• Dobratsch Skitour Martin Hofmann

    The Truth about Ski Touring

    Ski touring – skinning up the slopes rather than taking a lift – is how skiing used to be, and increasingly experienced skiers like Patrick Thorne are giving it a go themselves. But what's the fascination and what are the rewards when it's easier to just hop on a gondola?

    Of all the different types of skiing I have tried, I have always found ski touring the closest thing to true skiing freedom. I've tried the usual alpine skiing, of course, monoski, Telemark and enjoyed the silence of the forest cross country skiing. Heading off-piste on a freeride ski descent comes close, I mean it has "free" in the title.

    I'd decided to give touring a go, as many do, as my next step after mastering my freeriding (and even trying a little snowboarding). To be honest, it took me some convincing to try at first, whilst friends enthused about how fantastic touring was, a sense of escape from the everyday world like nothing else they promised.

    What's the Fun in That?

    But "skinning" up a mountain (which sounds cool but is essentially walking uphill to "earn your turns" down) when ski resorts are investing millions of Euros in fabulous fast new lifts with heated leather seats to do that hard work for you seemed a bit, well, pointless to me. Essentially I thought: "Where's the fun in that?” 

    However, I was promised, as it was Austria, my tour would take me to a mountain hut for a unique overnight stay. A great meal, a spectacular sunrise provided for my personal pleasure, then a descent making our own tracks in the powder snow. I decided to take a chance and step into the unknown… with an experienced local guide of course.

    The First Attempt

    • After spending some time in the ski resort learning the differences between my alpine gear and this similar but still rather unfamiliar touring kit, I went on to go through lots of practice with the avalanche safety equipment. Then, it was time to put my faith in my instructor and guide and head uphill, learning the basics of skinning technique on what for me was a challenging enough slope, for my instructor probably far too easy.

    • But I did grab the hang of the basics fairly quickly, rapidly improving as I mastered the most efficient method of ascent (keep skis close to the slope to refresh the grip of the skins each time, gliding rather than stepping) and when we reached the top I did feel a great sense of achievement, as well as about a stone lighter having sweated off so much weight (which I promptly put back on with the evening meal).

    The Runs You Remember

    Of the many thousands of ski runs I've made over the years, a few more memorable than others for the scenery, the snow, the people I was with, or some other unique factor, few stick in the mind like the runs I got myself up, to ski down.

    Besides the usually blissful, peaceful powder descent, only accessible to those of us who had climbed up under our own power, I also feel a strong connection to the early, pioneering years of skiing, before there were those lifts up and huge tractors to groom the slopes down. Back then about the only way there was to go skiing at all could be described as "ski touring". I've watched mesmerising films of fearless skiers in the Arlberg in the 1920s and my mind always wanders to those pioneers when I'm touring.

    Learn more about the history of skiing in Austria
    Hannes Schneider

    Another Level

    True, when touring, especially if the weather isn't great and I'm feeling tired with still a long way to go, I sometimes miss that easier way of ascent, but the sense of achievement when you power through the doubts and get to the top is almost as good as the joyful isolation you achieve skiing down just with your friends.

    Touring takes you to another level, a real sense of liberation and true space to breathe in deeply and let go of your troubles. Now I just need to get my fitness level up before I tackle something more challenging. 

    Facts - what do you need for a Ski Tour?

    • How to Prepare

      For those not in the know as to what ski touring actually involves, the key differences from our usual downhill skiing is that you're walking (or "skinning") up the slope rather than taking the lift and wearing special touring skis. These clip to the toe of your binding but not, for the ascent, at the heel, to aid with walking. You're also wearing "skins" on your skis for the ascent to stop them sliding back.

      On the ascent as your heel is free and you can make a step, bending your legs and pulling your ski forward, sliding close to the snow for maximum efficiency. Once at the top of your run it is time to remove skins, click the bindings to now hold on to the heel of your boot, and you're ready for a freeride style off-piste descent.

    • For boarders, there is now a sort of snowboarding equivalent in the splitboard which can be split in half along its length to form two parts for the ascent but clipped together into a single board for the descent. On top of the different gear, because you are usually away from the kind of terrain ski resorts patrol and make avalanche-safe, you need to also be carrying items including an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe and know how to use them and to read the terrain you're entering for safety issues.

      It may all sound a little complicated, perhaps a little intimidating at first, but as with all activities, experts are waiting to teach you the basics of efficient skinning technique, guide you on routes specially chosen for first-timers, teach you the safety basics and generally make the experience great fun and thoroughly satisfying. It's no surprise so many people get hooked on ski touring once they've tried it.

    • Equipment

      Touring ski equipment (skis, boots and bindings) is all different to downhill ski kits and usually more expensive, so definitely rent initially before you're sure you're hooked on touring. Even ski poles are different, usually with a bigger basket at the base to push against the snow and adjustable so that the length can be altered for different terrain on the ascent and for the descent.

    • The short list:

      • Skins - long thin pieces of fabric that fit the base of your skis to give grip on the ascent
      • Avalanche transceiver, shovel, and probe, avalanche airbag (optional)
      • Food and drinks (a litre of water is usually ideal)
      • First aid kit
      • Lightweight and waterproof backpack


    Most skiers are familiar with the layering system but the need for lightweight clothing is multiplied when it comes to ski touring.

    It may be cool in the morning as you set off, but you'll quickly warm up on the ascent so a good base layer and lightweight shell will most likely be adequate, pack a warmer (but again lightweight) mid-layer or two in your backpack to put on when you cool down at the top of the slope and begin your descent.

