Definition of Backcountry Skiing, Slackcountry, Sidecountry and Off Piste

Post by blogger | September 15, 2008      

European backcountry skiing.
In Europe, the definitions of backcountry skiing are blurred as mechanized access is common and groomed slopes tend to blend with natural snow. (Fritz Barthel photo.)

This somewhat to assist dialog in the greater culture, but mostly to clarify things for folks new to backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering — especially regarding the definition of the term “backcountry skiing.”

When I published my first guidebook in 1985, publisher Mountaineers Books debated me about whether to spell “backcountry” as two words or one. I don’t think their crotchety editor even had the portmanteau in her personal lexicon, and might have even thought it was poor English. I got the impression she thought the word “backcountry” was something a Colorado ignoramus cooked up while bar stooling in Aspen.

(Full disclosure: I’ve been told I make too many word joins in my writing. Probably so…)

I blew the dust off a moldering copy of “Colorado High Routes,” and sure enough I can’t find one use of the word “backcountry” on the front or back cover. Nor is the word utilized much (if any) in the text. It seems the term “ski mountaineering” was favored instead — even though many of my routes in the book are low angled ski tours far from any summits.

Yet even back then the term “backcountry” was in full use, and I lobbied for its inclusion as one word. This was of course subsequently done by magazines and many other screeds of epistemological significance. So the term is now in common use.

Since then, the domain name was purchased for $80,000, and the word is used to describe everything from flashlights to underwear. As for, “backcountry skiing” IS who we are (though as of 2015 the term “ski touring” seems to be gaining traction).

So what’s our written definition?

Wikipedia does a decent job of it. Their intro paragraph:

Backcountry skiing is skiing in a sparsely inhabited rural region over ungroomed and unmarked slopes or pistes. More importantly, the land and the snow pack are not monitored, patrolled, or maintained. Fixed mechanical means of ascent such as ski lifts are typically not present.

Wiki goes on to expound at length, as is their destiny. But we need something short and pithy. The “unmarked” part has to go since many backcountry trails are marked or at least signed. More, plenty of backcountry skiing is done with mechanized access or ascent, so that needs to be addressed differently.

My initial effort:

Backcountry skiing is skiing ungroomed “natural” snow in sparsely populated areas, generally outside designated ski resorts. Human power is frequently the means of access and ascent, but mechanized means such as helicopters and ski lifts may be used so long as the land accessed is backcountry.

The terms “slackcountry” and “sidecountry” simply refer to backcountry that’s easily accessed from a resort. Really not a big deal, and still “backcountry.” The issue with slackcountry and sidecountry is in the U.S. quite a few unprepared skiers are venturing off resorts into these areas, and getting into trouble. Hence, the terminology is useful for things such as accident reports and conversation. For example, “the noobs ducked the rope for some slackcountry powder, didn’t have any self rescue gear, and nearly died.”

Esteemed blogsters, care to take a stab at it? Comments on.


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27 Responses to “Definition of Backcountry Skiing, Slackcountry, Sidecountry and Off Piste”

  1. Mike September 15th, 2008 10:38 am

    I think you’re close, but I’d go beyond “generally” outside designated ski resorts. If something is in-bounds, even if it’s ungroomed, unsigned, and unmaintained, it’s not backcountry. I’d even be hesitant to call skiing most terrain accessed through BC gates full-blown backcountry skiing. The tough question is, what defines side- and slackcountry?

  2. Tom September 15th, 2008 11:09 am

    I think you have a good definition.
    Sidecountry… leads me to think about my adventures in the frontcountry (turns back to the car, ie the diamond, berthoud) and middlecountry (teton pass routes to the road or short kicks to the car) and bc (rescue or exit can take hours).
    And as an aside, Chris and Ed put on a great show in Steamboat friday night.

  3. cory September 15th, 2008 11:34 am

    I like Mike’s thoughts. Maybe slackcountry is when you use anything other than human power to earn your turns (i.e. lifts, snowmobiles, car shuttles, snow cats, helicopters, and flying saucers)

  4. Dongshow September 15th, 2008 12:24 pm

    Love the topic Lou!

    I personally define backcountry skiing as “skiing in uncontrolled rural areas without professional assistance.”

    The mode of travel is inconsequential for me, it’s more an aspect of personal responsibility. Guided skiing may take place in the backcountry, but it is certainly different. For example, using an air taxi, vs guided helicopter skiing. The levels of personal responsibility and they type of choices one makes deems the two methods impossible to reconcile.

    I don’t think you can limit it to human powered and deem anytime snowmobiles, aircraft or lifts are involved, “slack country.” Is someone snowmobile skiing say 40 miles from the nearest road less backcountry then someone driving to a ski area and skinning up the other side of the road (thinking Wasatch style here)? Would love to hear people’s take on this.

    Personally, it makes no difference if something is accessed by lifts, skins or a super cub, it’s simply a matter of taking on full responsibility.

  5. cory September 15th, 2008 1:14 pm

    Cheers Dongshow!
    I like the idea of “personal responsibility” fitting into the equation. Unfortunately, even if people should be personally responsible, it seems like you often read of situations where they don’t realize they are responsible until trouble sets in. I think maybe the answer lies in our bc forefathers. What were they doing? Finding a hill, hiking to the top and skiing down. Personally I think the ascent is a important as the descent. I like the term “slackcountry” because it implies that you are skiing the same terrain, but you’re taking it easy in how you get there.

