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Watch as Dustin Dyer swipes his pole along the base of a small knoll beside our track. Before he finishes the motion, a thick layer of snow deposited by the ongoing storm slides down to harmlessly cover his snowboard boots. But that mini-avalanche is a sign of possible danger to come. It’s February, and Dyer, co-owner of Kent Mountain Adventure Center, a ski and rock climbing guide service and education outfit based in Estes Park, is taking me on a tour of Rocky Mountain National Park. He has chosen this small rise for his snow check for a reason: It has nearly the same steepness and faces the same direction as Dream Shots, the steep chutes we’re planning to ski back down to iced-over Dream Lake. That small slide is an indicator that, if we ski that line, there’s a chance we could trigger an avalanche that wouldn’t be described as mini.
“I don’t know where you’re at,” Dyer says, “but after seeing that, I’d rather not take the risk.” Me neither. We’d just glimpsed what’s known as a storm slab, where a layer of fresh snow hasn’t had time to bond with the existing layers below it, making it ripe for an avalanche. Instead, we ski the route we just hoofed up because that terrain is too shallow to slide.
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Despite not schussing our intended run—in fact, because we didn’t ski it—this was a textbook backcountry day. There are few other sports that require such a high level of risk assessment, decision-making, and willingness to turn back as ski touring. But despite this barrier to entry, backcountry skiing is an activity that, according to market research firm the NPD Group, has been exploding in popularity since the pandemic temporarily shut down ski resorts and sent us all in search of socially distant ways to get our winter fixes. Although gear sales have cooled somewhat since that first pandemic winter, Dyer doesn’t see the sport’s growth slowing significantly any time soon. “As ski quality continues to go down at the resorts,” he says, “I think more and more people are going to realize they can come out here and ski pretty consistently amazing conditions.”
There’s more to it than good snow, though. Skinning, so called for the removable fabric strips that stick to the bottoms of your planks and grip the snow so you can ski uphill (and don’t slide downhill), is by far the most efficient form of human-powered winter transportation. It opens up the snow-covered expanse that is the Colorado high country for half of the year in a way plodding snowshoes never could. And trust me: Traversing a flat, frozen lake surrounded by a cirque of blue-gray mountains is as much a part of the experience as skiing steep powder.
But moving from the resort to the backcountry requires more than just a pair of skins. It takes knowledge and experience, two things no magazine article alone can give you. Instead, if you’re already a strong inbounds skier or boarder, the following sections will serve as your road map to the skills, classes, places, and gear you’ll need to safely skip the lift lines.
The first stop of your backcountry trip shouldn’t be the trailhead—it should be the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s (CAIC) website or app, where you’ll find daily avalanche forecasts for 10 mountain regions across the Centennial State. “Forecasts aren’t the be-all, end-all of backcountry decision-making,” says Mike Cooperstein, a lead forecaster with the organization. “They’re a tool, and if you don’t know how to use the tool, it doesn’t help that much.” With that in mind, we had Cooperstein break down the different elements of a CAIC forecast.
The first thing you’ll see once you click on a specific region is the area’s predicted avalanche danger broken down into three elevation bands: below treeline, near treeline, and above treeline. There are five danger levels, from low to extreme, and each level is exponentially more dangerous than its predecessor.
Located below the mountain graphic, this one- to two-paragraph overview of the day’s conditions details in plain English which types of terrain forecasters think could slide and which should offer safer conditions.
There are nine kinds of avalanches, which are distinguished by how they form and what triggers them. If CAIC thinks a particular type is possible, its forecast will include an avalanche “problem,” which uses four graphics to outline where on the mountain you’d potentially find that avalanche type, plus its likelihood and possible size. Depending on conditions, expect up to three problems, with the most dangerous listed first.
Think of this octagonal chart as a mountain viewed from above, with each ring representing a different elevation band. If the two outermost sections to the top right are shaded, for example, expect to find this problem’s avalanche type on northeast-facing slopes near and below treeline.
This scale projects the chance that you could trigger this avalanche type—or that it will happen naturally.
Knowing the nine types of avalanches—something you’ll learn in a level-one class—will help you choose safer routes and know what warning signs to look for.
The size of an avalanche is rated by its potential for destruction: Small avalanches are unlikely to bury you (but can still be disastrous if they, say, sweep you off a cliff); large avalanches can engulf you; very large slides can destroy a house; and historic breaks are about as big as the slope can ever produce.
