How to Complete an Overnight Backcountry Ski Tour


, by Charlie Boscoe

Dean Weyer skiing up Yoho Peak, Alberta, with the Guy Hut (just!) visible below. Photo Boscoe Collection.

At first glance, multi-day backcountry ski touring can seem little more than a prolonged version of single-day hits, but staying overnight in the mountains adds a surprising amount of complexity and challenge. The core ski touring skills - avalanche and terrain analysis, efficient travel skills, and skiing ability - are needed, but the abilities to pack sensibly and keep yourself warm, dry, and well-fed suddenly become important, too. 

When out day touring, you can end up dehydrated, sweaty, and hungry, safe in the knowledge that you'll be able to reset in the evening, but when you're spending a night in a hut, your admin skills must be far sharper. The amount of fuel you're carrying might limit how much water you can melt to drink, the weight will restrict how much food you can take, and a lack of heating might make drying out wet gear impossible. These logistical issues, coupled with the increased challenge of planning for multiple days of weather and snow conditions, make hut-based touring a unique challenge. In this article, I'll give you some advice on how to experience it for the first time.

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Start Simple

Some huts are high, remote, and difficult to access, but many are relatively simple to reach, and these are the huts to target for your first few trips. Just figuring out which gear to take, how to maximise your chance of getting some sleep, and how to look after yourself for more than a day is tricky, so make it manageable by not going to an out-there hut. 

The tiny Huckleberry Hut in the Bonnington Range, BC, Canada. Photo Boscoe Collection.

Avoiding glaciated approaches and terrain will make life easier and reduce the weight of your pack (because you won't have to carry a rope and crevasse gear), so even if the terrain looks well within your comfort zone, respect the additional challenge of overnighting and don't be too ambitious. 

There are literally hundreds of huts that are suitable for a first trip, but here are some suggestions for those skiing in British Columbia, Italy, France, and New Zealand

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Practice in Summer

Surviving for multiple days in the mountains is a challenge in winter, but it's no pushover in summer either, and refining some of your skills and systems in the warmer months is highly recommended. The number of tiny details that make a difference to your comfort and safety on overnight trips is remarkable, and some of them are so subtle that you might not even notice that you're improving them! Think of an athlete's "marginal gains" approach and try to figure out little wins here and there.

Practicing your overnighting skills in summer is no hardship! Photo Boscoe Collection.

Finding a pillow system that is compatible with your sleeping mat, laying out your gear neatly at night, and picking exactly which stove/pot/headlamp/whatever you prefer might all seem like minor issues, but they add up to make a big difference. There's a subtlety to this, but you'll find that the more nights you spend in the backcountry, the easier it gets! 

As your unconscious competence grows, you will knock your cooking pot over less often, set your tent up slightly better, and stay dryer. As a result, you'll be hungry and thirsty less often - none of this will happen for a specific reason; your systems just improve gradually. Practise and refine them year-round.

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Keep Practicing Your Day-Touring Skills

Similar to the point above, improving your skills during the day will slowly lead to more comfortable and successful overnight trips. Think about how to limit sweating and stay dry during the day. Fold your skins neatly when putting them away. Eat and drink efficiently so that you never get too hungry or thirsty. Arriving at a hut hydrated, dry, and with all your gear in good shape makes a huge difference to how your night will feel. Practicing your pacing (so you don't get too sweaty), fueling, and gear management is another subtle but effective way of enjoying the trip.

Sunset from just behind the Ymir Lodge, BC, Canada. Photo Boscoe Collection.

Create a Gear List

I feel like I've got some solid experience forgetting critical gear (including my ski boots for a ski trip and my stove on an overnight hike). Still, I can't compete with a friend of mine who flew by boat plane into the vast wilderness of Canada's Northwest Territories for a month of kayaking and then realized that he'd forgotten his tent. He later told me that after a week or so, he got used to lying in the open, being eaten by golf ball-sized mosquitos and worrying about bears, but that his girlfriend - who accompanied him - left him a week after they got home. Make a gear list.

I have a printed gear list on my garage door and digital versions on my computer - there is no such thing as too many safeguards against forgetting something!

Pack Light

With a hut beckoning at the end of the day, it can be tempting to throw in everything you could possibly need and ignore the weight of it all, but making that packing list as short as possible is key! I wrote an entire article about how to pack light, and it's an essential skill for anyone aspiring to overnight ski trips. Skinning uphill with a horribly heavy pack is miserable, and skiing down with one isn't much better! Anything that can make powder skiing unenjoyable must, by definition, be bad - keep your pack as light as you reasonably can.

The wonderful Copper Hut, deep in the Kootenay mountains of Canada. Photo Boscoe Collection.

You can get away with a heavy pack if you're simply skinning into a hut and staying there for a few days, but getting in the habit of tailoring what you carry is vital if you're to move into the world of ski traverses. If you're carrying a pack for multiple days and moving each night, you can quickly turn a fun trip into a sufferfest if you carry too much gear! Learn what you need through trial and error, make notes detailing your learnings, and feel your pack magically lighten every year!

Once you've got the hang of overnight trips, a lifetime of hut-based adventures await - and to get you a little more psyched, here's a bit of inspiration: