Saturday 9 February 2013

Ski Backpacking

Ski camping in the Cairngorms

Although winter is regarded as the season for skiing spring is usually better as it's less stormy and there's more daylight. The best time for ski touring in Scotland is just beginning and I'm hoping for some two or three day trips with overnight camps. With that in mind here's a piece I wrote for TGO a few years ago:

Ski Backpacking

Deep snow looks lovely, bringing a sense of freshness and rebirth to the land. Try walking in it and the beauty soon loses its lustre however. Once snow is more than ankle deep walking becomes hard work. Once it approaches knee deep progress slows to a crawl and every step is an effort. Walking a mile becomes an exhausting marathon. In the USA such ‘walking’ has the graphic and appropriate name of post-holing. I love snow. I hate post-holing. The answer of course is to stay on the surface or at least close to it, which means using snowshoes or skis. Suddenly moving becomes much easier and the snow can be enjoyed again.

Camp in the High Sierra on the Pacific Crest Trail - my snowshoes in the foreground

I first encountered snow like this many, many years ago in the Lake District on an astonishingly arduous ascent of Great End. At times we were wading through seemingly bottomless thigh-deep snow. Continuing on to Scafell Pike was out of the question and it was with relief that we plunged back down our track, still stumbling and falling in the soft snow. Soon afterwards on a December trip to the Highlands I turned back on an ascent of Stob Coire Easain above Loch Treig due to snow that was thigh-deep in places.  These were day walks. If I’d been backpacking I’d probably have never got far uphill at all. This was brought home to me a few years later on the Pacific Crest Trail, that great trail running from Mexico to Canada. There had been heavy snow that winter and spring and the mountain ranges the trail crosses in Southern California were all deep in snow. Struggling along their crests with a heavy pack was slow and tiring. However each range could be crossed in a day or so and the lower slopes were snow free so I was never ploughing through snow for long enough for it to be too gruelling. Up ahead though was the High Sierra, 500 miles of snowbound mountains, much of it above 10,000 feet. Post-holing that distance was unthinkable, and probably impossible. A hiker I met was using snowshoes and staying on top of snow that came up to my knees. Impressed I took a day off from the trail to buy a pair. Two other walkers joined up with us for the High Sierra section. They were using Nordic skis. Watching them glide across meadows and swoop down steep slopes while I plodded along behind them on my functional but slow snowshoes I suddenly understood that real skiing wasn’t being hauled up a slope by a metal contraption in order to slide back down but was a superb way to travel over snow-covered wild country. I vowed to learn how to ski and the very next winter I did so, courtesy of  Cameron McNeish who was then working as a Nordic ski instructor.

Once I could ski the freedom of snow-covered forests and hills opened up. Instead of fearing deep snow and hating the restriction it placed on my outdoor activities I relished it and looked forward to seeing the dark clouds piling in and the first thick white flakes falling on the brown land. Now it was a lack of snow that I disliked. My ideal conditions became ones where the snow is deep enough that I can ski from my front door. One of my favourite ski backpacking trips of recent years is when I did just that, skiing from home to the top of a nearby hill where I camped overnight.
Ski touring in Norway

Since learning to ski I have done many ski backpacking trips from such overnights to two and three week long expeditions. For a decade I led such trips, taking groups on wilderness skiing and snow camping trips in remote places like Svalbard, Greenland and the Yukon Territory. Many of these trips, whether as group leader, with friends or solo, are amongst the most memorable I have ever undertaken. The landscape changes dramatically under deep snow. Wild places become wilder. Tamed and half-tamed places shake off some of the controls and start to revert to wildness. Everywhere becomes vaster and more magnificent. Being able to travel easily through a snow-covered land means it can be appreciated fully. It’s hard to delight in beauty when you’re soaked in sweat, your legs are throbbing with pain and you’re plunging in knee deep with every step. Gliding over the snow on skis is a totally different experience that feels natural and in tune with the white wilderness.

The ultimate way to enjoy the snow is to stay out night after night, either in a tent or a snow shelter. Skiing with a big pack may seem challenging but with a stable load (skiing is a good way to find out just how secure a pack is) it’s not as difficult as it might seem. However snow provides an option unavailable for much of the year and that is to pull the load on a sled. On reasonably gentle terrain this is much easier than carrying it on your back. Skiing steep slopes with sleds does require some practice. Downhill isn’t too difficult as long as the slope is wide as the sled actually helps with balance – though in trees life can be exciting if the sled decides to wrap itself round one. Steep ascents are the real difficulty as sleds tug you backwards or slip sideways on rising traverses. It’s still easier than post-holing with a big pack though. Much more can be comfortably hauled than carried too. Two weeks food is a burden in a pack but no problem with a sled.

"Igloo" Ed Huesers sled hauling in Yellowstone National Park

The thought of the snow swishing under my skis and the mountains sparkling, fresh and newly clad in white brightness fills me with excitement and delight. This is the time of year for ski backpacking.


  1. Inspiring article. Would be interesting to hear you're views on best ski gear for backpacking in Scotland! I have alpine touring gear but a bit too heavy for Scotland. What skis, boots bindings etc. do you favour?

  2. Thanks John. I use Garmont Xcursion plastic boots, Rottefella Riva II cable bindings and Tua Hydrogen skis. Tua are long gone and I don't think the Riva bindings are available anymore. I've had this gear for a decade or so. If I was buying now I'd get the same boots, Rottefella Chili cable bindings and something like the Fischer E109 Tour Xralite skis (I'm not well up on current skis).