Tools Of The Trade
A dedicated backcountry setup may be expensive, but it’s worth the investment if you’re serious about heading off-piste. Here’s what you’ll need—plus Colorado-made gear for your shopping cart.
1. Adjustable Poles
While not a necessity, being able to change the length of your poles—longer for more leverage, shorter for more maneuverability—is useful. Larger baskets also stop your poles from plunging into the snow and throwing you off balance.
Cart: Scepter Poles, Backcountry Access; $90
These snowboards break in half lengthwise so boarders can use them like a pair of skis while skinning and snap them back together for the descent.
Cart: Backwoods splitboard, Weston Backcountry; $949
3. Alpine Touring Boots
Lightweight and designed to click into tech bindings, alpine touring (AT) boots’ best feature is walk mode, which allows your ankles to rotate when you’re going uphill, increasing comfort and range of motion while also minimizing blisters.
Cart: F1 AT boots, Scarpa; $749
4. Beacon, Probe, and Shovel
The beacon helps you find the general location of your touring partners if they’re buried in an avalanche (and vice versa); the probe is for prodding deep into the snow to find their exact locations and depths; and the shovel is for, well, shoveling them out.
Cart: Diract Voice rescue set, Ortovox; $510
5. Touring Skis
Just like resort skis, backcountry planks come in a variety of shapes—skinny for carving hard snow, wider for powder day floating—but the one thing they share is a lighter construction than their inbounds siblings so the climbs won’t exhaust you (as much). A width of around 100 millimeters usually makes for a good all-arounder.
Cart: Natural 101 skis, Icelantic; from $879
6. Tech Bindings
Instead of a traditional toe piece, most tech bindings use a pair of pins to clamp the front of your boot in place while allowing the heel to pivot up and down. When it’s time to descend, lock your heel down, switch your boots into ski mode, and send it.
Cart: Speed Turn Binding, Dynafit; $350
Named for the seal skins they were traditionally made from, these fabric cutouts have directional fibers that lie flat when you slide your ski forward, then splay out and lock into the snow, preventing backslide.
Cart: Climbing skins, Backcountry Access; $230
Don’t make the mistake of heading straight from the resort to a level-one recreational avalanche safety class (see “Get Schooled,” below) without skiing on your backcountry gear first, says Madeline Bachner Lane, chief education officer at the Colorado Mountain Club (CMC), a Golden-based education and adventure organization. It’s difficult to absorb everything you need to know to stay safe if you’re struggling with unfamiliar equipment. Mastering these five skills before you plunk down your tuition will ensure you’re ready to learn.
Know Your Bindings
Clicking in and out of AT skis is a different process than with traditional bindings, and it can be tricky on steep slopes and in deep snow—you know, the most fun places to ski—so make sure to test it out on gentle inclines first.
Perfect Your Glide
Sliding your skis along the surface of the snow (instead of picking them up as you would snowshoeing) saves energy, allowing you to go farther faster. The slide should feel like running your hand over a smooth bedsheet, says John Morrone, the director of CMC’s ski mountaineering school.
Practice Your Transitions
Being able to swiftly pack and unpack your skins; switch your boots and bindings between uphill and ski modes; don and doff a helmet and goggles; and dig through your bag for snacks, an extra layer of clothing, or whatever else you need will win you kudos for not holding up the group. It will also help you get off the mountain quickly should foul weather roll in or avalanche conditions change.
Be Proficient With Your Safety Equipment
Rehearse switching your beacon into search mode, deploying your collapsible probe, and assembling your shovel so you won’t fumble with your gear in an emergency.
Hone Your Packing Technique
How you stow your gear is as important as knowing how to use it. Your probe and shovel, for example, should typically be stored inside your pack, not externally in unzippered pockets or with straps, lest you crash and lose them in the commotion. But smart packing isn’t just about your safety gear. You’ll pick up lots of personal preferences the more you ski, such as where to store your water bottle to keep it from freezing and where to place your shell for easy access.
You can polish your basic skills on pretty much any low-angled, snow-covered hill, including at a resort. Or you could sign up for one of these classes designed to get you ready for your level-one avy course.
