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Backcountry Skiing with Kids: How to Get Started

Between the safety considerations, fitness requirements, and sheer scarcity of small-enough gear, backcountry skiing with kids can feel like a daunting task. But once you’ve fallen in love with the wide-open landscapes and winter solitude, it’s natural to want to share it with your child. We can say from experience that there’s nothing more rewarding.

One of the founding goals of Bluebird Backcountry was to create a ski area that was safe and accessible for new skiers and riders to learn their craft—and kiddos definitely fall into that category. After seasons of working with guides, parents, and experienced instructors, a few common themes have emerged. 

Here are some of the most important steps for staying safe, having fun, and fostering a lifelong love of backcountry skiing with kids.

Bluebird has provided a safe, beginner-friendly environment for the McLennan girls. Photo: Rob McLennan

1. Go Hiking Together 


According to dad and Bluebird regular Quentin Schappa, getting his son proficient on skis started a long time ago—and a long way from snow. 

“The first step is to get the kids interested in hiking. You can do that in the summer. My kids have been hiking since they could walk,” he says. By the time Schappa’s son Brody was seven years old, he’d summited four Fourteeners. But the climbs weren’t about building fitness, Schappa says.  

“When you go up to elevation in Colorado, every day in summer there’s a thunderstorm,” he explains. “So I had to teach them, ‘Is it safe to go up? What time is it? How high do we want to go?’ And of course when you have to turn around 200 feet from the summit, that teaches you an important lesson, too—that the victory is in the journey.” 

All those learnings became invaluable as the family ventured into snowshoeing and, later, backcountry skiing. 

Baby Rhea has become a regular at Bluebird even before her first days on skis. Photo: Molly Fales

2. Get the Kids on Skis

Little kids learn fast. Take advantage of the learning years and put them in ski school early if you can, says ski guide Kyle Judson, whose son first stood up on skis when he was two years old. (It’s OK if you don’t have that kind of access to ski resorts—even annual family ski trips can give kids a huge boost.) 

Getting a head start on ski skills will ease the transition to ungroomed snow later on. And there are other skills kids can have fun learning when they’re young, too, Judson says.

“I guess we’ve been preparing him for backcountry skiing his whole life, whether he knew it or not,” Judson says. “We would play hide-and-go-seek with beacons when he was four or five years old. He always thought that was pretty cool.” 

3. Foster the Stoke

When you introduce your kid to a new sport, it’s important to make sure the excitement is coming from the kid, not projected by the parent, says Schappa. For his family, watching Warren Miller and Teton Gravity Research ski movies has been a fun source of inspiration. He says his kids love having pro athletes to look up to. Plus, ski movies provide valuable insight behind the scenes.

“At the resort, the kids are doing 18 to 25 laps a day,” says Schappa. “When you have to hike a bunch and just do one or two runs, that’s a different mindset.” For Brody, now 11, watching his heroes hike up ridge lines definitely brought that message home. Schappa says it prepared Brody for switching gears when he learned to uphill ski. 

Finding gear that fits can be one of the biggest challenges of backcountry skiing with kids. Photo: Rob McLennan

4. Get the Gear

Finding the right gear can be one of the biggest limitations to backcountry skiing with kids.

“You just can’t find touring bindings small enough for really young kids,” Schappa says. That’s one of the main reasons his children had to wait until they were 9 years old to start touring.

Brody Schappa currently uses Marker F10 touring bindings, which come at a low enough DIN setting to accommodate a kid’s light weight. He also uses Hagan Z02 skis and skimo skins (which don’t have clips in the back) that Schappa cut to size himself.     

Kyle Judson’s son, who’s now 14, has had luck fitting into women’s gear, which comes in smaller sizes. Judson adds that consignment stores, used gear shops like the Wilderness Exchange and Confluence Kayaks, and even Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist have been invaluable for tracking down small gear at an affordable price. 

Bluebird Backcountry’s mellow, accessible terrain has made an ideal early stomping ground for the Judson family. Photo: Kyle Judson

5. Pick an Easy First Objective 

When picking a first backcountry ski objective for kids, the key is to start small.

One example: Bluebird staff member Rob McLennan first took his oldest daughter backcountry skiing when she was 14. “Our first uphill outing was literally out the back door of our condo, across the golf course, and along a bike trail,” he explains. “It gave us the ability to turn around at any point and be home in minutes.” Heading out without a set objective or turnaround point helps keep things relaxed. That way, your kid can choose to tour at his or her own comfort level. 

Similarly, Judson took his son out on a groomed road pretty close to the house. It was a zone with zero avalanche danger and just enough uphill to get used to touring gear. 

After that, the next step for both McLennan and Judson was coming to Bluebird. There, patrolled boundaries, avalanche mitigation, and base-area amenities all help provide a safe learning space that puts young minds at ease, they say.  

Whenever Judson and his son ski together, safety discussions are a constant. Photo: Kyle Judson

6. Focus on Safety

In 2018, despite extensive avalanche education and years of professional ski guiding experience, Kyle Judson was caught in an avalanche. He was carried 1,000 vertical feet and sustained serious injuries. For his son, the incident brought avalanche safety very close to home.

“Education became a big thing for us. So, teaching him why avalanches happen in certain terrain versus other terrain, and teaching him what can be done to prevent it,” Judson says. “I started trying to shed light on those big unknowns.”

Having fun is important, says Judson, but for his family, safety always comes first in the backcountry. It’s a frequent point of discussion whenever he and his son ski together.

