Backcountry ski trails

Going back to a graphic I made on types of skis and skiing:

Graphic of ski types used with classic techniques, by terrain and trail type

The seemingly simple term ‘backcountry skiing’ encompasses some very different equipment:

  • Ordinary recreational (touring) skis, usable on the easiest of ungroomed trails;
  • General backcountry skis and boots (wider and heavier skis, posssibly with metal edges; heavier boots and backcountry-specific bindings);
  • ‘Shorty’ skis that are very wide and very short, more like an alternative to snowshoes with an opportunity for a bit of glide on downhills;
  • XCD/Telemark skis or Alpine touring equipment. Although these two are different from each other, the terrain of use is similar- generally steep ascents and wide trails or open slopes for the descent.

Going with some established organizations and skiers who know the trails could be the ticket for some, so the below includes some organizations to contact.

Typically, a person in the northeast who wants to do wilderness sports in a group will join the AMC or ADK. They have organized trips for cross-country, Telemark, Alpine skiing, and snowshoeing. Both have many members in the NYC area.

Easing into it

I’ve had fun on light touring skis in woods with gentle slopes. Backcountry and Telemark isn’t the main attraction for me, but touring on snow-covered logging roads is a simple thing to do with most equipment.

One relatively safe spot would be trying the smaller trails at Minnewaska State Park. Using Garnet Hill as a base for exploring the adjacent Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area seems reasonable as well. Light touring equipment might be OK for some of these trails depending on the snowpack, but the slightly wider skis and heavier-duty boots and bindings for general backcountry touring would be better.

For a luxe backcountry tour, Maine Huts and Trails offers single- or multi-day trips with some nice-looking accommodations. You can even get a guide.

If you need guiding or instruction, contact a store in the area you want to explore. They probably know guides or are guides. For example, if you like the Adirondacks, High Peaks Mountain Guides in Lake Placid was started by the owner of the High Peaks Cyclery store.

There are of course, many businesses that do guiding. A tried-and-true option is the Eastern Mountain Sports School. For skiing, that would be the one in North Conway NH. Also in the Whites, Bretton Woods has gotten into act with its own winter adventure sports school. And Great Glen trails says they have backcountry trails in addition to their groomed system, so that might be worth checking out.

For the Lake Tahoe area and exclusively serving the 51%, there’s a business by women for women with beginner backcountry skiing courses, called (no lie) Backcountry Babes.

Classic backcountry

Backcountry trails of the Adirondacks, Vermont, and New Hampshire can run the gamut from pretty easy to gnarly (especially when icy). If you have the bug for the more popular backcountry trails, here’s a few organizations to know about:

  • DHASH, in southern Vermont. Has its own events, which I linked to in this post;
  • The Catamount Trail runs the length of Vermont. Catamount Trail Association (CTA) has guided tours and is the parent for volunteer-based trail maintenance organizations like DHASH and RASTA. See the CTA website ‘Programs’ menu.
  • The Adirondacks is a huge area with lots of trails. Barkeater Trails Alliance (BETA) might be a way to explore them in a group. BETA is also the home for information about the Jackrabbit ski trail.
  • The Granite Backcountry Alliance is New Hampshire’s very recent addition to organizing the promotion of backcountry skiing in the Granite state. More typical of their ‘Live Free or Die’ license plate motto is this bare-bones page at Hikethewhites.com

For a preview without leaving the armchair, the AMC has an article describing a few classic backcountry ski routes

Leave the Yahoo at home

‘Pack it in, pack it out’ is the mantra for hikers. But in winter, even the sound and scent of humans passing through can impose a burden on woodland inhabitants. Wildlife biologists have found that many animal species are spooked by strangers, even (or especially?) skiers. The intrusion causes animals to avoid the area for some time after, which means less ground for hunting or foraging. This can impact their chances of survival through the winter.

In addition to being polite to other winter traffic like snowmobiles, snowshoers, etc., it helps to be mindful that the woods and glades are someone’s living room. And those trails didn’t just appear by themselves- they are often the outcome of lots of volunteer effort in the warmer and drier parts of the year.

The uphill skiing thing

For people who are taken by Telemark/XCD or Alpine touring, getting some practice using skins and downhilling in a groomed situation is useful, just like bouldering or gym walls are for big wall climbing. A practice foray could be done at Prospect Mountain. You can XC ski or skin up to to the top of the old downhill ski runs and Tele down.

The uphill skiing policies of downhill ski areas will vary or may alter over time, so please check seasonally (and probably double-check). That said, here’s a couple of links to get you started:

  • No Lift Needed is a backcountry skiing group in NH. Their list summarizes and links to area policies. It may be the most comprehensive, and if price is an indicator, more up-to-date than the others below (at least as of early 2020).
  • A worldwide list of links to Resort Uphill Policies with Google map by the United States Ski Mountaineering Association. Nice to have a map view. Not as comprehensive as the other two, but clicking on a ski area may show details that seem informed by experience.
  • Probably from sometime in 2016, a compilation of North American Ski Resorts Uphill Travel Policies

For more on this form of backcountry (that I would still describe as Alpine touring despite not taking place in the Alps) see Wildsnow.

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