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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. 

5 Ways to Ski More Sustainably

As big proponents of human-powered recreation (after all, Bluebird Backcountry is the only human-powered ski area in the US), we’ve long wondered whether or not backcountry skiing is more sustainable than resort skiing. 

With lifts and snow-makers running all day and the heat cranking in big lodges, it would be easy to imagine that ski resorts have a huge carbon footprint. Likewise, it would follow that eschewing those resorts should come with a lot of carbon savings. 

The truth is that both backcountry and resort recreation result in a lot of carbon emissions, but not from the ski areas themselves. Most of the carbon cost of a ski day comes from lodging and transportation. 

That’s good news and bad news. The good news is that we don’t have to feel guilty about frequenting our favorite resorts, which are great venues for learning downhill techniques in an accessible, avalanche-controlled environment. The bad news is that most skiers and riders have big carbon footprints, regardless of venue, and we all need to step up our game to ensure that we’re enjoying the mountains in an eco-friendly way. 

So, is backcountry skiing more sustainable than resort skiing? Sure, but only by a little bit. Here’s what you can do to ski more sustainably—and what Bluebird is doing to hold up our end of the deal.

5 Ways to Ski More Sustainably

1. Take it Backcountry  

Human-powered transportation for the (environmental) win. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

OK, we know we just said that lifts aren’t skiing’s main source of carbon output. But groomers, lifts, snow-makers, and gondolas all require a lot of energy to operate, and a lot of resources to build and maintain. (Some resorts are working to up their renewable energy use, but that can be a long process.) 

Plus, wide-open ski-resort groomers are often created by clear-cutting strips of mountainside. That removes swathes of valuable woodland habitat from the landscape.

Backcountry skiing and splitboarding not only let you ski more sustainably by saving on fossil fuels, but they also help adventurers establish a closer connection with nature—the first step in becoming passionate about protecting wild places in the future. 

(New to the sport? As a patrolled, avalanche-mitigated, lift-free ski area, Bluebird Backcountry is a great place to take a clinic, test out some rental gear, or otherwise try backcountry skiing or splitboarding in a safer environment. Bonus: The base area’s electronics and lighting are entirely solar-powered.)  

Bluebird Backcountry’s efficient, solar-powered layout provides plenty of comfort while keeping our energy needs low—one way we help guests ski more sustainably. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

2. Carpool to the slopes 

Right now, COVID-19 is a big barrier to carpooling. But it’s never too early to make a resolution to pack your car with buddies the next time you head to the mountains in “normal times.”

Carpooling not only drastically reduces your personal carbon footprint; it alleviates traffic problems for everybody else, too. 

(Pro Tip: Get a 4-Pack or 10-Pack of day passes next time you bring your crew to Bluebird Backcountry. The passes are transferable, so you and your friends can all save money by going in together.)  

3. Be Mindful of Your Plastic Waste  

The Bluebird Snack Yurt uses compostable dishware from Eco-Products and reclaimed wood trays from Crosscut Reclaimed. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

A great way to ski more sustainably is to travel more sustainably.

Many of us are really good about bringing reusable bags to the grocery store, or bringing our coffee to work in our own travel mug. But for a lot of us, that all goes out the window when we travel. 

You can reduce your carbon footprint (and save money) by packing your lunch in a reusable container and bringing your own coffee to the slopes in a thermos instead of buying something wrapped in styrofoam or plastic on the road. 

At Bluebird, we balance convenience and consciousness by serving all our base-area food—like s’mores, local breakfast burritos, hot coffee, and chili—in compostable dishware by Eco-Products. Our food trays are also made from reclaimed wood. (Locals Meg and Jack Norton at Crosscut Reclaimed created the trays as well as our Mountain Portal, which is made from sustainably harvested beetle-kill pine.) 

4. Reduce Your Vacation Commute

The best way to reduce your commute? Cozy up in a four-season camper just two miles from the Bluebird base area. Photo: Adventure Lodge Camper Van Rentals

The best thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint is to pack your ski or snowboard days back-to-back. Instead of driving back and forth from the mountain every day or every weekend, turn a trip into a longer vacation. Then, book lodging as close to the ski area as possible. Better yet: Go in with some friends to reduce your lodging footprint. 