As for kids venturing out on their own? Education is the first consideration, Judson says.

“I think 16 or 17 is probably an appropriate age to take an AIARE course,” he explains. “Eearlier than that, the seriousness of it might be lost a bit. But once they’re understanding the risks and responsibilities around driving a vehicle or watching a sibling, I feel like they’re able to absorb more of that information.” 

Both Schappa and Judson say they feel 18 is an appropriate age for beginning to think about letting their kids go backcountry touring without mom or dad. That is, as long as they have a demonstrated understanding of the terrain and a solid tour plan in place. 

Giant s’mores from the Bluebird Snack Yurt make a great post-tour reward. Photo: Quentin Schappa

7. Keep it Fun 

“You want to make sure your kids understand what’s happening and that they feel like part of the team,” Judson says. “And you also want to make sure it doesn’t feel like a burden or something they don’t want to do.” 

Judson tries to balance educational moments on the mountain with plenty of breaks, goofing off, and check-ins to make sure everyone is comfortable.

For McLennan, snacks are another key ingredient to keeping the stoke high. Gummies like watermelon Clif Bloks, gummy bears, sour gummy worms, and Swedish fish are among his daughters’ favorites. Whenever they stop to discuss snowpack, everyone gets a treat.

“The key is to focus on safety, fun, and learning—in that order,” McLennan says. 

I Tried Backcountry at Bluebird—What Now?

Congratulations! If you just finished up your first day at Bluebird, you’ve embarked on your journey to earning your turns. It’s a whole different world than riding the lift up, right? (Just ask your tired quads.) 

Now that you’ve gotten a taste for the backcountry, it’s time for some continuing development. Part of the backcountry’s allure is that it’s an unforgiving place, and being a mindful, informed, avalanche-aware skier is a lifelong practice. However, learning as much as you can and getting some experience under your belt early on is one of the best ways to keep enjoying those powder turns for many seasons to come. Here’s what’s next. 

Keep showing up

Practice makes perfect—and Bluebird’s ski patrol means you can focus on honing technique rather than on avalanche danger. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Like any skill worth having, backcountry skiing or splitboarding requires practice. The best way to hone your technique (and get fit enough to have fun at altitude) is to click into those bindings and skin uphill as often as possible. We may be biased, but we definitely recommend coming to Bluebird Backcountry a few times during your learning years. That’s because here you have a ski-patrolled zone to explore—a less risky option than heading out into the unpatrolled backcountry before you have those crucial avalanche awareness skills. (Bonus: Bluebird guests get a discount for themselves and a friend on their second visit (check your post-visit email for the discount code.)

Take your first (or second) lesson

If you’ve taken a downhill-skiing or  snowboarding lesson at a resort, you know it’s impossible to master all the skills in just one day. The same applies when you’re getting the hang of the uphill portion, too—it’s tough to retain all that information in a single dose Bluebird offers Backountry 1 lessons for first-timers, as well as Backcountry 2 and 3 lessons to move students all the way from never-ever to avalanche course-ready. Between lessons, keep your knowledge fresh by spending an hour at a specialty clinic, where you can pick up skills like navigation and pro skinning techniques. 

Seek out mentors

Heading out with more experienced friends is a great way to hone backcountry skills. Photo: Doug McLennan

There’s something really special about friendships forged in the backcountry, and one of the best ways to master a new skill is by pushing yourself with friends who are more knowledgeable. Lots of the best backcountry tips are earned through experience, so hitting the skin track with a friend who’s got some tours under their belt is a great way to add to your repertoire. (Looking for a mentor? Check out Bluebird’s Ski with a Mentor program.)

Sign up for an avalanche course

An AIARE avalanche course will give you a framework for backcountry decision-making. Photo: Erik Lambert

The bottom line is that there’s no way to responsibly recreate in the backcountry without some knowledge of avalanches and how to avoid them. You can start your avalanche education by attending a workshop at your local gear retailer or avalanche center, checking the forecast every day during the season, or picking up a book like Bruce Tremper’s Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. But there’s no substitute for experience—a few days in the field with a qualified AIARE instructor will teach you some of the most crucial wilderness skills in your toolbox. 

Already finished your AIARE 1? Time to start looking at partner rescue and AIARE 2 courses. Like we said—the pursuit of backcountry mastery means a commitment to lifelong learning. And all that time getting to know the mountains? That’s half the fun. 

All Our Secret Tricks to Warm Up Cold Hands and Feet

When the mercury dips, keeping your fingers and toes warm can feel like a full-time job. If numb digits are usually the crux of your ski day, heed these tips.  

Tricks to Warm Up Cold Hands

1. Bring hand warmers.

Throw a pair in your pockets for warm-up breaks, or use them to pre-heat your spare gloves. (Make sure to open up the warming packets an hour or two before you expect to start skiing so they have time to activate.)

2. Heat up your core.

Often, cold hands are a symptom of a cold body. Add an insulated layer and/or start skinning. As soon as the blood starts flowing, your hands should warm up.

A thin touring glove with a tacky leather or synthetic palm can prevent overgripping. Photo: Justin Wilhelm 

3. Loosen your grip.

Fingers go numb while touring? You may be over-gripping your poles. The squeezing action can impair your circulation. Try using a thinner glove, or one with better grip so you can relax your hands.  

4. Do some arm circles.

Windmill your arms in circles as big and as fast as you can manage. The shoulder workout will warm you up, and the force of the swing will force warm blood into your fingers. 

