Ski season 2020-21 is proving to be the year of ski-touring for the obvious reason that the ski lifts are closed. With more than a few hundred metres climbed in our legs we thought it was high time (no pun intended….ok, maybe a little one) to flesh out the subject of ski-touring and show you what a great sport it is.
According to historian Olaus Magnu, ski-touring dates back to prehistoric times when Nordic folk would attach “long skis to their feet, and fawn skins to the bottom of the skis”.
The idea of the animal skins is that the fur is directional. Going one way it’s smooth and in the other it’s rough and creates traction thus allowing the skier to climb the slope without sliding back down.
In the 1930s these were made from seal skins (and are still called ‘peau de phoque’ seal skins) in French. These days they are either made from 100% nylon fibres, which work perfectly well, or a mix of nylon and mohair to reduce weight and improve gliding.
How fit do I need to be to ski-tour?
Ski-touring and split-boarding are physically demanding activities that take place at altitude, so you will need to have a reasonable level of fitness. That said, you don’t need to choose the steepest slope to climb. So what are we talking about? If you can jog steadily (or do some similarly paced cardio activity) for half an hour or so, you should be able to ski tour. At the end of the day, you are in control of your pace and can take breaks if needed.
What level skier do I need to be to ski-tour?
It really depends on what sort of slope you are planning on descending, but we would suggest you should be able to ski a red run comfortably.
Other than skins, which we’ll come back to in a minute, ski-touring requires skis. Your choice of skis will depend on your motivation. If you want to power up the hill as fast as possible, you’ll want a pair of carbon race skis. If your priority is enjoying the powder on the descent, you’ll want a pair of lightweight freeride skis. To enjoy both the up and down, you can’t go wrong with all-mountain skis. Essentially they should be lightweight and robust, so they don’t hamper your progress on the climb, and still provide a comfortable ride down.
Bindings that hold your boots to the skis should be of the ski-touring variety (known as Alpine Touring, or AT bindings) which unclip at the heel making climbing possible, then clip back down for the descent.
No matter how beautiful the surroundings or how great the snow conditions are, your outing can be completely ruined by badly fitting boots. You’ll need a pair of touring boots that are first and foremost comfortable and a good fit to prevent pain and blisters. Touring boots should have a lightweight construction, and an ankle hinge to allow movement for climbing.
Back to skins. They should measure more or less the same length and width as your skis. They attach to the base of your skis with reusable glue and have clips to hold them in place at either end of your ski. When you reach the top of your hike, you unclip them, fold them in half glue to glue (in order to keep them sticky for the next time) and roll them up in your bag.
Can I hire ski-touring equipment?
It is more and more common to be able to rent ski-touring equipment. Our ski shops in Plagne Centre and Val d’Isere both have up to date ski-touring equipment available to rent in a variety of shapes and sizes. Contact our in-resort team to enquire or book.
What about split-boarding?
Split-boarding follows exactly the same principles as ski-touring. The invention of split-boards means snowboarders can literally split their boards into two skis and hike up like their skier buddies using skins on the base.
The bindings are quite specialised as they need to work like ski touring bindings with the heel freed up for the way up and like snowboard bindings, sideways on the board for the way down.
Snowboarders can wear their regular boots as they are flexible enough to hike in. If you don’t have a split-board, it is still possible to tour wearing snow-shoes carrying your board on your back.
How to Ski Tour
Well, the principle is pretty simple. You hike up and you ski down. But, as with all things there are plenty of other things to consider. First and foremost, safety.
How to Ski Tour safely?
If it’s your first time, you’ll probably want to go with a guide / instructor. They will ensure you have your kit set up correctly, will check you have the right safety equipment and will be able to teach you the technique and give you an idea of where to set your limits to start with. Don’t forget ski-touring is a full body, cardiovascular workout in an environment that comes with its own risks.
Safety Equipment for Ski-touring
If you’re ski-touring or split-boarding in a closed resort or off-piste, you should be equipped with safety equipment in case of an avalanche situation. As a minimum, this should include a transceiver, a shovel and a probe, but many ski tourers choose to wear an airbag too. The airbag has a ripcord that inflates ‘wings’ that burst out from the bag to keep you on top of the snow, preventing you from being buried, should you set off or be hit by an avalanche.
Ski-touring and split-boarding are very physical, and you will build up a sweat. Taking a plentiful supply of water is important to keep your body hydrated, particularly as the cold alpine air is very dry. You should also take high energy snacks. You definitely don’t want to ‘bonk’ on the mountain. This is where you very suddenly have a complete lack of energy as a result of prolonged physical activity and lack of sugar in your muscles. This could be dangerous combined with cold temperatures and a challenging descent ahead of you.
Must-haves for ski-touring also include sunglasses, sun cream, gloves and a warm hat. Finally, ensure you have your mobile phone on you, and that it’s fully charged.
What to wear for ski touring?
Layers is the name of the game here. You will need to be able to remove layers so you can hike up the hill without sweating profusely and put them back on at the top, so you don’t get cold on the descent. We favour merino (one or two layers) for its breathable and wicking qualities, a down layer which is light and packs down small in your bag and an outer jacket / shell for its wind and waterproof qualities. For more in depth information, check out our article what should I wear for skiing.
Can I ski tour up the piste?
With ski-touring, the mountains are your oyster however, in most French alpine resorts, you are not allowed to ski-tour up the pistes whilst the ski-lifts are open for safety reasons. That said, with the rising popularity of ski-touring, many resorts have set up designated touring routes. The routes in each resort have been summarised on one handy website. Click here to select a resort in the Savoie and here for Haute Savoie resorts.
Do I need a guide / instructor?
Obviously we’re biased but YES. It is definitely a good idea to book a fully qualified guide who knows the terrain of the resort you are in. Ski-touring makes up a large proportion of the French ski instructor diploma so all of our instructors are extremely well qualified to take you out ski-touring and split-boarding.
Simply put, taking a guide will enhance your experience. Your guide will assess your ski / snowboard level and fitness and talk to you about what you want out of the experience. On that basis they will be able to suggest an itinerary to suit you / your group.
Your instructor will act with safety in mind. Knowing the resort, the snow pack and the conditions on the day will help them choose the best itinerary for the conditions.
Your guide will be able to share their vast knowledge and experience with you, pointing out landmarks, providing information about local flora and fauna (you may well share your ski tour with the local wildlife!) offering advice on your technique and keeping a check on any safety issues.
To our mind, why would you spend so much time, energy and money not to get the most out of your ski touring experience?
Let’s wrap up (sorry, another pun slipped in), ski-touring and split-boarding are fantastic ways to enjoy the slopes, get away from the queues for the ski lifts and give you a fantastic work out. If you don’t have the kit you can rent it and to get the most out of your experience we recommend booking one of our experienced and knowledgeable instructors.
So what are you waiting for, get booted up and let’s head up the hill!