    Your extremities can get cold even when much of your body is hot, so good gloves, perhaps with a thermal inner, are a sensible option.

    Your feet will be moving much more than in a rigid downhill ski boot so take care of your socks, too. Extra protection/padding around the toes and heel are especially welcome.

    The Right Technique

    Getting your ascent right is the biggest part of your enjoyment (or otherwise) of your ski touring day. Putting the skins on the bases of your skis correctly and setting your binding and boots in the accurate ways are all skills that need to be learned. Once you're underway on your ascent a common mistake for first timers is to lift your ski off the ground when skiing up, when it is much more efficient and saves energy if you slide your skis, keeping contact with the snow throughout.

    Efficient use of your poles, normally holding them a little ahead of you to support your legs as you push into your next stride, is also a useful skill to have. Touring bindings have various heel settings to help with different conditions, flat, middle or high. Mostly you are going to be on the "middle" setting which suits the typical traverse gradient.

    You probably won't have to deal with it initially but when turning on an uphill traverse on a steeper slope ascending there's a technique to master, the kick turn, arguably one of the trickiest aspects of skinning and well worth practising beforehand when you know this is going to be needed on the mountain.

    Skitour bei Lech am Arlberg / Lech at Arlberg

    What Else To Consider When Going on a Ski Tour

    • Once you have a little ski touring experience and are a master of avalanche safety you may be at the stage of planning a trip yourself rather than relying on an instructor or guide.

      At that stage, “planning and preparation” becomes much more important. Check your planned route before you attempt it by studying maps and reports from those who have already been there.

    • You'll also want to check snow, weather and avalanche conditions on the morning of your trip to ensure these are favourable for the full day. If they're not, you need to be prepared to alter your plans or cancel your trip completely.

      Ski touring is much more popular in late winter and early spring with generally longer days and better weather and a good snow base hopefully built up through the winter.

    Tipps for Beginners

    The sensible thing to do is to sign up for a beginner ski touring course with a ski school or mountain guide, offered at most Austrian resorts. Here you will learn how to "read" the mountain, spot potentially dangerous and probably safe terrain, and learn how to use your avalanche transceiver as well as the probe and shovel you'll need to carry in case you're unlucky enough to need to use them. All of the equipment, as well as the special ski touring skis, boots, poles and skins can usually be rented in the resort.

    Even before you start your course you may have an option to test avalanche safety equipment in a testing park, offered at some resorts. These simulate avalanche rescues and allow you to master your transceiver technique as well as your probe and shovel.

    Safety is such a big factor you'd be mad to head out alone, or even in a group of friends if at least one of you wasn't already experienced and proficient in mountain safety.

    Most ski tours start at the bottom of the mountain and you skin up, but of course you can take a lift up the mountain and skin more horizontally across to some terrain you can't access by lift or easily by hiking. Obviously, safety remains the number one priority in finding your route.

    The best Ski Touring Regions in Austria

    Most Austrian ski resorts are brilliantly equipped for first-time ski tourers.


    Grossarl in Salzburgerland has a particular reputation for ski touring, with numerous routes to choose from. Many focus on the valley's best-known mountain, the Kreuzkogel, but that leaves the surrounding mountains significantly quieter and more peaceful. A local association known as Berg-Gesund ("mountain health") offers beginner taster sessions in ski touring and even several tours free of charge every week – the only requirement to participate is that you are staying overnight in one of more than 100 participating hotels, apartments, or farmhouses in the resort. The sample tours include advice and practice on using your shovel, probe, and transponder correctly. All the ski-touring equipment you need can be rented from sports shops in Grossarl and if you get hooked the tourist office sells a 44-page ski-touring guide describing the 17 most beautiful tours in the valley.

    Learn more
     / Ski Amade


    Ischgl in the Tirol region has about 15 ski touring routes for all abilities, but many first timers start with a route that is more downhill than uphill by using the resort's new Piz Val Grondabahn (means “peak of the great valley” and is situated exactly on the border of Switzerland and Austria) to get up the slopes before they start. This may sound a bit like cheating given all we've said, and you can of course skin all the way up if you like, but the benefit is you start high already so get a lot of the pleasure part for little of the hard part! The tour begins on the piste down to the Col Val Gronda at 2.752m where you head off-piste and descend south-west to a flat area. Now it is time to start skinning, but on a gentle gradient to a col before a descent westerly, then south-westerly to the hut. There are about 530 vertical metres of skiing over about 3.4km (2,11mi) and the trip usually takes only about 90 minutes, a good first experience.

    Learn more
    Ski touring in Ischgl / Ischgl

    About the Author: Patrick Thorne

    Patrick Thorne has been writing about ski resorts for nearly 40 years. In the early 1990s he became the first person to locate every ski area on the planet, eventually over 6,500 places in 80 countries. He has visited more than 300, freeriding and ski touring at many of them. Patrick has written a dozen ski books including the best-selling "Powder", a guide to the world's 50 best ski runs. He has edited InTheSnow magazine and website for more than a decade and contributes to numerous other magazines, newspapers, and websites. Aware of the impact of climate change through personal experience, he set up in 2004, dedicated to reporting on the ski community's battle with rising temperatures. Patrick lives in the Highlands of Scotland on a croft with his own small hill where he can go on a mini ski tour or freeride when it snows.

    Patrick Thorne

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