5. Keep spare gloves in your jacket.

Bring a separate pair of downhill gloves (touring gloves tend to get sweaty). While you tour, keep your downhill gloves in your pockets, or between your baselayer and midlayer. By the time you transition to downhill, they’ll be warm. (Stash your touring gloves in the same spot to keep them toasty until the next transition.) 

Thick mittens with gauntlets are our go-to for warm fingers and wrists. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

6. Upgrade your handwear.

Cold hands? You may just need to level-up your gloves. A thicker or more wind-proof glove can make a huge difference. Mittens are also vastly warmer than fingered gloves. You can also try purchasing a glove with a long gauntlet—the skin on your wrists is thin, and you can lose a lot of heat if it’s exposed.

7. Put your hands in your armpits.

When your fingers start to get numb, the tried-and-true trick is to stop, put on your puffy jacket, take off your gloves, and put your hands against the warmest parts of your body (your armpits, neck, or groin). Keep them there until they feel fully warmed, even if it takes a few minutes.  

8. Do the penguin.

There are a lot of circulation-promoting dance moves that winter enthusiasts rely on to warm their hands. Or favorite: The penguin. With your arms against your sides, straighten your palms at a right angle to your sides. Shrug your shoulders up and down. You should be able to feel warm blood shunting down through your wrists. 

Take lots of breaks for hot tea. Photo: Jonas Jacobsson via Unsplash  

9. Stay Hydrated.

Hydration makes a big difference in your circulation. Stop regularly for tea or hot cocoa breaks. Also make sure you’re eating plenty of fats and carbohydrates throughout the day so your body has enough fuel to keep itself warm. 

Tricks to Warm Up Cold Feet

1. Loosen Your Boots.

Restoring circulation can do wonders for cold toes. If that doesn’t help, you may be wearing socks that are too thick, or you might have the wrong size boot. (Need to figure out your size? Take some of our Dynafit rentals for a spin.) 

Unbuckle your boots when you’re touring to improve circulation. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

2. Do the Hypothermia Dance.

It’s a time-honored classic, you look really cool doing it, and it actually works.

3. Squat it out.

First, loosen your boots. Then, do 10 air squats and 10 leg swings. Repeat until you feel the warm blood flowing to your extremities.

4. Add an extra pants layer.

You can have the warmest boots in the world, but if you’re losing heat through your legs, you’re still going to have cold feet. The secret is proper layering. Add thicker baselayers or zip on some shells to keep in the warmth.

Wear shell pants over warm baselayers to keep legs (and therefore feet) toasty. Photo: Doug McLennan 

5. Bring extra socks.

Nothing saps heat like damp clothing. When you transition, swap sweaty touring socks for a fresh pair of woolies. Your feet will thank you.

6. Go to extreme measures.

Got chronically cold feet? Heated socks are a thing now (and they work). What a time to be alive.

10 Backcountry Touring Tips for Happier Dogs

Done right, backcountry touring with your dog can be the best thing ever. Frolicking in the snow, exploring deep forests and rolling hills with your best friend—sounds pretty idyllic, right? But between cold weather, deep powder, and sharp ski edges, there’s some dangerous stuff out there. Here are our tips for keeping safe next time you go backcountry touring with your dog. 

(Need a place to practice? Come to Bluebird Backcountry, Colorado’s first backcountry-only ski area, on select Mondays for Dog Days at Bluebird. All you need is a well-behaved pup and a doggie day pass.) 

1. Make sure your dog can handle the cold. 

First things first: To go backcountry touring with you, your dog needs to be able to handle the chilly temps. Cold-weather breeds with thick coats are a good bet. Medium- to large-sized athletic breeds with a doggie jacket and/or booties can also do well in the snow. Just keep an eye out for shivers and frozen paws, and have extra layers on hand for your dog just in case. 

A doggie jacket is essential for keeping short-haired dogs cozy and warm. Photo: Jeff Woodward 

2. Get your pooch in shape. 

Because your pup won’t have the luxury of flotation, he or she will need to be in peak physical condition to post-hole all day and run down the slopes after you. Can your dog go on a five-mile run with you and still have energy for more? Perfect. 

3. Brush up on your commands. 

Before you head into the backcountry, make sure your pup sticks by your side and returns when called. Downhill skier coming in hot? To avoid an accident, you’ll need a fast response from your pup—even if that means abandoning a squirrel mid-stride. Take an obedience class if you need to, or devote some time to backcountry-specific dog training.  

Before backcountry touring, train your dog to come when called and stay by your side. Photo: Justin Wilhelm.

4. Ease into it. 

Your dog needs to build comfort and confidence around skis just as you do. Plus, it can take some time to teach your dog to keep some distance from your ski edges, which have been known to cut legs and paws. Cross-country skiing or backcountry touring on gently rolling terrain can be a good place to ease in.    

5. Pack a canine emergency kit. 

In addition to a doggie jacket and booties, we recommend carrying a water bowl, poop bags, and treats for your dog, as well as a leash for touring or navigating crowded trailheads. You should also bring a small veterinary first-aid kit, and make sure you know how to treat cold-related injuries, lacerations from ski edges, and other common canine injuries. Here’s what we have in our kit:

  • An ACE bandages
  • Kinesiology tape 
  • Gauze 
  • A syringe for flushing wounds
  • Tweezers 
  • Extra treats 

Put your pup on a leash if you know he’ll go nuts and tire himself out on his own. Photo: Kat Ciamaichelo

6. Strategize for safe skiing 

Even a well-behaved dog can wear himself out or accidentally run in front of other skiers. While skinning, put high-energy dogs on a leash to ensure they maintain a steady, sustainable pace. On the downhill, try this: Grab your dog at the top of a pitch. Have your partner ski or ride down. Then, let your dog run down to your partner. Once your partner has your dog, head down to meet them.