Backcountry 1: Intro to Backcountry
Bluebird Backcountry, Kremmling; $80
Backcountry Ski School And Splitboarding School
Kent Mountain Adventure Center, Estes Park; from $399
Intro to Backcountry Ski and Splitboarding School
Colorado Mountain Club, Golden; $165 or $95 for members
Intro to Backcountry Skiing and Splitboarding
Colorado Mountain School, Longmont; $279
Founded in 2018, Bluebird Backcountry is the world’s first (and so far, only) liftless ski resort. We toured its Bear Mountain slopes with co-founder Jeff Woodward and asked him how it fits into Colorado’s backcounty skiing ecosystem.
5280: Where’d you come up with the idea for a backcountry resort?
Woodward: In 2016, I took my little brother backcountry skiing for the first time as a Christmas present. That got me thinking about how there weren’t any really good ways to learn the sport. You either bought $1,500 worth of gear and spent money on an avalanche course and then decided if you liked it, or you skied Loveland Pass and just hoped everything went OK.
Besides the gear and classes, backcountry skiing is free. Did you ever worry no one would pay for the experience?
Early on, we put out a survey that was just, “Hey, would people want this?” The response blew us away. We expected 300 responses, and we got 2,000. The price people said they were willing to pay was twice what we thought it would be. That showed us that there was a real need for this.
How did you find Bear Mountain?
We had volunteers looking at U.S. Forest Service permits, at partnerships with existing mountains, and at private land, and one of them was like, “My dad’s cousin manages this ranch.” The owners liked the idea because it would help the economic development of Kremmling and provide another source of revenue for the ranch.
Who’s your average skier?
There’s a set of people who come here for education, but a lot of our skiers just want less risk and more comfort. [Bluebird uses avalanche mitigation techniques comparable to lift-served resorts.] Some of them want a safer place to ski alone, and we see spikes in attendance on days when the region sees higher avalanche danger.
Now that you’ve had a few successful seasons, what’s next?
I would like Bluebird to be a mecca for the sport. There aren’t many places that have the dedicated backcountry skiing infrastructure we do. To help us be that, this season we’ll have overnight cabins and geodesic domes that guests can access on their skis.
Pumped Up Kicks
The kick turn—which allows you to make sharp switchbacks as you ascend steep terrain—is as deceptively simple as it is essential. Kahle Toothill, co-director of CMC’s Intro to Backcountry Ski and Splitboarding School, walks us through it.
1. Stop slightly uphill of where you want to turn, with both skis facing your current direction of travel. If you need to, make a few good stomps to compact and even out the snow.
2. Place all your weight on your outside ski, then lift your inside ski and pivot it 90 degrees (or more if you’re flexible) so it’s pointing in the direction you want to turn. Place it on the snow so that your skis don’t overlap at the back. Stomp the inside ski a few times to gain traction.
3. Pivot your upper body so that your shoulders are facing your new direction. Plant your inside pole in the snow so the shaft rests against the downhill side of your inside ski, at your boot, so it will catch your ski if it slips. Plant your other pole uphill.
4. Shift all your weight to the inside ski. Lift your outside boot behind the heel of your inside foot, bending at the knee so the boot toe is pointed down. Then, flick off any excess snow to help the ski tip float up and out of the way, rotate it inside your uphill pole, and place the ski beside its mate. Staying upright and not hunched over will help you avoid slippage. Continue touring.
Playing The Angles
How to recognize avalanche terrain.
To slide, snow needs a steep slope, typically around 30 degrees or more. But beware: You can still be in avalanche terrain if there are steep slopes above you. GPS apps such as Fatmap, OnX Backcountry, and Gaia GPS will mark slopes that are inclined enough to produce avalanches, but it’s essential to confirm slope angles in the field. Your iPhone’s Measure app includes a level, and both iOS and Android can access the Avalanche Inclinometer app for $4.
There are dozens of level-one avy course providers in the state. This primer will help you pick the right one.
All level-one recreational classes are certified by American Avalanche Association, which sets course guidelines. Over at least 24 hours of course time, usually divided into one day in the classroom and two in the field, you’ll learn the different avalanche types plus how to identify avalanche terrain, plan a trip, test the snowpack, perform a companion rescue, and implement risk management strategies.
American Institution for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE)
AIARE, the world’s largest avalanche-safety educator, licenses its program to more than 100 providers around the world. The Centennial State is home to 34 of them, including Bluebird Backcountry and the Colorado Mountain Club. The curriculum is based on AIARE’s risk management framework, a decision-making process that encourages skiers to learn from their experiences.