At Bluebird, we offer affordable camping just 2 miles from the Bluebird base. If you have a good four-season setup, camping at Bluebird is hands-down the most eco-friendly option for an extended weekend. 

5. Eat Local 

The base area may be fueled by sunlight, but as for the staff? We’re fueled by s’mores. 😎 Photo: Justin Wilhelm

One of the best ways to ski more sustainably is to travel more sustainably. Opt for local meat or produce and locally sourced supplies, which have a lower carbon footprint from reduced shipping requirements.

At Bluebird, we source all the ingredients for our hot food from the local general store, the Kremmling Mercantile. The snacks we serve at our base are also from local brands like Honey Stinger or KeenOne, most of which are based 50 miles or fewer from Bluebird Backcountry. 

On Sundays, we offer another fun dining option, too: In the afternoon, Elevated Independent Energy powers up their solar-powered grill to make lunch for Bluebird guests. (Elevated Independent Energy has been providing all the solar power that keeps the lights on at the base area—another big sustainability win!)

Elevated Independent Energy used their solar-powered grill to cook up Sunday lunches for Bluebird guests all season long. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

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.

How to Choose a Backcountry Ski Setup 

So you’ve been backcountry skiing a few times and you’re ready to choose a backcountry ski setup. Making the leap is one of the most exciting parts of getting started in backcountry skiing. But it can also be pretty overwhelming. 

Camber or rocker? Paulownia or poplar? Fiberglass or carbon? There are so many skis out there (and so many friends with really strong opinions). If you find yourself leaving gear conversations with your head spinning like a kid throwing 360s at the terrain park, you’re not alone. 

To demystify the process and help you choose a backcountry ski setup that works for you, we talked to Andy Merriman, who’s been involved in engineering and designing skis for nearly 17 years. As Black Diamond’s ski category manager and an experienced backcountry skier himself, he’s got some insider tips for picking the perfect setup. 

1. Think of your backcountry ski setup as an integrated system.

Think of your boots, bindings, skins, and skis not as four distinct pieces of gear but as a single system designed to work together, Merriman says. Different bindings work better with different boots, and some skins work best with certain skis. Before you buy something new, ask an expert how it will pair with what you’ve already got. 

Your boots, bindings, skis, and skins should work in harmony. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

2. Pick a mid-weight ski. 

“Weight isn’t everything, but it does matter,” Merriman says. Resort skis, which are often made of heavier materials like fiberglass and poplar wood, handle well on the downhill, but the weight will leave you huffing on the uphills. Lighter skis, on the other hand, are dreamy while touring, but they can result in a bouncier, more unstable ride. Plus, the lighter the ski, the less durable it will be.

Merriman recommends finding a ski that hits the middle of the weight spectrum by using a mix of materials like fiberglass and carbon fiber, and lighter woods like paulownia or balsam. (Around 5.5 to 8 pounds is a good ballpark range, though your ideal ski weight will vary depending on your height and weight.)

3. Look for a 95- to 105-mm waist.

“When it comes to the width of the ski, the snow that you ski is obviously a factor,” Merriman explains. “In places where they get a ton of snow, you’ll see people skiing with 115mm underfoot. But most of the time, 95 to 105 is that sweet spot for a backcountry ski. “Whenever I travel to ski, unless I have a specific objective, I take a Helio Carbon 104,” Merriman says. “I would say that for 90% of what I go out to ski, the Helio Carbon 104 is perfect.”

4. Stick with the length you’re used to. 

Sure, shorter skis can be helpful when it comes to making kick turns or maneuvering in tight trees, but they provide less float when it comes to powder, Merriman says. At the end of the day, “I wouldn’t think there’s anything different about selecting a ski length for the backcountry than a resort.” Stick with the length you’re used to skiing. 

A waist between 95 and 105mm is the sweet spot for most backcountry skiing.

5. Consider your goals. 

When you choose a backcountry ski setup, it’s important to consider your actual plans for use. Are you going all in on backcountry skiing? A lighter-weight, backcountry-specific ski (like the Helio Carbon 104 Merriman likes) could be the best option for you. Want to split your time between the resorts and the backcountry? Pick a ski designed to do both. “The Helio Recon is a great option,” Merriman says. “It’s got a poplar core and it’s pretty light, but it’s made with fiberglass instead of all carbon. It’s a really solid in-bounds and out-of-bounds ski.” Bonus: It’s also a little less expensive. 