That way, you never have to worry about dodging your dog, and your dog doesn’t have to worry about unpredictable edges. 

7. Listen to your dog. 

OK, so your pooch might not be weighing in on snowpack stability or avalanche hazards, but she’ll still communicate her needs and comfort level. If your dog is slowing, shivering, or looking nervous, take a break. Administer water and treats as needed, and call it a day if your dog is too cold or exhausted to continue. 

8. Practice good backcountry touring etiquette. 

Before you go backcountry touring with your dog, make sure dogs are allowed in the area, and check local leash laws. On the skintrack, keep your dog by your side, and be mindful to pull him or her aside for passing skiers. And,  of course, always pick after your pup (and carry that bag with you rather than leaving it beside the trail.) 

Your dog needs to stay fueled just as much as you do. Photo: Grant Robbins at The Elevated Alpine

9. Stay fueled and hydrated.

On touring days, your pup will burn a lot of extra calories, just like you do. Take breaks to offer snacks and water every lap or two.  

10. Know when to leave your dog at home.

If you’ve ever been postholing after a storm, you know how exhausting fresh powder can be. Consider giving your dog a day off if there’s deep snow or avalanche danger, or if you’re skiing in unfamiliar terrain for the first time. And, of course, if your dog isn’t responsive enough to stay safe in the backcountry, the best thing for both your safety is to leave him or her at home. 

 

Cover photo by Grant Robbins at The Elevated Alpine.

7 Reasons Women Crush Harder with Other Women

Before this weekend, Kelly Gazarik had only ever skied with men.

“I’d only been out with my brother or other male partners,” she says. “Then I saw that Bluebird was hosting a women’s clinic, and I thought this would be the perfect time to get a different perspective.” So she signed up for the Women in the Backcountry clinic, the first ladies-only ski touring and splitboarding clinic of the season at Bluebird Backcountry, Colorado’s backcountry-only ski area. 

The clinic covered everything from layering systems to finding gear that actually fits to, yes, handling periods on the mountain. Gazarik learned that women need to fuel differently than men, and that women have a natural tendency to be more calculating of risks—a valuable asset in the mountains. 

Instructor Brittany Konsella shares her insight on the assets women bring to the backcountry. Photo: Kat Ciamaichelo 

Another thing that really stood out, says Kat Ciamaichelo, who also attended the clinic, is how different the dynamics were in a women-only group

“There was a lot of laughing, which is, at least for me, something that’s different about women’s only groups. It’s so much more fun and goofy—all while still being respectful of the backcountry,” Ciamaichelo says. 

Gazarik adds that she felt more relaxed and more in tune with her intuitions because she wasn’t spending so much energy trying to prove that she belonged.

“That was a feeling I was really dealing with before this, because I just didn’t see that many women out there in the backcountry,” she says.

The fact that the course was taught by Erika Lee, an experienced Bluebird instructor, and Brittany Konsella, a coach with over 10 years of experience and the second woman to ski all Colorado’s Fourteeners, definitely didn’t hurt.

“It was extremely empowering,” Gazarik says. “Having a female mentor who’s been there, done that—it just makes backcountry skiing feel so much more attainable. It helped with my confidence so much. By the end of it I was like, OK, I do belong here. I can do backcountry.” 

As for our other takeaways from ladies-only tours? Read on. 

Backcountry touring in an all-ladies group can help build confidence and camaraderie. Photo: Kat Ciamaichelo

Our 7 Favorite Things About Skiing with Women 

1. There’s amazing camaraderie. 

In a women-only group, there’s a ton of built-in shared experiences—everything from realizing you’re the only girl on the skin track, to discovering you have to pee just when there’s no more tree cover in sight. That translates to automatic camaraderie. “There’s this welcoming, fun, laughter-filled environment that you get with girls,” says Ciamaichelo. “You can just hoot and holler the whole way down, and there’s other people hooting and hollering with you.”   

2. Women have a different approach to risk assessment. 

One of the biggest cruxes of backcountry skiing is the constant risk assessment and communication it takes to stay safe. In this weekend’s clinic, Konsella explained that women tend to be more cautious than men—and that preference to take in more data and look at the whole picture is a good thing. When women ski together, they tend to avoid more of the heuristic traps of wilderness decision-making, and take a more calculated approach to avalanche terrain. The result: Less unnecessary risk. 

3. Communication feels easier.

With mostly male partners, a lot of women find it tough to disagree with the group, even when the terrain is setting off internal alarm bells. “I think it’s very easy to let myself think that a male knows more than me, even when I’m confident in my knowledge of the backcountry and my understanding of the snow science,” says Ciamaichelo. “It’s very easy for me to let a guy intimidate that confidence.” With women, on the other hand, decision-making often feels more collaborative.

Thoughtful discussions were a hallmark of this weekend’s clinic. Photo: Kat Ciamaichelo

4. Representation matters. 

When you never see anyone who looks like you in the backcountry, it’s easy to feel like you don’t belong there. Backcountry skiing or splitboarding in a group of people with shared backgrounds goes a long way toward building confidence—and showing other people like you that they’re welcome in the backcountry, too. (That same philosophy applies to another important topic: improving racial diversity in skiing and snowboarding.) 

