Are you looking for a rock climbing trip this summer?

What is ski touring? - A beginners' guide

All your ski touring questions answered!

Whatisskitouring

If you’re reading this article, you probably heard the term ‘ski touring’ and were wondering what this mysterious sport is all about. Maybe you saw that Mapo Tapo released some awesome new ski touring trips, and wanted to learn more before committing to one. In this article, we answer some frequently asked questions about ski touring, starting with the very basics: What is ski touring?


I have to admit that I didn't know much about ski touring until a few months ago. In fact, when Mapo Tapo first decided to organise ski touring trips, it quickly became clear that I had no idea what my colleagues were talking about. Thankfully, our co-founder Alessia is a keen skier, and kindly agreed to put me out of my embarrassment by teaching me the basics. 


Here's what I learnt...


What is ski touring? Two ski tourers hiking up a mountain in the Dolomites

Ski tourers during a trip to the Brenta Dolomites © Francesco Salvaterra



First, what is ski touring?


Ski touring is very similar to skiing, except that you hike up the mountain rather than taking lifts. 


Ski tourers use specialist equipment in order to do this. For example, you will stick synthetic skins under their skis to stop them from sliding, allowing you to go up rather than down. The bindings on ski touring skis are also slightly different: you can lift your heels which makes it much easier to hike up the mountain. 


Once you reach the top, you just remove the skins and lock your bindings so you can ski back down. Simple as that!

 

The best thing about ski touring is that it allows you to go off-piste and visit more remote areas than when you are reliant on lifts. You’re also more likely to find some good powder which makes the descent much more fun :)


Three ski tourers in a valley in the Dolomities, with a peak in the background

Above: Ski touring involves hiking up the  slopes as well as skiing down! As you don't have to rely on ski lifts, you get to visit peaceful off-the-beaten-track areas, such as the Brenta Dolomites (pictured above) ©  Francesco Salvaterra

Below: Once you reach the top all you have to do is remove your skins and lock the bindings - then you can ski down. ©  Mapo Tapo

A ski tourer taking the skins of his skis



Ski touring vs ski mountaineering - what's the difference?


Ski-touring - or backcountry skiing as they call it in the US - typically doesn’t involve any mountaineering elements. You just skin up the mountain and then ski back down, no ropes needed. For this reason, some more technical peaks will not be accessible to ski tourers.


Ski mountaineering is a combination of ski touring and winter mountaineering. You might skin most of the way up, then swap your skis for crampons and an ice axe, rope up and climb to the summit. 


Ski mountaineering is a lot more adventurous than ski touring and requires a broader skillset: you have to be a strong skier and mountaineer. Of course, there’s some overlap between ski touring and ski mountaineering, and some ski tours may include short mountaineering passages to reach the peak, but these are generally optional.


Ski touring vs cross country skiing.


Some people also get confused between ski touring and cross country skiing - but the technique is very different. 


Because you use skins in ski touring, the motion is more like hiking,  you don’t glide at all. In cross country skiing, you push a lot more with your poles and glide on your skis.  


You also don’t go on any steep downhills while cross country skiing, but you can expect these in most ski tours.



A person ski mountaiineering: climbing a ridge with the snowy mountains in the background

You don't usually have to climb rocky ridges like this on ski tours, but you might while ski mountaineering. ©  Francesco Salvaterra



What can you expect on a ski touring day out?


If you’re going ski touring with a group of friends, you'll generally start planning your tour a few days beforehand. You have to take into account quite a lot of factors when planning a tour - such as the weather, wind conditions, exposure, snow conditions and snow level - so if you are new to the sport, we highly recommend going with a guide or experienced friend! 


During most ski tours you will aim for a summit as it’s nice to have a goal, plus the more elevation gain, the more downhill fun later on. In winter you will usually aim for lower summits while those in spring tours will be higher.