6. Pick a ski that’s intuitive to use. 

Aggressive, hard-charging skis may sound fancy, but stiff skis make it harder to initiate turns—which is already tough enough in variable backcountry snow. If you’re new to backcountry skiing, look for a ski that’s a little softer with a shorter turn radius. (Again, the Helio Carbon ticks this box. It also has a full ABS sidewall, which means great edge stability for a really intuitive feel.)

7. Look for traditional camber and early-rise tip. 

The best ski shape for you totally depends on your personal preferences and style. However, Merriman says that some of the most popular backcountry skis are those with a traditional camber (that means they’re arched in the middle) and an early-rise tip (they scoop upward at the front to give you a lift over powder.) 

Pick a ski that matches your goals. In this case: as many backcountry laps as possible.

8. Find boots that fit. 

The most important qualities in a boot: They keep your feet warm, and they fit you well. We recommend going to a professional bootfitter or reputable shop when you’re working to choose a backcountry ski setup. There, you can have your boots professionally fitted and your liners molded to your feet if need be.

9. Don’t overthink your bindings.

After a pricey ski purchase, it can be tempting to skimp on bindings. But the last thing you want when you’re transitioning on a frigid, windy ridge is having a binding freeze, get stuck, or break. Bindings are a crucial part of a backcountry ski setup. It pays to buy a pair that’s high quality, and that works well with your boot. 

For first-time backcountry skiers, Merriman recommends keeping it simple. Like skis, look for something that’s in the mid-range in terms of weight. Then, “make sure it has the features you’re looking for,” Merriman says. For new backcountry skiers, brakes and two or three levels of heel riser settings are usually the way to go, he adds. 

10. Test-drive as much gear as you can. 

The longer you backcountry ski, the better idea you’ll have of what gear you like and don’t like. Before you choose a backcountry ski setup, it can be helpful to try out as many models as you can, says Merriman. (Bluebird Backcountry offers rentals of boots, skins, splitboards, and backcountry skis—including the Helio Carbon.) 

Bluebird’s rental fleet, at your service. Photo: Erik Lambert

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

How to Camp in Your Car in Winter

Learn to camp in your car in winter, and you’ll be putting in first tracks all season long.

This year at Bluebird Backcountry, we’re excited to announce that we’re allowing slopeside camping in our parking lot for just $25 per night. (Season passes come with five nights free.)

Camping in your car in winter can be a great way to save money and eliminate your mountain commute. However, you’ll need a vehicle outfitted for four-season camping to do it. Here are our tips for ensuring a safe and cozy night.

 

All you need to camp in your car in winter is the right setup and a little fourth-season savvy.

Safety Considerations for Sleeping in Your Car

At Bluebird Backcountry, we’re all about safety. We can’t spend all day raving about beacon checks and helmets and then leave you out in the cold without a little risk-management talk.

So, before you camp in your car in winter, ask yourself these questions.

How Cold is Too Cold to Sleep in My Car?

This depends on your gear and your setup, but here’s some conventional wisdom to prevent sleepless nights (and hypothermia).

Trucks and SUVs

Think of your car like you would a tent. If you have a 15°F sleeping bag, your lower limit for sleeping in a car in winter should be around 15°F.

Cargo Vans

A well-insulated van without a heater is generally comfortable down to around 0°F with a good mattress, a large down comforter, and one person. With two people (twice the body heat) it’s usually comfortable to around -10°F.

Campers and RVs

Vans and campers with propane or electric heaters can be comfortable in any weather. (If you don’t have your own four-season camper, you can rent one from Native Campervans or Escape Campervans in Denver, or A-Lodge in Boulder.)

Do I Have a Backup Plan?

Even die-hard ski bums have to call in a favor when the nights get really cold. If you’re new to camping in your car in winter, have a backup plan. We recommend keeping in mind a nearby hotel you know is open late. It’s also smart to have a space blanket, extra warm layers, and a full gas tank—that way you can run the car heater for a few minutes if you wake up cold.