5. It can feel less competitive. 

“I like skiing with men, but in a women’s group, things can feel more chill,” says Bluebird’s social media manager Whitney Bradberry. “We skin at a conversation pace rather than trying to destroy ourselves to reach the top. We push each other, but there’s less ego—we’re just out there to have some fun and get some exercise.”

6. You often learn more. 

There are a lot of amazing male instructors, but many women say they learn better with other women. One example: “My first few backcountry skiing experiences were with a guy I was dating, and I think because he wanted me to have a good time, he did everything for me without really explaining what was going on,” says Emma Walker, Bluebird Backcountry’s brand guru. “But I want to be self-sufficient in the backcountry. I like skiing with other women because it pushes me to learn skills for myself.” 

7. It’s a great way to meet other lady crushers.

This weekend, Gazarik and one of the other attendees exchanged numbers and plan to go backcountry skiing together soon. It will be Gazarik’s first female backcountry skiing partner—and, she hopes, not her last. 

 

Looking to tap into some serious lady power on the skin track? Join in on Lady Laps every Sunday at Bluebird.  

How to Layer for Backcountry Skiing and Splitboarding

Smart clothing choices are important whenever you venture into the wilderness, but it’s especially important to layer for backcountry skiing and splitboarding. After all, it’s hard to focus on learning and having fun when you’re cold or damp. 

As a backcountry-only ski area (there are no lifts, but plenty of warming huts!), Bluebird Backcountry is a great place to dial in your layering system in a more controlled environment. Don’t know where to start? Here are our tips to layer for backcountry skiing and splitboarding. 

Two backcountry skiers carry their skis across a bridge in the snow

Layering is the secret to staying warm and dry while working hard to earn those turns. Photo: Big Agnes 

What is Layering?

At a ski resort, you dress for one goal: stay warm. Well, maybe two goals: stay warm, and keep the snow out of your pants. Layering for backcountry skiing and splitboarding is a little more complicated. 

In the backcountry, there’s a lot more variation in activity level. It’s easy to overheat and break a sweat when you’re skinning uphill. In the winter, sweating is a bad thing: Moisture saps heat like nothing else. Sweat too much, and you could become too chilled to finish out your day.

The secret to a comfortable backcountry tour is layering, or wearing lots of thin items of clothing instead of one thick winter coat. That way, you can add and subtract insulation to maintain the perfect temperature—not too hot, and not too cold. 

Three backcountry skiers gather around a person in a sleeping bag and discuss layering for backcountry skiing

Bluebird instructors teach the principles of layering to prevent (and treat) hypothermia in a recent clinic. Photo: Justin Wilhelm 

7 Fundamentals to Layer for Backcountry Skiing and Splitboarding

1. Avoid Cotton Clothing.

Cotton traps moisture, which pulls heat away from your skin. Wool and synthetic base layers, on the other hand, retain warmth even when wet.

2. Start Cold.

As soon as you start skinning, you heat up. It can be tough to stop soon enough to drop a layer before you break a sweat. Take off your jacket before you begin your tour—the goal is to feel just a little chilly when you start. 

3. Make Micro-adjustments.

Bring a warm hat (we like knit beanies that are easy to stuff into a pocket), a neck gaiter, and gloves. Add or subtract these items to adjust your temperature without stopping.

4. Master Venting.

For touring, we love jackets with full zippers, like the Big Agnes Smokin’ Axle Jacket, and ski-touring pants with full-side zips. Unzipping is another great way to make a micro-adjustment and dump heat on the go.

5. Keep it Breathable

Airflow keeps you from sweating, which is why we often leave our hardshell jackets in our packs when we’re moving uphill. Softshell fabrics and breathable layers, like a Primaloft vest, insulate without getting clammy or damp.

6. Bring a Crisis Puffy

Layering for backcountry skiing and splitboarding means being prepared for sunny tours and cold transitions alike. As soon as you stop, put on a big puffy jacket to keep warm while ripping skins above treeline. (Pro tip: Down insulation tends to be warmer and more packable than synthetic insulation. It doesn’t stay warm when wet, but it’s a great choice for an emergency layer.) 

7. Prepare for the Elements

Your insulated layers only do so much if the snow is dumping or there’s a hard wind blowing. Always bring goggles, windproof layers, and waterproof gloves just in case. 

A backcountry skier wears an insulated jacket while ripping skins

When it’s time to transition, layer up as soon as you stop. It’s easier to stay warm than get warm. Photo: Big Agnes

What to Wear: A Sample System to Layer for Backcountry Skiing and Splitboarding 

On the bottom:

  • Thin wool base layer
  • Softshell touring pants or hardshell pants with full side zips
  • An insulated skirt or other bonus layer for emergencies

On the top: 

  • Thin wool T-shirt
  • Thin long-sleeve quarter-zip
  • Lightweight insulated vest
  • Fleece or synthetic midlayer (The Bluebird staff all use the Big Agnes Barrows Jacket, which offers great balance between breathability and warmth retention. Our love affair with this jacket is a big reason that Big Agnes is Bluebird’s official insulated apparel sponsor.) 
  • Big puffy jacket
  • Hardshell jacket 

On your hands and feet

  • Lightweight gloves for touring
  • Warm, waterproof gloves for going downhill
  • Warm ski socks
  • AT boots 

On your head: 

  • Sunglasses and sunhat for touring
  • Helmet and goggles for skiing 

Want a full packing list? Check out our ultimate Bluebird gear checklist

Two backcountry skiers with Big Agnes jackets perform a beacon check

Bring a big puffy (like the Big Agnes Shovelhead jacket, left) and a lighter-weight jacket (like the Big Agnes Barrows jacket, right) to adjust your temperature whether you’re working hard or standing still. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

What Gear Do I Need to Come to Bluebird Backcountry?

