Questions around getting started in the backcountry always pop up in forums from people looking to get out of the resorts. This post hopefully answers a few of the key questions and will help keep everyone safe and happy beyond the resort boundary. Feel free to comment if you have additional info you think this type of guide should include.
Make sure you like going uphill
There’s a big difference between catching a lift up and dropping some fun side-country lines and actually skinning up the same slope. To put it in perspective, while the Kosciuszko chairlift at Thredbo up to Eagles Nest takes about 15 minutes to ascend 560m of vertical, it would take you 2-3hrs to skin up the same height depending on your fitness. In a full day of ski touring you’re likely to skin 4-6hrs for 3 or 4 runs down, so enjoying the uphill for its own sake is pretty critical!
Before investing in a couple of thousand dollars of backcountry gear, go on a guided day tour with a reputable provider like:
- Snow Safety Australia
- Alpine Access Australia
- Snowy Mountains Backcountry
- Thredbo Backcountry Adventures
- Hotham Backcountry Tours
- Falls Creek Backcountry Tours with Steve Lee
Once you know this is something you really want to do, make sure you have the knowledge and skills to start safe and stay alive.
At a bare minimum, this should include an AST1 avalanche safety training course (Provided by Snow Safety and Alpine Access throughout each Australian winter, or equivalent courses overseas). While anyone can go and buy an avalanche rescue kit, the AST courses focus on avoiding triggering an avalanche in the first place and then knowing how to use the rescue gear in an emergency. Many people will simply refuse to go ski touring with someone who hasn’t done an AST course, as you’re relying on all members of a group to know what to do in an emergency.
Beyond avalanche safety, a lot of different types of accidents can easily happen in the backcountry ranging from minor cuts to life-threatening medical emergencies. Having taken a recent First Aid course, preferably focusing on remote area incidents, is essential for all members of your group to do before setting out. Keep in mind that if you’re injured, help is likely to be a very long way away, so your friends will need to keep you alive in the meantime. This post goes into a lot more detail on considerations for trip planning and first aid scenarios.
You’ll also need to be very confident navigating complex terrain in difficult weather conditions, like no visibility in a blizzard! Some backcountry courses will include this, but at a bare minimum you should know how to use a paper map and manual compass for when your fancy electronic gear inevitably fails.
Get the gear
Unless you’ve got very deep pockets, you’ll build up backcountry-specific gear over time. Many people start with a cross-over setup that can be used in the resort as well as backcountry, and then augment this with lighter and more specific alpine gear as they spend more time ski touring.
This post provides an overview of all the type of gear you’ll need for ski touring and snow camping. Keep in mind that even on a day trip you’ll need adequate gear and food for an emergency overnight stay if someone gets injured.
On all trips, take a Poop Tube so your poo doesn’t end up melting into pristine alpine streams and giving everyone downstream Giardia! This is a major issue as the volume of people and associated waste in the backcountry increases, so please don’t be part of the problem.
Start small, stay modest
Once you’re confident to start doing trips with your own group (Solo backcountry missions can quickly end very badly), start close to a resort with modest objectives so you can always bail out if things go wrong. As your confidence and skills grow, extend your range, but keep the modesty – there’ll always be someone with more experience to learn from.