Heading out on your first backcountry ski tour can be immensely rewarding. There’s nothing quite like skinning into the mountains, choosing your own line, and earning turns in untracked snow.
To make sure your first tour is a success, it’s important to spend time planning it out beforehand. You need to know where you’re going, who you’re going with, and what lines you want to ski. All of that requires thinking about your tour several days in advance and coming up with a detailed plan.
In this guide, we’ll explain how to plan your first ski tour and offer some tips for a successful trip into the backcountry.
📸 Kyle McCrohan
Step 1: Check the Weather Forecast
The first step in planning any backcountry tour is to know what the weather conditions are like. This will inform when you should go, where it’s safe to tour, and what kind of terrain will offer the best experience.
We have a detailed guide to understanding winter weather in the Pacific Northwest that explains how to find accurate forecasts for the mountains and how to make decisions based on the forecast.
Here are a few things to consider when thinking about the weather:
What elevation is the snow level at?
In general, skiing and riding conditions will be best when the temperature is below freezing. In Washington, it’s common for the parking lot to be above freezing, while the area where you plan to ski is below freezing.
Will there be visibility?
Cloudy weather can present a significant challenge even if it’s not actively raining or snowing. In cloudy, foggy, or “whiteout” conditions, it’s difficult to see the snow surface clearly and it’s easy to get disoriented.
If visibility is a concern, avoid alpine areas like Muir Snowfield and stick to zones that have trees to provide contrast while you’re skiing. Popular areas with tree skiing include:
Kendall Trees at Snoqualmie Pass
Yodelin at Stevens Pass
Swift Creek at Baker backcountry.
Will it be windy?
Wind isn’t usually a major concern in the Cascades unless you’re touring in the alpine, which is not recommended for your first tour because of additional avalanche and ice hazards at those elevations. That said, it can occasionally get windy at lower elevations. Skiing in treed areas can provide some shelter.
While the weather forecast is an invaluable tool for predicting conditions, it’s also important to look at what’s actually happening in the mountains. The Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) collects data from weather stations in popular backcountry areas that you can use to see how much snow has fallen, what the temperature is, and which direction the wind is coming from.
Remember that while you might have a specific day in mind for your tour, the weather doesn’t always cooperate. Part of the adventure of backcountry skiing in the PNW is navigating the weather, and that includes knowing when to stay home or dial back your plan. Conditions don’t have to be perfect, but never put yourself deep in the backcountry in potentially dangerous weather conditions.
Step 2: Check the Avalanche Forecast
NWAC produces a daily avalanche forecast that’s released at 6pm each evening in the winter. This is an absolute must-read bulletin before any ski tour.
In addition to the forecasts, NWAC collects observations from skiers and riders. These are also important to read since they offer additional information about what avalanche activity people in the backcountry have seen or experienced. Observations are particularly useful for understanding what warning signs to watch out for in the current snowpack.
Taking an avalanche safety course is the best way to learn about snow behavior and how to interpret NWAC’s avalanche forecast. NWAC hosts avalanche awareness classes throughout the winter and provides a list of upcoming avalanche education courses. You can also check out our guide to avalanche safety, which includes a number of free educational resources.
Even if you haven’t taken an avalanche safety course, the forecast can provide you with an overview of the current danger level and inform your tour plans. Read the forecast in its entirety since the discussion provides a lot of detail about what’s going on in the snowpack and what you should watch for while in the backcountry.
In Washington, we spend most of the winter at moderate or considerable danger in most popular backcountry areas. Still, dangerous avalanches can occur even when the forecast calls for low danger, so always be conservative in your plans.
If the danger is high or extreme, it’s not the right time to venture into the backcountry. Large avalanches can run much further than you expect, so even low-angle terrain may not be fully safe on these days.
Step 3: Assemble Your Partners
Choosing the right partners is key to your tour experience. You want to go with people who have the same objectives as you and the same approach to the backcountry.
Think about what your ideal tour looks like and ask potential partners for their vision of the ideal tour. For example, if you plan to take breaks frequently on the uphill, look for a partner who also enjoys frequent breaks. If you want to ski a low-angle slope, look for partners who are also interested in skiing more mellow terrain.
The ideal group size for a tour is generally 2-4 people. Larger groups can work, but it becomes a lot to manage—especially if you’re new to touring.
For your first tour, it’s ideal to go with friends who are also new to backcountry skiing or riding. That way you can learn together and there are no expectations to achieve a major objective. You can go with more experienced skiers, but make sure they’re comfortable taking out a first-timer and know that they’ll need to plan a low-commitment tour.
Finding Touring Partners
Finding partners as a new backcountry skier or rider can be a challenge, especially if you’re also an inexperienced skier or rider.
Places you can go to find partners include:
Avalanche safety classes: If you take an avalanche safety class, connect with other students in the class to see if they’d like to partner for tours. Chances are, they’re also new backcountry skiers and riders who need partners.
Local events: Local events like SnoBash in Seattle, Pray for Snow in Portland, or Banff Mountain Film Festival can also be a place to connect with other backcountry skiers and riders. There’s also a beginner-friendly Skimo Beer League at Snoqualmie.
If you don’t have partners lined up, you can do a safe solo tour in the ski area boundary at Summit at Snoqualmie. Make sure to purchase an uphill travel pass ($49 or free with a season pass) and read the uphill travel policies before going.
