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Backcountry skiing, also called off-piste skiing, is skiing in the backcountry on ungroomed and unmarked slopes or pistes, including skiing in unmarked or unpatrolled areas either inside or outside of a ski resort's boundaries, sometimes in the woods. Unlike groomed cross-country and alpine skiing, the land and the snow pack are not monitored, patrolled, or maintained.
The terms backcountry and off-piste refer to where the skiing is being done, while terms like ski touring, ski mountaineering, telemark, and extreme skiing describe what type of skiing is being done. Terms for backcountry skiing exist according to how the terrain is accessed, and how close it is to services. Backcountry can include the following:
- Frontcountry: off-trail within ski area boundaries where ski lifts and emergency services are close at hand.
- Slackcountry: terrain outside of the ski area boundary that is accessed from a lift without having to use skins or bootpack. Usually this also includes area with access back to the lift as well. For purists, this could also include where people use a car as a shuttle.
- Sidecountry: terrain outside marked ski area boundaries yet accessible via ski lift. Typically sidecountry requires the skier to hike, skin, or climb within ski area boundaries to reach or return from the sidecountry area, or both.
- Backcountry: skiing in remote areas not within ski area boundaries. Ski patrol, marked ski runs, grooming, snowmaking, and ski lifts are absent.
In Europe and Canada off-piste skiing is generally permitted at ski resorts. In the United States off-piste skiing may or may not be; regulations vary by ski area. Many ski resorts prohibit it outright and some simply post warning signs that skiers are leaving the patrolled ski area boundaries.
Backcountry skiing is a very dangerous and dynamic sport, and proper safety precautions should never be taken lightly. On average, over the past 10 years in the US, there has been 25 deaths directly related to avalanches while backcountry skiing. Although there is a lot of great safety equipment out there today to help minimize the chances of being another statistic, the #1 issue with backcountry safety is the lack of education. A $300 avalanche lesson could save your life one day.
- Volken, Martin; Schell, Scott; Wheeler, Margaret (11/27/2007). Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering. Mountaineers Books. ISBN 978-1-59485-038-7.
- "Definition of Backcountry, Frontcountry, Sidecountry and Slackcountry Skiing".