Of course, the best way to ensure a cozy evening is to prepare your car the right way.

 

A camper trailer parked in the snow demonstrates how effective a propane heating system can be.
An RV or camper trailer with built-in heating is a great way to ensure four-season comfort.

Outfit Your Car for Winter Camping

Everyone has a different setup, but these basics will get you cozy in no time.

1. Fold down your back seats.

Make sure your seats fold down fully and lay flat enough to sleep on.

2. Add insulation.

Cars lose most of their heat through their windows. Trap warmth by putting a thick reflective sun shield in your front windshield, and cutting insets out of Reflectix wrap (available at most hardware stores) for your other windows. Push the insets into the windows before getting ready for bed.

 

A couple eats dinner by their car, which is insulated with silver Reflectix window insets.
Window insulation is a must to camp in your car in winter. (Twinkle lights are a close second.)

 

3. Throw in a mattress.

Car seats aren’t great insulators. For camping in your car, we recommend a 6- to 8-inch-thick memory foam mattress, which you can cut down to size with a bread knife. They’re also easy to fold up for storage. A sleeping pad rated for winter camping will also work. (Pro tip: Stack a foam sleeping pad on top of an inflatable to up the insulation value.)

4. Build your bedding.

Grab your pillows and choose the right blankets. We recommend using a sleeping bag rated to at least 0°F, or colder if you want to brave below-zero temps. A few thick down comforters can also work for temperatures around 0°F.

 

A sleeping bag and sleeping pad provide warmth in the back of an SUV.
A warm sleeping bag and a little pop-up organization go a long way. Photo: Miki Yoshihito

 

5. Pick the right pajamas.

Your skiing baselayers make great winter PJs. Most of us who frequently sleep in a car also wear a hat and thick, loose socks. (Snug-fitting ski socks can reduce your circulation while you sleep, leaving you with cold toes.)

6. Heat it up.

Before bed, blast the car’s heater so you can crawl into warm blankets. While you wait, we recommend eating a bedtime snack and brushing your teeth. Maybe even floss. (We’re all about that dental hygiene.) Be sure to turn off the car before sleep.

7. Crack your windows.

Cars can get stuffy, even in winter. We recommend cracking your front windows just an inch or so to promote air flow.

8. Dream of fresh pow.

And in the morning, shred.

 

A woman smiles in the doorway of a van amid several inches of snowfall.
Car-camping gives you front-row seats to classic Colorado powder days.

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

 

How to Make This Your Best Season Yet

This summer, it’s time to commit to something you can really get excited about: Have more fun on skis or a board. At Bluebird, this is our favorite resolution because it makes improvement almost inevitable. Resolve to have more fun, and you’re all but guaranteed to improve your skiing and riding skills, up your experience level, and get out more this season. 

We polled the Bluebird Backcountry crew—a stacked team of lifelong skiers, splitboarders, and powder hounds—for their best tips. Here are our favorites for having more fun on the slopes and making 2021/22 your best year of skiing or riding yet.

 

a backcountry skier on dawn patrol looks at sunrise through snowy trees

Sunrise is better when there’s no office window in the way. Photo: Holly Mandarich via Unsplash

1. Play Hooky on a Powder Day.

The best way to have more fun on skis or a board? Make it feel just a little more badass. “Play hooky from work at least once,” recommends Bluebird team member and photographer Doug McLennan. Get in the habit of tracking upcoming storms on a weather app like OpenSnow, and treat yourself to a sick day the next time your favorite spots get a few inches of fresh. 

2. Up Your Snack Game.

You’re a grownup now, and it’s time to start snacking like one. “Stop bringing along that same stale Clif bar that’s been getting smushed in the brain of your pack for the last 3 seasons,” says Bluebird’s brand and marketing guru Emma Walker. “Bring food you’ll actually eat (and enjoy), and you’ll be amazed how much better your days on the skintrack feel!” Need some suggestions? Check out our list of the all-time best backcountry touring snacks.

