Ski touring

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Free heels are a defining characteristic of Ski touring

Ski touring is an activity where someone skis uphill and then skis down again without needing to remove the skis.[1] Typically touring is done off-piste and outside of ski resorts. Tours can often extend over a period of more than one day. Typically, skis, bindings, and boots allow for free movement of the heel to enable a walking pace, as in Nordic, and unlike in Alpine skiing.

Ski touring and its sub-genre ski mountaineering have grown in popularity as a way to spend time outdoors. It has been adopted by skiers looking for new snow, by alpinists, and by those seeking to avoid the high costs of traditional alpine skiing at resorts.[2]

Touring involves independently navigating and route finding through potential avalanche terrain, and often requires familiarity with meteorology along with skiing skills. Ski touring can also be faster and easier than summer hiking in some terrain allowing for traverses and ascents that would be harder in the summer. Skis can also be used to access backcountry alpine climbing routes when snow is off the technical route, but still covers the hiking trail.


As the slope angles increase, the climbing ski-tourer will make switchbacks, using 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.

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.


Original Seal Skins for Ski touring, c.1950s

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.

Avalanche rescue equipment including radio transceiver, probe and shovel should be carried, and the ability to use them quickly and efficiently is required.

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.

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.

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 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[edit]

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[edit]

There's also a mid-range solution for ski touring, where the goal is to hike on skis through the woods and over the hills, sometimes with an emphasis on "touring for turns." The backcountry Nordic ski setup will be somewhat heavier than a traditional Nordic setup, but not as big and heavy as a full Telemark setup. The Nordic backcountry 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. Most Nordic backcountry skis will have waxless "fish scale" bases for striding and climbing, while others can be used with kick wax. Backcountry Nordic bindings designed for backcountry skiing are wider and more stout of construction than in the lighter Nordic setup, 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 make quick stops, 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,[3] 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)[edit]

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. Many AT style boots, or boots designed to crossover between alpine and AT skiing often are designed with a 'walk mode' which releases the cuff from the boot lower to allow rearward flex of the ankle for hiking or skinning but lock down to provide a stiff ankle on downhill sections. 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, without a walk mode—are less than comfortable for hiking approaches over bare ground, so most skiers will carry their ski boots and use a lightweight hiking or trail-running shoe when approaches are dry.

Alpine Modified[edit]

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 variant of backcountry skiing where the snowboarder either uses snowshoes, stubby skis, or a splitboard (a snowboard which splits lengthwise to be used like skis) to ascend.

Ski Touring Regions[edit]

Nordic Countries[edit]


Activities center on the Troll Peninsula in northern Iceland.[4]


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.

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 National 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 3600 metres (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.

Popular ski-touring areas[edit]

Name Country Comments
St. Moritz   Switzerland
Chamonix  France
La Grave  France
Zermatt   Switzerland
Davos/Klosters   Switzerland
Haute Route
Alps  Italy
Dolomites  Italy
Campo Imperatore  Italy
Gran Sasso  Italy
Hochkönig  Austria
Zakopane  Poland
High Tatras  Slovakia


Many of peaks or passes to climb from November or December to June. Wonderful place for (Alpine!) ski touring.



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. 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[edit]

Name State Comment / Reference
The "East Side"  California California's High Sierra
Big Cottonwood Canyon and
Little Cottonwood Canyon
 Utah Salt Lake City
Teton Pass  Wyoming Jackson Hole[10]
Tuckerman Ravine  New Hampshire Mount Washington
Loveland Pass  Colorado [11]
Berthoud Pass  Colorado [12]
Paradise - Camp Muir  Washington South side of Mount Rainier


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[edit]

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

New Zealand[edit]

Ski touring in New Zealand[13] is possible all year round with Summer touring possible on the vast high glaciated terrain of the Southern Alps. In the Winter and Spring ski touring is possible over much of the high country in the South Island from the Kaikoura Ranges in the North of the South Island to Fiordland in the South. In the North Island, ski touring is possible in on the volcanic peaks of Ruapehu, Tongariro, Ngarauhoe and Taranaki.

Due to the remoteness and inaccessibility of many of the higher and appealing peaks in New Zealand ski touring is often a multi-day enterprise undertaken as part of a larger expedition-style trip. Long approaches in deep snow-free valleys can easily be a part of an ambitious ski touring trip.

Conversely, many of New Zealand's designated ski areas are what might be called `back-country access' operations. For example in the Arthur's Pass region several ski areas known as club skifields provide users with access to un-maintained, un-groomed `backcountry' slopes using low volume rope based lift systems. Many skiers use the club field as a base for day tours in neighboring bowls and peaks.

Poular ski touring areas[edit]


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.


  1. ^ A Complete Guide to Alpine Ski Touring Ski Mountaineering and Nordic Ski Touring Including Useful Information for Off Piste Skiers and Snow Boarders.. Authorhouse. 2014. p. xvii. ISBN 978-1491888087. Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  2. ^ Volken, Martin; Schnell, Scott; Wheeler, Margaret (2007). Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering. Mountaineers Books. p. 12. ISBN 978-1594850387. Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Ski Touring". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  5. ^ "Ski Touring in Rogers Pass and The Winter Permit System". Parks Canada. Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  6. ^ "The Wapta Traverse". Yamnuska. Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  7. ^ "Backcountry Skiing". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  8. ^ "Backcountry Huts". Ski Golden. Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  9. ^ "Kananaskis Country". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  10. ^ "Online guide to backcountry skiing on Teton Pass". Retrieved 2010-04-09. 
  11. ^ "Online guide to backcountry skiing on Loveland Pass". Retrieved 2010-04-09. 
  12. ^ "Online guide to backcountry skiing on Berthoud Pass". Retrieved 2010-04-09. 
  13. ^

External links[edit]

See also[edit]