Also available in: French
Are you avoiding the long lines to get to the top of the mountain? Do you crave a physical workout and long runs in fresh powder snow? Well, maybe it’s time to make the switch to alpine touring. Find out all about this increasingly popular and trendy sport.
Article written by Guillaume Roy, outdoor reporter.
Learn more about alpine touring by reading this article.
- What is alpine touring?
- Who can try alpine touring?
- Where is it possible to practice alpine touring in Quebec and Ontario?
- What equipment do you need to go alpine touring and how do you get equipped on a budget?
- What equipment do you need afterwards to perform better?
Browse through our selection of equipment to start enjoying this exciting sport.
What is alpine touring?
Alpine touring, backcountry skiing, off-road skiing or mountain skiing are all terms used to refer to alpine skiing without using a lift. Regardless of the term used, the concept is to go up the mountain yourself using a detachable binding and climbing skins under the skis.
In addition, alpine touring, also known as backcountry skiing, refers to the practice of alpine skiing in the high mountains of the Alps. This term has quickly become popular and is frequently used to refer to the sport in Quebec. Mountain skiing is the official term chosen by the Fédération québécoise de la montagne et de l’escalade (FQME), the organization that regulates the practice in Quebec.
Who can try alpine touring?
You don’t have to be an elite athlete to practice backcountry skiing, but you do have to be in good physical shape. For example, if you like to snowshoe up mountains, you’ll love alpine touring skiing, especially since the descent is easy. A good command of powder skiing makes it easier to master backcountry skiing, but the most important thing is to choose a trail that suits your abilities. If you are a beginner, choose gentler slopes.
Because of the sustained effort required to climb, few children enjoy it unless they are pulled by their parents. Since children grow up quickly, you have to change your equipment quite often, which can limit your practice of alpine touring with kids.
Where is it possible to go alpine touring in Quebec and Ontario?
In Quebec, alpine touring can be practiced in several locations with varying degrees of difficulty. Some ski centers allow you to go up the resort and use the usual trails. Others have developed areas dedicated exclusively to the activity. With rescue services nearby, and more supervision, these are great places to start.
Otherwise, beginners will appreciate the guiding services offered in several places, for more safety, such as Vertigo Aventures, Rac City or Expé Aventures, in Gaspésie. Guides are also available in the Bras-du-Nord Valley, in Portneuf, in the Jacques-Cartier Park, in Quebec City (Quatre Natures), or at Mont Édouard, in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean. Other companies, such as Le Couloir in Gaspésie, offer services tailored to the needs of their clients.
There are also several natural sites, especially in Gaspésie, or ones that were developed exclusively for the practice of high road skiing. There are sites overseen by the FQME as well as several private and exclusive sites developed by companies in different regions of Quebec. For example, Ski Saguenay, in L’Anse-Saint-Jean, or La Vallée Taconique, in Gaspésie. The Estski collective has developed a map listing the Quebec sites.
Don’t forget to check out Sépaq parks, which give skiers access to some breathtaking locations with stunning ascents and descents. Read this article to find out more about the Parc national de la Gaspésie mountain school, the Parc national de la Jacques‑Cartier ski areas and the summit of the Auberge de montagne des Chic-Chocs.
What equipment do you need to practice alpine touring and how do you get equipped on a budget?
If you’re ready to take the plunge, leave the lifts behind and tackle a more physically intense and powdery practice, here’s the gear you’ll need.
If you already ski, you probably have some of the basic equipment for backcountry skiing, such as skis, helmet, poles and a backpack.
Three items that are also essential for alpine touring are bindings and boots specifically made for this sport, as well as climbing skins. If you’re on a budget, start by shopping for these essentials and fitting them to the largest pair of alpine skis you have at home.
Boots and bindings
To go up the slopes efficiently, it is essential to use a detachable binding, which allows you to lift the heel to slide on the snow, as in cross-country skiing. When arriving at the top of the slope, it will be possible to fix the boot like in alpine skiing.
When it comes to choosing a binding, you have to make a compromise between weight and performance depending on the use you will make of it. For more lightness and efficiency in climbing, tech models (a lighter model with a specialized jaw and heel piece for backcountry skiing) are the way to go. You will need to buy a pair of specialized boots with inserts that will fit into the front jaw of the binding.
If you plan to do a lot of skiing in the resort, it is good to know that some specialized boots can also be used in standard bindings (frame bindings). The models offer different degrees of elasticity in the binding to absorb shocks without triggering.
To be comfortable and efficient when climbing, you should opt for light and flexible boots with a walking mode that allows for flexing at the ankle. Some models allow for a greater range of motion. You should also choose a boot according to the binding on the ski.
To climb the mountain, you need a good grip and that’s exactly what climbing skins are for. Originally, real seal skins were used. Today, the skins are made with nylon or mohair. While nylon is less expensive and more resistant to water and abrasion, mohair offers a better glide and is more effective in cold weather. It is possible to buy long-haired skins for better traction.
When choosing a model, take the time to choose the right length and width of skin to fully cover the ski and also pay attention to the binding system on the skis, to ensure compatibility with your equipment.
You’ll also need the right clothing: merino base layers from top to bottom, a mid-layer such as a synthetic fabric sweater or down vest, and a Gore-Tex outer shell. Check out this article for more about the right clothes to wear for backcountry skiing.
What equipment do you need to buy afterwards to perform better?
Once you’ve done a few trips backcountry skiing, you’ll probably become a lifelong skier. That’s when you’ll want to go big with specialized equipment.
Once again, the choice of ski will depend on the use you want to make of it and you will have to compromise between lightness, rigidity and width. If you want to float on snow in powder conditions, you need a wider ski, 100 mm or more. If you plan to use them at ski stations,, you can bet on a ski a little less wide. In general, beginners will opt for a slightly shorter ski, about 10 cm shorter than their height, while experts will opt for a ski slightly longer than their height (about 5 cm). Heavier skis are often more effective downhill, but more cumbersome uphill. Several models of high road skis have a hole to attach skins.
For efficient practice, ultralight telescopic poles are recommended. This type of pole allows you to adjust the length for better support when climbing, then shorten them for the descent.
Since it is hot on the way up, most skiers take off their helmets and use them only for the descent. If you need a new helmet, look for a light, well-ventilated model that can be useful in cold weather or in more risky sections.
The backpack is a key part of backcountry skiing, as you’ll need to carry a lot of safety gear, as well as water and food. Choose a specialized bag for avalanche gear (a shovel, probe and avalanche transceiver, or ATD, which are essential in high-risk terrain), with a pocket in the front for your helmet. The size of the backpack will vary depending on the length of the expeditions you plan to make. For day trips, a 20 to 35 liter bag is sufficient for most people. Models that offer an opening in the back are particularly practical for easier access to your equipment.
Also available in: French