Skiing takes us up into the mountains; it brings us into endless groves of evergreens and aspens, and gives us a chance to explore nature in a way that non-skiers will never understand. The resorts we frequent allow easy access to amazing terrain and landscapes, but can sometimes be a burden when mixing in traffic and lift lines. The backcountry skiing market has a seen a boom in the last couple of years, and for good reason; people want to enjoy the mountains without the crowds. If you’re looking to tap into a new side of skiing this year, backcountry huts might give you the experience you are looking for. Here are a few ways to take that next step.
- Do your research. Be conservative. You will be opening up a whole new world when you start exploring these backcountry huts. It will be somewhat surprising to find the vast amount of cabins tucked amongst the trees from Vermont to Tahoe and beyond. Some cabins are maintained with firewood and standard cooking amenities and require a fee, while others are bare bones and require more preparation. One of the first steps you will want to take is to assess your ability to travel in the backcountry. Have you ski toured before? How many miles could you ski on a moderate uphill slope? These questions will be key in deciding what hut you choose. Be conservative on your first time out. Choose a hut that is a little closer and has a sustained moderate terrain rather than looking for the coolest hut out there. This will help you work out the bugs with gear, packing, and getting a feel for what your pace is.
- Gear up (or down). Hut skiing can somewhat compare to the average trail hiker taking the next step into an overnight backpacking trip. You have to pack more, plan more, and expect longer distances. Because you will be carrying more than usual, the key is packing smart and light. As with backpacking, you will need to bring layers for varying weather conditions and food based on how long you will be out. Spend some time sorting through your winter wear to find what is best for this type of excursion. Your heaviest ski jacket may not be best, but possibly your lighter shell will be. These are the types of decisions that will help you enjoy the ski in much more than your buddy who packed the kitchen sink and is slugging it along.
- Backcountry Knowledge. This is the most important step in planning your hut trip. Backcountry terrain is not maintained, and in many areas where these huts lie you will need to understand avalanche risk and route finding. Although this is part of the reason many people seek this type of experience, for the added adventure, going into the backcountry requires a base of knowledge in order to stay safe. You have two options when seeking this knowledge. You can hire a guide for your first backcountry hut trip, who will provide expertise on the terrain at hand. This is a great option for intermediate skiers who want to take the next step. The second option is to take a course on avalanche awareness, which will provide you with knowledge on how to mitigate risk when exploring the backcountry. If your goal is to continue these types of trips, then an avalanche course is highly recommended. Not every hut will be deep into the woods and if you are looking to get a similar experience without the commitment, look for something in zero-risk areas where you can still escape the lift lines!
Hut skiing in not for everyone, and that is the beauty of it. Being able to explore never ending snowfields deep into the mountains may sound intimidating at first, but once you have checked it off your list you’re sure to be hooked. Get out there. Be safe. Have fun.
Here are some resources to start planning your adventure:
Colorado – http://www.huts.org/
New England – http://www.yankeemagazine.com/article/travel/catamount-trail-inns/skiing-3
California – http://www.backcountryskitours.com/pages/general/huts.htm
Best Huts – http://www.activejunky.com/thefix/best-backcountry-skiing-huts-article646/