On the day itself, you typically leave quite early in the morning - especially towards the end of the season as the avalanche risk increases later in the day when it’s warmer. You’ll drive to the snow level, put on your skis and skins, and start hiking up from the car towards the summit. In the Alps the first part of the tour typically takes place in the woods, then as you gain altitude this opens up into wider, flatter slopes before a final summit push. If you’re going without a guide or local, you have the additional challenge of trying not to get lost!


Once you reach the summit you generally stop to take in the view, have a snack, take the skins off your skis and lock the bindings. You’ll also want to put on a lot of extra layers as you can get quite cold during the descent. 


Finally, it's time to ski down. The descent is generally much faster than the hike up, and a lot of fun! If you manage to find some powder, you can get this sort of floating sensation, almost like you’re flying.


Once you’ve reached the bottom, it’s off for a beer and hearty meal!


A ski tourer standing on a plateau, overlooking the mountains in the distance

A ski tourer stops to take in the view © Ilaria Occhipinti


Ski touring equipment


Ski equipment


All ski tours require ski touring skis, boots, skins and poles. You can generally rent these from a specialist ski shop.


We also recommend that you bring ski crampons on your tour, as these make it a lot safer if the snow is icy on the ascent or when you’re going over an exposed section. Remember that you’re not roped up, so you want to avoid falling! 


If you’re doing a route with mountaineering passages then you may want to bring crampons, an ice axe and sometimes even ice screws and short ropes. However, these are not necessary for most tours. 


Avalanche Safety Kit


In many European countries, it's compulsory to bring an avalanche rescue kit with you on your ski tour. This includes an avalanche beacon (which you wear), and a probe and shovel to carry.



Clothing and Additional Items


You’ll need to bring a backpack on your tour to carry your avalanche rescue kit and some additional items: water, snacks, sunglasses and spare layers.


Bear in mind that you tend to get very warm on the hike up, so you should set out with just a few layers on. We recommend wearing a thermal top and leggings, a hat, and maybe a hard shell waterproof if it’s snowing or windy.


However, you will need more layers for the descent as it can get very cold. We recommend bringing a spare technical shirt, a fleece (or two depending on the temperature), a thin down jacket or soft shell, and of course a waterproof hard-shell (jacket and trousers) to keep you dry. 


The clothing you need  to go ski touring is actually quite similar to what you’d wear winter mountaineering. If you're into outdoor winter sports you may already own many of these items, so ski touring doesn't necessarily have to break the bank.


Three people in a valley wearing ski touring equipment

You may not need many layers on the way up, but make sure you bring some warm clothes for the descent! ©  Francesco Salvaterra



The ski touring grading system 


There are many different ski touring grading systems depending on what country you are skiing in. In Italy, we use a grading system with three different levels: MS (Medio Sciatore), BS (Buon Sciatore) and OS (Ottimo Sciatore). 


Routes labelled MS will generally have quite gentle slopes, which you can go down even if the conditions aren’t ideal. These are a great place to start if you don’t already have much off-piste experience. 


BS routes will be steeper - probably around the same steepness as a red or black slope. They might feel quite easy if the conditions are good, but when conditions are poor you’ll need really good technique to get down them. 


OS tours are suitable only for excellent skiers with advanced off piste technique.


Sometimes you might see the grades written as ‘MSA’ or ‘BSA’. The A stands for ‘alpinista’, meaning that there is a mountaineering element required to reach the summit.


a ski tourerer descending an advanced piste, with the mountains in the background

Don't worry, you don't need that much experience to go ski touring as in many areas you'll find tours suitable for most grades ©  Ilaria Occhipinti



How much experience do you need to go ski touring?


To go ski touring, you need to both be fit and have a good skiing base. One is no use without the other!


In terms of skiing level, you need to be experienced enough to get down the downhill sections in all conditions without panicking. As you are off-piste the conditions can be very variable, and you’ll often come across different snow conditions on the same tour. If there’s lots of powder then it’s generally ok to fall, but if it’s icy you need to be very slow and conscientious. It’s crucial to be in control of your skis at all times!