Silverton Avalanche School
In Colorado, the largest non-AIARE educator is Silverton Avalanche School. Founded in 1962, it’s the nation’s oldest avalanche program, and since 2020, it’s been carefully expanding its offerings outside its namesake town, with courses in Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and partnerships with Estes Park’s Kent Mountain Adventure Center and others.
Location and Timing
Courses sell out fast, so it can be smart to sign up for the first opening you see. However, selecting a class that takes place in the area and during the part of the season you plan to ski most is a good way to quickly gain experience with your home terrain.
Out of Bounds
It’s rare to find somewhere worth skiing in the backcountry that’s completely free of avalanche danger. Even if you’re on a slope that’s less than 30 degrees, you often have to travel through, under, or near slopes steep enough to slide to get there. Still, there are plenty of lower-risk zones. We spoke with Dustin Dyer, whose Kent Mountain Adventure Center specializes in guiding new backcountry skiers, about where to find exactly that.
1. Caribou Hill
This low-angled spot just six miles west of Nederland on Caribou Road is so safe that Dyer describes it as a party where you’ll find kids, dogs, and risk-averse skiers who want to dip their toes into the sport. Just don’t accidentally head up Bald Mountain, which shares the trailhead.
2. Berthoud Pass
“A lot of times, when other parts of the Front Range get a few inches of snow, Berthoud gets a foot,” Dyer says. That, plus a quick, one-hour drive from Denver makes this the most popular zone on Dyer’s list. There are plenty of mellow runs, especially on the west side of the pass, where an old ski resort once stood, but don’t let the ease of access fool you. Avalanches can—and do—happen in the steeper terrain.
3. Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area
To avoid the snowmobilers who flock to this National Forest fee area ($10 for a day pass; $65 for a season pass), Dyer suggests heading to the slopes below Uneva Peak in the nonmotorized section east of I-70. There, you’ll find a lightly treed bowl known as 100 Turns of Fun due east of the Black Lakes Picnic Site.
4. Geneva Basin
This abandoned ski area, located north of the tiny village of Grant along U.S. 285, has the same advantages as Hidden Valley (see number 6)—straightforward runs and a lower risk of slides—but with far fewer people. You’ve gotta earn it, though: Geneva Pass Road closes in winter, so you’ll have to skin about four miles from the winter gate to reach the onetime resort’s terrain.
5. Montgomery Bowl
Not to be confused with nearby North Montgomery Bowl, which is steeper, this east-facing cirque halfway between Fort Collins and Walden on CO 14 is right at treeline but lacks the sheer, avalanche-prone overhead slopes common to many of its rivals. “It’s not a green light all the time,” Dyer says, but if you’ve taken a level-one course, managing the risks should be well within your skill set.
6. Hidden Valley
While you’ll find some pockets of potential avalanche terrain at this famous abandoned resort in Rocky Mountain National Park, they’re easy to identify, Dyer says. And unlike many other backcountry zones, navigation is painless because all the former runs are still there.
Gunnison-based Beacon Guidebooks publishes Light Tours of Colorado, a booklet ($30) that’s filled with mellow routes. Powder Project’s free website and app both feature route descriptions, slope angles, and difficulty ratings for backcountry lines around the country.
A constant refrain among avalanche educators is that too many skiers and boarders treat their level-one certifications like 16-year-olds treat their driver’s licenses. Instead, the certification is just the start of your backcountry education. It’s up to you to learn the best way to use the skills the class gives you—and to keep them sharp.
You’re Certified, But Now You Should…Read the CAIC forecast even when you don’t plan to ski.
Because…It will give you a deeper understanding of what’s going on in the snow when you do plan to head into the backcountry.
Plus, the experts say…“You want to know what’s happened the last couple of days, what happened last week, and what happened back in November.” —Madeline Bachner Lane, Colorado Mountain Club
You’re Certified, But Now You Should…Find a mentor.
Because… One of the easiest ways to gain experience is to tap into the experience of others.
Plus, the experts say… “A lot of CMC members have been doing this for a long time and have a lot to share.” —Bachner Lane
You’re Certified, But Now You Should…Take another class.
Because… Level-two recreational courses go deeper into snow and avalanche science; companion rescue classes help you perfect your beacon, probe, and shovel skills; and several outfits offer guided ski trips with an educational focus, such as Bluebird Backcountry’s Ski with a Mentor program ($35) and Kent Mountain Adventure Center’s EduTours ($175).