There are ski patrollers but no lifts? Gear rentals but no heated cafeterias? As the first backcountry-only ski area in the US, Bluebird Backcountry kind of created its own category of outdoor adventure zone. So, if you have some questions on what exactly you need to bring to ski or ride at Bluebird, you’re not alone. 

To help you prepare, we created the ultimate Bluebird Backcountry packing list.

 

Opt for a 25-35 liter pack with a good hipbelt. How else are you going to carry all those dog treats? Photo: Kathryn Ciamaichelo 

A Good Backpack

Your packing list starts with a good backpack. Backcountry safety is all about winter self-sufficiency, and that means having a system to carry the essentials with you. We recommend a pack with a wide, sturdy hipbelt to take the load and keep your shoulders from getting sore. A good hiking pack will do, but most backcountry skiers and splitboarders strongly prefer a backcountry touring pack with dedicated compartments for avalanche gear. 

  • A 25- to 35-liter pack 

Avalanche Safety Equipment 

Bluebird Backcountry is patrolled by some of the best snow safety experts in the biz. We close slopes that we evaluate to have high avalanche risk. However, Bluebird still sits somewhere between resorts and wilderness on the spectrum of avalanche safety. Whenever there’s even the slightest concern about snow conditions, it’s best practice to bring a full avy safety kit. To ski or ride at Bluebird, you must bring the following gear (avalanche safety gear is also available for rent at our base area): 

  • Avalanche beacon (required)
  • Avalanche probe (required)
  • Avalanche shovel (required) 

Avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel are required at Bluebird. Plus you’ll need them to win cool prizes in our rescue drill contests! Photo: Doug McLennan

The Big Essentials 

Now for the fun stuff. You can rent the following gear at Bluebird or bring your own.

  • Boots (make sure any ski boots have a walk mode; regular snowboard boots are compatible with splitboard bindings) 
  • Skis or splitboard with AT bindings 
  • Collapsible poles
  • Skins 

Warm Layers

A big part of having fun and learning effectively in the backcountry is knowing how to stay comfortable in cold and variable weather. That all comes down to smart layering. We recommend wearing and/or packing the following. 

  • Wool or synthetic baselayer bottoms
  • Wool or synthetic baselayer top 
  • Ski socks
  • Wool or synthetic undies
  • Neck gaiter
  • Warm hat
  • Lightweight touring gloves
  • Warm mittens or downhill gloves
  • Wool or synthetic midlayer
  • Softshell pants (or hardshell pants with zippers for venting)
  • A waterproof shell jacket
  • A warm puffy jacket for stops and emergencies
  • An insulated vest or lightweight puffy

A good hardshell jacket, like the Black Diamond Liquid Point Shell, pictured, blocks wind and keeps out snow while you shred. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Other Essentials 

Stay comfortable over a full day outdoors by packing these important odds and ends. 

  • Face mask
  • Sunhat
  • Chapstick
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Goggles

Food and Water

Bluebird Backcountry has lots of great food offerings at our base area this year. Think giant s’mores, chili, and breakfast burritos. However, it’s always good practice to throw a few things in your pack to keep you fueled on the skintrack. (If you forget, you can stop by the Bluebird Base Area, where we offer snacks from local brands like Patter Bars, Kate’s Real Food Bars, Upqua Oats, Mike’s Mighty Ramen, and Honeystinger.) We also recommend bringing warm beverages—they make it easier to stay hydrated in the cold. 

Fuel up between runs with giant s’mores at the Bluebird base area. Photo: Doug McLennan

Emergency Safety Gear 

We also recommend getting into the habit of packing these backcountry essentials, too, which will give you an extra layer of security in the true backcountry. (However, thanks to our staff of trained patrollers, this gear is less critical at Bluebird Backcountry and isn’t required.) 

  • Extra batteries for your beacon
  • Headlamp 
  • First-aid kit
  • Repair kit 
  • Satellite beacon (PLB)
  • Backcountry radios 
  • Emergency shelter or safety blanket 
  • Spare socks
  • Spare gloves
  • A helmet (not required at Bluebird, but recommended)

Softshell pants, lightweight gloves, and a synthetic midlayer are usually perfect for skinning in Colorado’s typical dry snow conditions. Photo: Doug McLennan

 

Lessons from a Lifetime Spent in the Colorado Snowpack

Picture it: it’s the mid-1990s, and Summit County is getting yet another record-setting storm. There’s relatively little traffic on I-70, so getting up to Breckenridge, Keystone, or Copper Mountain is an easy trip. If you’re a snow-loving kid growing up in Denver, things are as good as it gets. 

For Lucas Mouttet, that was reality. He spent those snow-heavy La Niña years ripping laps at the Summit County ski areas, and when it was time to head off to college, Lucas wasn’t ready to leave the Colorado mountains behind. So he enrolled at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he studied microbiology and immunology. 

With the ski areas along the I-70 corridor now 90 minutes farther away, Lucas started looking for a closer mountain fix for his weekends. That’s how he discovered backcountry skiing at Cameron Pass.