That being said, you should be able to try ski touring if you already are quite comfortable skiing on-piste. We recommend starting with easy tours. Ski touring is challenging on both a technical and mental level, so it's better to play it safe.


When it comes to fitness, the fitter you are the easier the ascent will feel! Any fitness built up from other endurance based sports will be pretty transferable, but bear in mind that the ascents are VERY steep and that you have to move the weight of your boots and skis with each step. Expect to go much slower than your normal hiking pace. If you are moderately fit you should be ok to do around 1000m of elevation gain in a day - but don’t aim for much more if it’s your first tour! 


One thing to note: in Italy, a lot of retirees living in or around the mountains might go ski touring 3 or 4 times a week and therefore be super fit. Do not try to overtake them! :)


Two ski tourers on an easy tour with their poles up in the air

The fitter you are, the easier the ascent! However, if you are moderately fit you should be able to manage 1000m of ascent in a day ©  Andrea Migliani



Ski touring safety


Like with any winter mountain sport, avalanches are one of the greatest risks while ski touring. It's essential that you have an avalanche rescue kit on you at all times, and that you know how to use it! There's plenty of avalanche rescue courses where you can learn these skills.


You should never go ski touring alone, as you may need someone to rescue you in case of an avalanche or a bad fall.


The most important thing is to not to put yourself in a situation where you are at risk of being in an avalanche in the first place. You should learn the basics of avalanche safety, especially if you are going ski touring without a guide. You need to understand how avalanches are formed and learn to read the snow. If you are planning to ski steeper slopes where there is a greater risk of avalanches you need to learn to read where the safest spots are for you to stop and how to choose safe lines. Just because there are tracks in one place doesn't mean this path is safe: conditions are always changing, so a route that was safe at 11am may no longer be safe at 2pm after the sun hits the snow.


In addition to avalanches, there are some other risks to be aware of. For example, the exposure: in ski touring you generally won't rope up, so it's really important not to fall in more exposed sections of a tour. In spring you might ski at higher altitudes, so you need to be aware of crevasses. 



Three tourers using a probe during an avalanche rescue training

Ski tourers participating during an avalanche rescue course ©  Francesco Salvaterra



The best spots for ski touring


Lofoten, Norway. 


Lofoten is a classic ski touring destination, and for good reasons! You ski with a sea-view, and because it’s so far North (in the Arctic Circle) you can start your tour from the sea, head to the summit of a mountain, and ski all the way back down to the sea. Insane!


The tallest mountains in the Lofoten Islands are around 1000m high. As there's not too much altitude gain,  you feel super fit and can skin up every day without too much fatigue. The snow conditions are also generally incredible: perfect powder for the whole descent. Finally, if you go in March or April, the days are quite long and the light very beautiful. 


If you'd like to visit this incredible destination, Mapo Tapo are running some ski touring trips to Lofoten this spring. 


The Alps


There are also many magical places to go ski touring in the Alps - we won't list them all here! Our favourite thing to do is to head to areas near the famous ski resorts, but thanks to the skins explore hidden valleys only accessible to ski tourers. You get to see the most incredible pristine winter landscapes.  Once you know the basics of ski touring, a whole world is at your disposal!




A group of ski tourers in Lofonten, with the fjords behind

The Lofoten Islands in Norway are a truly magical place for ski touring - just look at that light ©  Mapo Tapo


* * *


Mapo Tapo Ski Touring Trips


If you would like to try ski touring , Mapo Tapo has four trips for you to choose from. 


For beginners, we recommend the Brenta Dolomites trip, where your guide will teach you the basic skills while taking you on some beautiful tours. 


Those with more experience can choose from the beautiful Val Breguzzo, Valle dell’Orco (the trad paradise which in winter becomes a ski touring paradise) and, of course, Lofoten.


A ski tourer crossing a ridge with mountains in the backdrop

 Top cover and bottom images are ©  Francesco Salvaterra


A huge thanks to Alessia for her help on this article! If you have any additional questions about ski touring, don't hesitate to reach out to us!