Plus, the experts say… “The goal of our EduTours is to let you pepper us with questions but still find great snow to ski.” —Dustin Dyer, Kent Mountain Adventure Center
You’re Certified, But Now You Should…Practice on your own.
Because… There are plenty of free beacon training parks scattered across the state, including in Rocky Mountain National Park, Breckenridge, Winter Park, and Minturn, where buried avalanche transceivers allow you to role-play different burial scenarios.
Plus, the experts say… “Once you know some other folks who backcountry ski, you can DIY your own park by putting a beacon in a pack, hiding it in the snow, and searching for it.” —Bachner Lane
Finding the right touring partner can be as difficult as finding true love, so we asked CMC’s Madeline Bachner Lane and Kahle Toothill about what to look for in a match.
1. Someone who keeps training after taking a level-one class is rarer than you might think. “A lot of people don’t do that,” Bachner Lane says. “They tend to think it’s nerdy and just want to go ski.”
2. “Gauging your risk aversion and your partner’s is really important,” Bachner Lane says. “Are you kind of puttering around on lower-angle stuff, or are you excited to get into steep terrain? Finding folks who match that is crucial so that you are pushing each other at the right pace.”
3. Just like in dating, great partners tell you how they’re feeling (Are they tired? Is something making them think an area is unsafe?), and they listen when you do the same. “Avoid the opposite of that: people who are only concerned about getting to the peak or looking a certain way,” Bachner Lane says.
4. It can’t hurt to have a guiding principle. “I use ‘two beers and a puppy’ for picking partners,” Toothill says. “Are they fun enough to have not just one but two beers with, and are they responsible enough to watch your puppy for a weekend?”
5. Having the same level of fitness is valuable. Not only is having trouble keeping up on the skin track a bummer, but it can also be dangerous: If you’re sucking air and something happens, you’ll be in no position to help your mates.
6. Finding a partner with a flexible schedule is key, because backcountry skiers are at the whims of the weather. “You’ve got to look at the avalanche forecast and understand: Should we go out today and where should we go?” Bachner Lane says.
Our experts’ advice on where to find a new ski partner.
“The backcountry can be an intimidating place, but if you surround yourself with others who are on the same page…that creates a welcoming and nonintimidating environment. My core group of ski partners has all been found through CMC schools and trips.” —Toothill
“Preseason ski events are a great way to meet people. Lots of gear shops and local breweries host ski film screenings and pray-for-snow parties.” —Dyer
“Avalanche courses are going to put you with people doing the exact same thing you are. Apart from that, my luck on chairlifts is worse than dating, but I have met some pretty cool folks.” —Bachner Lane
Think of a hut trip as backcountry skiing’s final exam: To pull one off, you’ll need to tap all your touring skills, from kick turns and avalanche safety to quick transitions and the ability to shred. These four beginner-friendly options can be booked through the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association for less than the cost of a budget Airbnb.
If You Want…
A Quick Trip: Broome Hut
Not only does its location on the west side of Berthoud Pass make this the closest 10th Mountain hut to Denver, but Broome Hut is also only a mile (and some 800 feet of elevation gain) from the trailhead. $50 per person
A Bit Of Backcountry “Luxury”: Shrine Mountain Inn
Most huts have an outhouse, and you have to melt and boil snow for a drink. Not so at this trio of cabins on Vail Pass. Each has indoor plumbing and running, potable water. There are also showers, and one cabin even has a claw-foot bathtub. $45 per person
A Spa Treatment: Francie’s and Sisters Cabins
Both Francie’s and Sisters, located on opposite sides of the Blue River Valley near Breckenridge, feature wood-burning saunas. DIY cold therapy is an easy option, too: Just duck out of the door for a 100-plus-degree swing. $50 per person
A Ski Traverse: Polar Star Inn to Peter Estin Hut
If a hut trip is the final exam, then a ski traverse—where you link different huts together for a multiday expedition—is like your first post-grad internship. Wade into the real world on this 8.2-mile trek through White River National Forest between Polar Star and Estin. It’s shorter than most other traverses in the 10th Mountain system, and it can be done as a loop so you don’t have to shuttle your car. Polar Star Inn, $47 per person; Peter Estin Hut, $37 per person
For additional information, route planning, reservations, and more, visit huts.org or call 970-925-5775.