Step 4: Make a Plan
Now that you know what the weather and avalanche conditions are doing and you have partners lined up, it’s time to craft a plan for your tour.
Decide Where to Go
For most first-time touring trips, it usually makes the most sense to go to the backcountry area that’s closest. You’ll have a more enjoyable day—and be less concerned about bailing early if conditions dictate or you feel tired—if you spend less time driving and more time touring.
Popular touring areas in Western Washington include the Mt. Baker backcountry, Stevens Pass, Snoqualmie Pass, Paradise (Rainier), and White Pass. While there are tons of other places to go, these areas offer relatively quick access to higher-elevation terrain where the snow is often in better condition.
The popularity of these areas also makes them good for first-time tours because there is more information about them. For example, you can find maps and guidebooks with popular backcountry runs. Here are several guidebooks to get started:
In some cases, weather and avalanche conditions can vary significantly from north to south or west to east. Keep this in mind when choosing where to go.
Select a Line
Once you’ve chosen an area, you need to select a route for your tour.
Start by choosing the line you want to ski. Popular areas like the Baker backcountry and Snoqualmie Pass have many named backcountry descents that are skied somewhat frequently, and these are documented in the guidebooks listed above.
For your first tour, look for a line that’s easy to get to. Instead of choosing a line deep in the backcountry, for example, pick one relatively close to the parking lot.
Keep the avalanche forecast in mind when selecting what line to ski. Slopes at an angle of 30 degrees or less typically don’t avalanche, so they may be considered safe in most conditions and make for an ideal first tour. Taking an avalanche awareness or AIARE Level One course will help you better understand how to identify and manage avalanche terrain.
You can check the angle of slopes using mapping software like Caltopo, Gaia, and OnX, or in the field using a slope angle tool. Make sure to download the map for the area you plan to ski.
Understand Your Route
Once you’ve chosen a ski line, you also need to plan your route to reach the top of it and to exit from the bottom of it.
Often, the approach and exit routes simply involve skinning to the bottom of the line and then climbing up it.
However, in some areas, the approach may involve skinning around to the top of the line via a different route. This is important for steep and narrow ski lines, where there is little opportunity to escape an avalanche triggered by a descending party, who often have no awareness of skiers beneath them.
If you’re not sure of the best approach to a line, ask someone who’s been to the area before, consult a guidebook, or post a question on a community forum or in a backcountry-focused Facebook group.
It’s also important to check whether your approach and exit routes are exposed to avalanche terrain. Are there steep slopes (greater than 30 degrees) above your route that could send debris onto you if they were to avalanche?
If your route passes through or under the occasional steep terrain feature, you can move through these areas quickly and one at a time. Moving one at a time is a method to ensure that even if one person is caught in an avalanche, the other person will be safe and can carry out a rescue.
If your route is exposed to large, open, and steep slopes, you should consider an alternative route with less potential danger from overhead.
Talk to Your Partners
Talk to your partners and come to a consensus on your line, approach, and exit routes. You should identify and discuss any decision points in your plan. Questions to ask include:
Will you cross or ski any slopes greater than 30 degrees?
Are there other hazards to be aware of, such as creeks or rocks?
What is your turnaround time if you move slower than expected?
This is also a good opportunity to discuss how you expect the day will go, what weather conditions you expect, and what gear and clothing you plan to bring.
Step 5: Final Checks
On the morning of your tour, it’s important to go through some final checks before you head into the mountains.
First, make sure you have all your gear. This includes avalanche safety gear, which you should carry and know how to use even if you have not taken a formal avalanche safety course. Ideally, you and your partners run through a checklist of your gear before you leave home.
There are a few other things to do before you leave home:
Write down the phone number for the local search and rescue or ski patrol in the area where you plan to ski.
Make sure you have maps downloaded to your phone. This includes maps covering the area of your backup plan.
Let someone else know your plan. Tell them where you’re going, what your backup plan, and what time you expect to get home. Also discuss what time they should call for help if you haven’t made contact.
Check Washington Department of Transportation’s real-time travel map to know what to expect on the roads. The map also has embedded videos from cameras at the major passes, which can help you understand what weather conditions are like.
As you drive into the mountains, start assessing conditions. Is the weather you expected? Do you see signs of natural avalanche activity? If the conditions don’t match your expectations, think carefully about whether your plan still makes sense. This is also a good time to discuss the plan with your partners and make sure that everyone still feels good about the day.
Throughout the day, continuously reassess conditions. If the weather or avalanche conditions aren’t what you expected, stop and discuss with your partners. If you’re faced with an uncertain decision at any point, remember that it’s much better to be conservative on your first tour and use this as a learning experience than to push into potentially hazardous terrain.
Get Out on Your First Tour
Planning out your first ski tour involves understanding weather and avalanche conditions, finding partners, and developing a plan based on the conditions. This gets easier with practice, although it’s important to always go through these steps to make sure that your tour is a success.
For your first tour, it’s a good idea to be conservative and keep your plans reasonable. Use this as a learning experience and a chance to get outside. Most of all, have fun and enjoy the beginning of your backcountry journey.
We want to hear how your first tour went and what other information would be helpful for beginners to know. Leave us feedback and questions in the comment below!