 

a backcountry skier with skis on her back hikes under a rocky ridge

Set yourself a new challenge. You never know what new terrain you might end up in. Photo: Robson Hatskukami Morgan via Unsplash

3. Set a Crazy Goal.

Maybe it’s skinning 30,000 feet of vertical gain over the season, or finishing a skimo race [[link to cripple creek race]]. Maybe it’s sending your favorite run in a prom dress. Regardless, it’ll motivate you to get outside your comfort zone. Here’s a great one to start with: “Ski every run on the mountain—you’ll be sure to find some surprises!” suggests Bluebird volunteer and Jill-of-all-trades Sara Higgins. 

4. Get Out with Different Partners.

Life is just better with more adventure buddies. “Plan outings with friends of different abilities levels—people you can learn from and people you can teach,” says Bluebird partnership wrangler Laura Hansen. You’ll pick up a lot of tips from following a master’s lines. Conversely, teaching a newbie is a great way to refresh your own memory on the basics.

a group of backcountry skiers gathers on the mountain for a backcountry ski clinic

The best way to have fun? Hit the mountain with confidence.

5. Invest in Yourself with a Lesson or Course 

There’s no getting around it: Sports are more fun when you know what you’re doing. So take a little cash out of your self-care budget and buy yourself a movement skills lesson and/or an avalanche course to boost your confidence on the mountain.

6. Start Tracking Your Backcountry Days.

Data nerds, this one’s for you. Try an app like Strava or Gaia GPS and start recording your mileage, vertical gain, and touring loops. Not techy? Just start counting your days out. If by March you find you’ve reached 9 backcountry days, you might just feel motivated enough to squeeze in an even 10. If not? That’s OK, too—you’ll have a great benchmark for any goal-setting next year. 

7. Check the Avalanche Forecast Every Day. 

You don’t need a new year to start making this one a habit. Checking the local avalanche forecast only takes a few minutes, and it can make a huge difference in your personal safety.  And, of course, we recommend getting as much avalanche safety education as you can.

 

After all, the best way to truly guarantee a good backcountry day is to make sure you’re down safe in time for beers. 

How to Use Free Gaia GPS Maps at Bluebird Backcountry

This year, all Bluebird Backcountry guests will receive a free six-month trial of Gaia GPS Premium, courtesy of our partners at Gaia GPS. That means free access to local topo maps, satellite imagery, slope-angle shading, National Geographic trail maps, and more. 

With the Gaia GPS app, you can download all of these maps to view your real-time location even when you’re offline and out of service. The app is also great for tracking stats like mileage and vertical gain.

To start your free trial, follow the steps provided in your booking confirmation email. Then, read on to learn about some of our favorite features. 

Gaia GPS map of routes and waypoints at Bluebird Backcountry

Bluebird Backcountry Routes and Skin Tracks  

We’ve created a folder containing all our ski runs, hut locations, skin tracks, closed areas, and other points of interest. Add all these features to your personal map by downloading the Bluebird Backcountry Folder. (Be sure to download these features to your phone before leaving cell service.) 

slope angle shading map for Bluebird Backcountry

Slope-Angle Shading Maps

The slope-angle shading overlay is one of the maps our backcountry experts rely on for tour planning in avalanche terrain. It’s especially useful when analyzing which slopes are more likely to slide. Darker shading indicates steeper slopes. 

Gaia GPS map of satellite imagery and vegetation for Bluebird Backcountry

Satellite Topo Maps 

The Satellite Topo map shows topo lines atop ESRI satellite imagery, giving you a clear picture of both elevation contours and any forested or rocky terrain ahead. This is one of our favorites for tour planning, as well as four-season navigation.

snow stations and snowfall forecast reports for Bluebird Backcountry in Gaia GPS

Snow Depth and Snow Forecast Overlays

See current base levels anywhere in the Lower 48 with the Snow Depth layer. Combine that with the Snow Stations (Daily), which provides daily snowfall reports throughout the Western US. (Looking ahead? Gaia GPS also offers several snowfall forecast layers.) 

How to Download Maps for Offline Use

Before you leave home, be sure to download the Gaia GPS mobile app. Then download all the maps you’ll need for the area you intend to explore. (Cell service at and around Bluebird Backcountry can be spotty.) 

For instructions on how to download maps, visit the directions link in your confirmation email, or go to Gaia GPS’s resource page.