you know what you need to to stay alive after you’ve finished your two-day avalanche intro course. Ideally, these classes should make you SCARED. If they didn’t, I suspect you weren’t paying attention. They explain how avalanches happen, how bad it is to be in one, and how to dig out a friend when you start a slide on top of him, but they don’t teach you what you want to know. You want to go out backcountry skiing almost every day, find good snow, and ski it without dying. To do that, you need a master’s degree and a lot of experience. Go slow, go with experienced people, and at least get an Avy II within a year or two of your Avy I. Science doesn’t save your life, but it does help you to understand the world that you’re trying to navigate.

Keeping your mouth shut.

Regardless of your level of avalanche education, experience, mood, or partners, if you see something in the snow that makes you worried or curious, say something. Under most circumstances, it is truly impossible to know with certainty that a snow-safety decision is correct. Information is limited, snow is variable, and people are less reliable than a snowflake on a skillet. At the very least, if you ask why something is or isn’t safe, you should get an explanation that satisfies you. If it comes down to it, be prepared to make better decisions than your partners. If your partners give you grief for expressing concerns, then tactfully find others to ski with. See below.

Reinventing the wheel.

You can avoid all of these mistakes, and hundreds of others besides, by finding an experienced backcountry user to take you under their wing. They will almost invariably be 10-20 years older than you, have outdated equipment, and will crush you on the skin-track while holding a one-sided conversation. They’ve skied these mountains for thirty years and have been involved in just one slide. They don’t get rad but they do know where to find powder every day. Supplicate at their feet and study their ways. They know more than I could ever teach you.

Category: Skiing



  1. Patrick, you are spot on. I like wildsnow but it has been getting weaker recently and that post was a low point. Meaningless and essentially unrelated to ski touring. Thanks for your vastly more relevant version.

    Your points are right on, especially “thinking you know how to ski”. I went on a Haute Route tour this spring and had 2 of the 4 strangers in my group require evacuation (1 by helicopter – broke ankle inside boot skiing windpack) due to skiing easy low angle backcountry terrain as if it was a resort. My wife and I had a great time and easily handled the variable conditions thanks to our backcountry experience in the PNW, skiing mostly crap snow (but having a great time doing it!).

    I have plenty to learn in some of the other categories though. Thanks for writing this.

    1. Tim,
      Thanks for the comment. That sounds like one gnarly time those other folks had. I agree that skiing in the PNW builds skiing skills useful around the globe… it can hardly get worse anywhere else!

  2. Thanks for the tips. Packing in the parking lot is no fun for anyone! Rookie move! Any suggestions on breathable layers with wind resistance. There are lots out there now. The Patagonia Nano Air is getting good reviews.

    One point I disagree with. I’ve usually find the high setting on climbing bars essential on steep up tracks. Skiers should experiment. There are usually two settings. I think most will find it’s way easier to keep the body in the optimal position with climbing bars and the high setting can be useful. That’s why all companies that make a back country binding include climbing bars with two settings. They would get hammered without them. Personally, I would look for a binding with easy climbing bar engagement and disengagement. Some of the old tele and AT bindings are a bear.

    Try working with body position. Keep the hips forward and high and weight over the ball of your foot. Body position on the uphills will make the difference. Want to see some good body position for skiing? Watch a video of a nordic world cup racer on skate or classic skis. Or try searching for “optimal body position in nordic skiing”. Granted nordic racers don’t use climbing bars, but their body position and weight distribution is key to kicking that skinny little ski with a very sensitive wax pocket. I think climbing bars on back country equipment can make it easier to maintain that optimal body position.

    1. Hi Bill!

      I’ve also heard good things about the Nano Air, but frankly, I’d think of that as more of a puffy jacket to put on when stopped. For days when precip is going to be light or none, I wear an Arcteryx Squamish hoodie (or Patagonia Houdini) over a mid-weight merino layer like the icebreaker atom hoodie. I’ll carry a nano-puff hoodie to throw on if we stop places, but otherwise I find that combo breathes enough for uphill but I don’t have to add layers to go down. If there’s precip in the forecast then I’m going to sub a two-layer softshell for the squamish. The most similar thing to what I have (an old patagonia number called the alpinist softshell) is the patagonia simple guide hoodie. It’s as light as you can go and still have something that will shed snow.

      As to climbing risers, I think we essentially agree. The mistake is going to risers too soon when a beginner is slipping. They always assume that they’re on the wrong setting, not that they need to work on technique. That said, speaking in terms of the typical dynafit risers (flat, middle, high) there’s almost no time when I think you need the high riser, provided that you have a flexible touring boot. With a modern walk mode (think alien, tlt6, F1 evo, etc) if you’re having to use the heel risers, you’re probably walking straight uphill at around 35-40 degrees. In a very few situations, this is useful to keep the skintrack in a safe place, but the other 98% of the time, you should fire whomever is making your skintrack, as lowering the angle will in fact be faster. I for one have perhaps twice used the high risers. Note also that skimo racing skis get away with having no high riser position, and that’s with skinny little mohair skins. Technique always wins– which is what you’re saying anyways.

      Thanks for your comments! Let me know if you want to talk layers further.

  3. Well Lou put’s up content 5 days a week, they can’t all be blinders, but I learnt from his list of 10 and I learnt from yours. No whinging in the backcountry could be a good one for the list.

    1. Thanks Jerry,
      It’s true, not as bad as day wreckers. Most folks like that have been on Fritschis since Dynafits first started migrating to the US. Still, I’ve used fritschis and they’re dinosaurs compared to tech bindings. They’re heavy, they break, and almost worse, the toe release screw slowly comes undone with time. For the price, you might as well get some basic tech bindings.

      Of course, you can crush on any gear if you’re a beast.

    2. Frame, I agree. No whining. If you don’t enjoy the rough bits, then maybe the ski lodge is for you.
      I admire Lou’s prolific publishing, though to be fair 90% of the content comes from his army of pundits.
      I prefer the quality over quantity approach, though I’m sure plenty of people think we need to keep working on our quality here 🙂

  4. Good suggestions, although I’ve skied with plenty of people who are capable of skiing at an expert level and putting in 8000′ days on their Fritschis – not sure they belong in the same category as Day Wreckers.

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