“I would bootpack up by myself,” he recalls. “Then I read an article in the local paper where someone made a comment about the ‘idiots’ doing exactly that.” When two people were killed in separate avalanches in the very spot where Lucas had been skiing solo, he realized he needed to learn more about how to travel safely in the backcountry. 

The Bluebird Avalanche Education Director, Lucas Mouttet, in action.

Though backcountry skiing was on the rise, it hadn’t yet gained the level of popularity we see today, so Lucas had to get creative to get an avalanche education. He chatted up brand reps at the local gear shop to learn more. In 2006, he started working with the Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol, which acts as a search-and-rescue group and teaches avalanche courses in the Cameron Pass area. 

The following season, Lucas completed his Instructor Training Course with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), the industry standard for avalanche education curriculum. But he didn’t stop at completing the certification—he continued checking out snowpacks around the world, climbing and skiing across the United States, South America, and Europe. (His favorite place to ski, aside from his home state, is British Columbia.) In 2016, Lucas launched Never Summer Outdoor School, which conducts avalanche and wilderness medicine courses in Colorado and Wyoming. 

Today, Lucas is the Bluebird Avalanche Program Director, and he oversees each of the AIARE courses offered at Bear Mountain. In addition to managing Bluebird’s staff of qualified AIARE instructors and communicating with students, this also means honing avalanche curriculum, scouting out the best spots for courses to bring students to teach them as much as possible about the snow, and sometimes acting as course leader. (And, since Bluebird is a startup, it also means plenty of “other duties as assigned.”) 

When he’s not playing in the snow with his students, Lucas is likely playing in the snow with his family. He, his wife, and their two daughters, ages 8 and 10 (the older of whom has already skied West Bowl at Bluebird this season), live just down the road from Bluebird Backcountry in Steamboat Springs, where they spend as much time as possible together on the slopes. 

Lucas’ best tip for spending long days outside? “A hot drink in a thermos,” he says, without hesitation. “I probably go through 10 boxes of Yogi Egyptian Licorice tea every winter.” 

Lucas and his family spend as much time as possible on the slopes together.

Sign up for your AIARE course at Bluebird

Keep an eye out for a future post on Lucas’ tips for showing up fully prepared to your AIARE avalanche course!

Quiz: Which Backcountry Lesson Is Right For You?

At Bluebird Backcountry, our philosophy is that it’s easier to learn about avalanche safety—a crucial component of backcountry education—when you already know the basics. That theory is rooted in a core tenet of experiential education called the hierarchy of needs. This idea was developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow, and posits that our basic needs (food, shelter, water) must be met before humans can move onto more complex endeavors (in this case, snow science). 

That’s why Bluebird introduced the backcountry lesson during our first season in February 2020. After the huge success of that lesson, our education team decided to expand. Now, you can sign up for all kinds of Bluebird educational offerings, all of which are designed to help get you ready for an avalanche course by giving you a strong foundation of both technical skills and backcountry confidence.

Take this quiz to figure out which Bluebird Backcountry lesson is right for you.

First, tell us about yourself.

How many times have you been backcountry skiing or splitboarding? 

A – Zero! This will be my first time.

B – Just once. 

C – A handful of times.

D – I’ve been quite a few times, but never taken an avalanche course.

 

How familiar are you with your touring gear? 

A – Not at all. If something went wrong, I’m not sure I’d know!

B – A little. I can transition without help. 

C – Pretty familiar. I know what everything’s called and what it does, but I couldn’t fix anything if it broke.

D – Very. But I could probably be more efficient at using it. 

 

How long are you comfortable being outside in the winter backcountry? 

A – I have no idea! I’ve been snowshoeing or skiing at a resort, but I know this is different. I’m not sure what to expect. 

B – Most of a day, especially since I know there are warming huts on the mountain.

C – I know how to stay warm and hydrated, so I’m mostly confident for a full day outside.

D – I’m a seasoned winter athlete. I’ll stay out as long as it takes to get in a bunch of laps!

 

Quick: Moguls or groomers? 

A – I’m still working on tackling ungroomed terrain—my comfort zone is that sweet, sweet corduroy.

B – I’m ready for some medium-sized bumps, but I’m not sure about icy spots or obstacles. 

C – I’m comfortable on just about anything at the resort.

D – I’m ready for whatever conditions the backcountry can throw at me. 

 

Are you comfortable using maps to plan a route and follow it? 

A – Maybe, if I’ll be on trails the whole time.

B – I think I can identify avalanche terrain, but I’m not super confident yet.

C – Most of the time. I can even set a decent skin track! 

D – Oh yeah. I’m a pro at using my Gaia GPS app

If you got…

 

Mostly As

Backcountry 1: Intro to Backcountry

Our classic Intro to Backcountry lesson is geared toward brand-new backcountry skiers and riders and folks who have only clicked into their AT bindings a handful of times. You’ll get to know your touring and rescue gear and learn basic skinning techniques, backcountry etiquette, Leave No Trace best practices, and how to transition from uphill to downhill. 

You’ll leave this course acquainted with your gear and ready to hone your backcountry skills. At the end of the three-hour (half-day) lesson, your instructor will make a personalized recommendation for the next step in your backcountry journey. Then you can decide whether to take another lap or head back to the base area for a s’more.

