Ski touring

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Free heels are a defining characteristic of Ski touring

Ski touring is a form of backcountry skiing where both uphill and downhill travel are possible without needing to remove skis.[1] Typically touring is done off-piste and outside of ski resorts, and may extend over a period of more than one day.

Ski touring cuts across both Nordic and Alpine forms and embraces such sub-disciplines as Telemark and randonnée. A defining characteristic is the skiers' heel being free to allow a natural gliding motion while traversing and ascending terrain which may range from perfectly flat to extremely steep.

Ski touring has been adopted by skiers seeking new snow, by alpinists, and by those wishing to avoid the high costs of traditional alpine skiing at resorts.[2] Touring requires independent navigation skills and may involve route finding through potential avalanche terrain.

Ski touring has parallels with hiking and wilderness backpacking. Ski mountaineering is a form of ski touring which variously combines the sports of Telemark, Alpine, and backcountry skiing with that of mountaineering.


The history of ski touring is unwritten. Among the sport's pioneers are:

  • John "Snowshoe" Thompson, perhaps the earliest modern ski mountaineer, a prolific traveler who used skis to deliver the mail at least twice a month up and over the steep eastern scarp of the Sierra Nevada to remote California mining camps and settlements. His deliveries began in 1855 and continued for at least 20 years. Thompson's route of 90 miles (140 km) took 3 days in and 48 hours back out with a pack that eventually exceeded 100 pounds of mail.
  • Cecil Slingsby, one of the earliest European practitioners, who crossed the 1,550 m (5,090 ft) high Keiser Pass, Norway, on skis in 1880.
  • Adolfo Kind
  • Arnold Lunn
  • Ottorino Mezzalama
  • Patrick Vallençant
  • Kilian Jornet Burgada


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.

Descending is exactly like alpine skiing: sliding down the hill on skis. When the ski tourer is ready to go uphill, climbing aids are used to prevent slipping backward.

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 potential avalanche terrain is important for safety as well. Thus physical fitness is a crucial element of safe mountain travel.


Alpine touring ski boot, binding, and ski crampon

Styles of equipment[edit]

  • 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. 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.
  • Backcountry Nordic: heavier than a traditional Nordic setup, but not as big and heavy as a full Telemark setup.
  • Telemark: at the heavier end of the Nordic skiing equipment spectrum, for steep backcountry terrain or ski-area use.
  • Alpine Touring (AT) or randonnée equipment is specifically designed for ski touring in steep terrain. A special alpine touring binding, otherwise very similar to a downhill binding, allows the heel to be raised for ease in ascending but locked down for full support when skiing downhill
  • 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.

Ascending aids[edit]

  • "Fish scale" pattern friction aids embossed in the center section of the bottom of skis, or sticky ski wax in this center pocket are used in lower angle or rolling terrain.
  • Climbing skins are used when fish scales or ski wax fail to provide sufficient grip for skiing steeply uphill.
  • Ski crampons (also called Harscheisen (German), couteau (French), or rampant (Italian) may be attached when conditions are particularly icy or the grade too steep for skins.

Ski Touring Regions[edit]

Skiers in western Norway
Spring ski touring on Hardangervidda, Norway

Ski touring can take place anywhere that has suitable snow and terrain, and reasonable means of access to the trailhead, i.e. plowed road, snowcat or aircraft. Some examples include

See also[edit]


  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. ASIN 1491888083. ISBN 978-1491888087. 
  2. ^ Volken, Martin; Schnell, Scott; Wheeler, Margaret (2007). Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering. Mountaineers Books. p. 12. ASIN 1594850380. ISBN 978-1594850387. 
  3. ^ "Ski Touring". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  4. ^ "Ski Touring in Rogers Pass and The Winter Permit System". Parks Canada. Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  5. ^ "The Wapta Traverse". Yamnuska. Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  6. ^ "Backcountry Skiing". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  7. ^ "Backcountry Huts". Ski Golden. Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  8. ^ "Kananaskis Country". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  9. ^ "Backcountry Ski Huts". Parks Canada. Retrieved 8 February 2015. 
  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. ^ "Ski Touring New Zealand". Retrieved 28 September 2015. 

External links[edit]