Granted, for many RVers that means escaping the cold and snow for warmer climes in the winter. But RVers who are big into skiing know there’s nothing quite like parking your RV at a place where you can make tracks in the powdery white stuff. Fresh powder is a skier’s delight, and there’s nothing like back-country skiing.
What is Back-Country Skiing?
Mention back-country skiing and most people think of cross-country skiing, which is also called Nordic skiing. Actually, back-country and cross-country skiing are both types of Nordic skiing, but there are some differences. Cross-country skis are long and narrow and best used when skiing on a track. Back-country skis are usually wider and shorter than cross-country skis, and they have metal edges for control on the descent. Because most cross-country skiers stick to relatively flat terrain, their skis don’t have edges.
In cross-country skiing, a skier propels forward by kicking and gliding on his or her skis. A back-country skier usually walks on his or her skis, though a mini kick-and-glide is possible on gentle ascents. (Back-country skiing is kind of like snowshoeing only on skis. You pretty much walk along and since the skis are wide, you hope to stay on top of the snow. Be aware, however, that when the snow is deep and powdery you have to work harder to move forward.) With both types of Nordic skiing, you are hooked into the ski bindings by the toe (several systems, such as three-pin, allow for this), with the heels free.
Back-country skiing allows for the ultimate ski. I think there is nothing better than making fresh tracks through virgin powder, enjoying the peace and solitude of a crisp winter day. When my husband and I ski, we often ski quietly, looking for animals such as snowshoe hares. And even if we don’t see any of the white beauties, we often see their tracks. Sometimes just knowing they were nearby is all that matters. In addition to looking for wildlife and enjoying grand scenes, back-country skiing is a great aerobic workout and a perfect sport for maintaining fitness.
The equipment you’ll need for back-country skiing is similar to that needed for any other type of skiing—boots, skis and poles.
Boots for back-country skiing run the gamut from slipper-like soft boots for track skiing to heavy leather or plastic boots for skiing the steeps of the back country. Our boots are a hybrid, made by Karhu, and best for what we like to do. Made of leather and plastic, our boots are lightweight enough for climbing up peaks, yet sturdy enough for the descents. A stiff boot provides total control over the direction and edging of the ski, which becomes more important as you ski the steeper stuff. In addition to being sturdy, back-country boots should be warm and comfortable.
Back-country skis come in many varieties. Some have full metal edges, some partial edges; some are stiff and some are soft. To make matters more confusing, some are waxless and some require waxing.
We have waxless skis, but when we first started skiing in the back country, Mike used waxed skis, so we’ve experienced the differences between the two types. When skiing on relatively flat terrain, waxless skis seem to be the best because we can kick and glide while the waxed skis just slip and slide. A lot depends on the snow conditions too. If the snow is “sticky” we can ski up a steeper grade than if the snow is slick.
Of course, if we climb something steep then we strap skins onto our skis. (Skins fit over the bottom of the skis and provide traction when going uphill. Once made of sealskin, today skins are made of long pieces of nylon, mohair or rubber.) When we get to the highest point of our climb, we remove our skins and zoom back down the hill.
Of course, you’ll need a good set of ski poles too. Buy ones that you’re comfortable holding, ones not too short and not too long. A sales representative at your local sporting goods store can help you choose a pole length, skis and boots.
Dressing for back-country skiing is relatively simple. You’ll want to dress in layers because as you climb you will warm up, a positive aspect of skiing in the back country. You’ll need a pack to carry extra clothes because when you get to where you’re going, you’ll want those extra clothes for the ski down.
Layers of breathable fabrics are extremely important, as sweaty skin will zap your body heat. Gaiters are necessary for keeping snow out of your boots. Finally, always carry an emergency first-aid kit, a Swiss army knife, and duct tape (for repairs and a million other things). Snow shovels and avalanche beacons should be used if skiing in avalanche-prone country. Once properly attired, and with the proper winter sports knowledge, you’ll be ready to head out into the snow.
Back-country skiing is relatively easy. Just drive to any snow-blessed trailhead or closed road, step into your skis and off you go. Just beware of avalanches and avoid areas prone to that kind of danger as much as possible. And no one should head into the back country without knowing how to read a topographic map, compass and altimeter.
Please note, snow conditions vary tremendously, and skiing in the wilds is nothing like skiing at a resort where the runs are groomed and the surface is consistent. It takes a long time to learn to ski in all snow conditions. We’ve been out in the back country for years now and we are still learning. But the learning is fun and we enjoy it all.
Fortunately, back-country skis can be used on the complete range of conditions including powder, stiff snows, wet snows, breakable crusts, and wind slab.
One thing everyone should know about back-country skiing is that there is almost always a way to get down. Of course you can ski, and if you can’t do that well you can always zigzag. If the going gets too steep and slippery, you can do what I’ve done on several occasions— keep your skins on for the descent.
Backcountry Huts and Yurts
One of the most enjoyable aspects of back-country skiing is the opportunity to explore beyond the road. But if you don’t care to camp out in the snow, there is another option. There are back country huts and yurts.
We have several hut and yurt systems in Colorado. Although we have yet to visit them all, we did spend three nights at the Grouse Creek Yurt near the South San Juan Wilderness. We also spent a couple of nights at a forest service cabin near Elwood Pass. We used a sled to haul in most of our gear, but carried large day packs with the clothing and essentials we were apt to need on the ski in. Although we didn’t need to carry a tent because we had a yurt and a cabin to sleep in, we did carry sleeping bags and other essentials, including food. Both shelters came stocked with firewood so we were plenty cozy inside, and outhouses made journeying out at night more tolerable.
So turn your RV toward snow. It’s time to ski.
Donna Ikenberry is a writer who lives in South Fork, Colorado.