Book Your Backcountry 1 Lesson

 

Mostly Bs

Backcountry 2: Backcountry Skills

This lesson is geared toward skiers and splitboarders who have spent several days on touring gear and are comfortable with their equipment and basic skinning techniques. In Backcountry 2,  you’ll learn best practices for staying comfortable in the remote backcountry (including basic equipment troubleshooting), develop more efficient skinning techniques for varying terrain, and improve your downhill technique in variable conditions, which requires very different movement skills  from typical in-bounds skiing or snowboarding. 

You’ll leave this course knowing how to prepare for a day in the backcountry, and with better uphill and downhill technique. At the end of this lesson, your instructor will make a personalized recommendation for the next step in your backcountry journey.

Book Your Backcountry 2 Lesson

 

Mostly Cs

Backcountry 3: Avalanche Prep

You’re so close! The final installment in our three-lesson Backcountry Progression is the bridge between the skills you’ve already learned and your avalanche education. This lesson is geared towards folks who are familiar with their touring gear, can skin uphill in terrain of varying steepness, and can comfortably ski or splitboard most of the terrain at Bluebird Backcountry. It covers trip planning basics and introduces how to make useful observations about current conditions, as well as more advanced skinning and downhill movement. 

You’ll leave this course feeling prepared to learn about avalanches and how to avoid them. Most importantly, you’ll know enough about backcountry travel that you’ll be able to focus on what matters in your AIARE course.

Book Your Backcountry 3 Lesson

 

Mostly Ds

Continuing Ed

Sounds like you’ve got some backcountry experience under your belt, and you’re ready to sign up for an AIARE avalanche course. If you’ve got some time before your AIARE 1 and want to brush up on any specifics, check out a two-hour Bluebird clinic. Bluebird offers several at our base each week on topics like Skin Like a Pro, Route Planning Basics, Equipment Repair 101, and Winter Emergency Skills. Or sign on for a Ski with a Mentor session, which is basically a short private lesson where you can pick your mentor’s brain on the skills you’re looking to improve. 

 

Use this handy flowchart to help you choose the best backcountry lesson for you.

Why You Should Take a Backcountry Lesson Before Your Avalanche Course

For years, newcomers to the backcountry have faced a chicken-or-egg conundrum: Should I take a backcountry lesson to learn to backcountry ski or splitboard, then take an avalanche course? Or do I need to have an avalanche course under my belt before I go off piste? 

They’re good questions—you’re certainly more equipped to make smart decisions in the backcountry once you’ve taken an avalanche course, but it’s a daunting proposition (and a big investment) to sign on for a three-day course when you’ve never been in the backcountry before. 

So Which Comes First: Avy Course or Backcountry Lesson?

At Bluebird Backcountry, our philosophy is that it’s easier to learn about avalanches when you’re not figuring out your gear for the first time or working hard to keep up with the group. That’s why our team of education experts has developed a progression of backcountry lessons geared toward folks who are new to the backcountry and preparing for their first avalanche courses.

The bottom line? You’ll get more out of your course once you get the basics down. 

Here’s what you should know before you take your avalanche course. 

How to Use Your Backcountry Gear

A backcountry skier performs a beacon check on a snowy hillside

Knowing some basics (like a beacon check) will go a long way when you’re trying to learn about avalanche safety.  Photo: Patrick Woods

Where do I carry my transceiver? How do these bindings work? Wait, my boots have a “walk mode”? 

You’ll want to make sure you know the answers by the first day of your AIARE course. That way you can focus on the curriculum—backcountry decision-making, identifying hazardous terrain, and snow science basics. 

Bluebird’s Backcountry 1 course covers all the basics of gear and backcountry transitions. At Bluebird, you can either rent gear or get to know your own on your backcountry lesson.  

How to Tour (and Ski or Ride) Efficiently

Two backcountry skiers move quickly along a frozen skin track during a lesson

Learning efficient skinning techniques before the first day of your AIARE course means you’ll have an easier time keeping up with your group.

Getting to the top is a little (okay, very) different when you’re getting there under your own power rather than on a lift. Once you’ve learned the basics, it’s a lot like hiking. But it takes some getting used to, and the technique is easier to learn when there’s a pro showing you the ropes.

The same goes for skiing or riding downhill. There’s no grooming in the backcountry, which means the terrain is a lot more variable. That, too, takes some getting used to—it’s not like skiing groomers or even moguls. You’ll have a much easier time keeping up with the rest of your AIARE cohort if you’re already familiar with good technique and backcountry snow conditions

How to Be Self-Sufficient in Winter Weather

A skier on a backcountry skiing lesson drinks water from a nalgene water bottle in winter

Self-care in the backcountry is a skill, too.  Photo: John LaGuardia

At a traditional ski area, you can head into the lodge to warm up, grab a snack, or hydrate. While there are warming huts (and delicious snacks) available at Bluebird Backcountry, you can think of Bluebird like a transition zone. None of those amenities will be available once you head into the backcountry proper.

You’ll want to know how to take care of yourself (and what snacks to pack) in the winter wilderness by the time you embark on your AIARE course. That’s why Bluebird instructors spend time covering self-care and backcountry tips and tricks in our backcountry lessons

This season, Bluebird Backcountry is offering Backcountry 1, 2, and 3 lessons to move students from never-ever to AIARE-ready (keep an eye out for a future post to help you determine which lesson is right for you). Ready to get started? Book your backcountry lesson here.

A group of backcountry skiers enjoy their backcountry skiing lesson

Backcountry 101 students hit the skintrack.  Photo: John LaGuardia