  6. Larry September 15th, 2008 1:36 pm

    I can remember years ago when a group of us would yo-yo in one car to skii the Devil’s Playground on Pikes Peak. And, when we travelled from the east slope to A-Basin, all of the loaded car’s passengers skied the Little Professor from the top of Lovelnd Pass to the A-Basin parking lot. Then, at the end of the day we would reverse the ski down from the top of Loveland Pass to the base of the Loveland Ski Area. Backcountry????

  7. Christian September 15th, 2008 2:24 pm

    slackcountry – use of car shuttles
    sidecountry – use of resort facilities to access out of bounds areas
    snomoskiing/heliskiing/catskiing – use of snomobile heli cat

    Backcountry is a giant catch-all for the rest. Slapping a definition on it won’t change what folks do, or really, what they call it.

    Ski mountaineering and free skiing/free ski mountaineering folks have their own silly linguistic debates, but no doubt, whatever it is called, it occurs in the backcountry.

    Thank god we can all agree on skate skiing and aid climbing.

  8. Njord September 15th, 2008 3:18 pm


    Thanks for the nod towards helicopters…. most people in this community have convulsions when that word is used!


  9. Keith September 15th, 2008 4:14 pm

    Backcountry skiing: (alternate definition) (1) skiing the slope less traveled (2) a state of mind encompassing a scape from “the establishment” and an embrace of danger, intrigue, and “earning ones turns”.

    Note: Although backcountry skiing is a term which commonly umbrellas most non-resort use, the term traditionally refers to skiing accessed by non-mechanized means while still being in a sparsely (at most) populated area. It is for this reason that there is a delineation between heliskiing, catskiing, and backcountry skiing.


  10. Dostie September 15th, 2008 5:13 pm

    You’re missing the most obvious term for distinguishing it from other definitions. Your term! Wild snow! It is an essential ingredient guaranteeing you’re “back” far enough in the country to be enjoying real skiing.

    So here’s my suggestion:
    Backcountry skiing is skiing untamed snow in sparsely populated, mountainous, naturally wild areas. Human power is a popular means of ascent, but motorized means such as helicopters and snowmobiles may be used so long as the terrain accessed is essentially wild.

  11. Stewart September 15th, 2008 6:26 pm

    As I understand it backcountry skiing is a catch-all term than includes all the forms of skiing that take place outside of controlled resort boundaries. It is defined by where it occurs, not how it is done. It has acquired a cool cachet from it’s implied risk and responsibility, although it may not involve either. Whilst I indulge in many varieties of backcountry skiing, ski-touring more precisely describes the human powered exploration and skiing of snow covered mountains that really motivates me.

  12. Simon September 15th, 2008 9:44 pm

    Wow, this is so much more civil than the red-point vs pink-point debates of old on rec.climbing. Its like we’re not even on the internet!

    Congrats, Lou- you’ve attracted the only reasonable readers left on the net!

  13. dave downing September 15th, 2008 11:18 pm

    @ Njord : speaking of helicopters, next trip to marble, we’re taking your car. is it an A-Star or what? Or perhaps something with fire power so i can save batteries on my beacon with a little control work 🙂

  14. Dostie September 16th, 2008 12:14 am

    The more I think about it, the less I’m inclined to endorse the inclusion of motorized access. Yes, you can make the case that excluding motorized access is hypocritical since we all use motors to get to the trailhead. But the back part of backcountry clearly implies a solitude that the presence of motors nullifies. In fact, I’d say that as soon as you are using motors for the transportation part of the tour over snow (not over asphalt) backcountry becomes slackcountry and the presence of sleds (or choppers) is the determining factor. Sleds in the backcountry = Slackcountry.

    So I disagree with my prior suggestion and urge you to maintain a cleaner, greener, purer stance. “Backcountry skiing is skiing where the snow is wild, the terrain is equally untamed, and pure aficionados earn their turns with old fashioned sweat!”

    PS: Nice face lift on the website Lou!

  15. Lou September 16th, 2008 5:31 am

    Simon, the raging bullies come around once in a while frothing at the mouth, but don’t last. After years of experience I’ve become quite adept at defending our turf.

    Dostie, I’m mostly with you in spirit, but I’m trying for a definition that matches reality and common use of the word, rather than our ideals.

    More, in terms of definition I I totally believe that when I drive my sled in somewhere, park, and ski a peak, I’m backcountry skiing not slackcountry skiing.

    You’re falling into the trap of letting some ancillary equipment define the word and experience. Sure, if a person is sled skiing (gaining vert with snowmobile) that might be pushing the limits of the definition. But to simply drive up a road that’s open in the summer and heavily used by snowmobiles, then park and ski? That’s just trading a snowmobile track for tires and really nothing. IMHO. Thus, I’m keeping the mechanized component in the definition, though will try to clarify that backcountry skiing generally has a strong muscle powered component.

  16. Lou September 16th, 2008 8:56 am

    I was getting my quotes page linked up in the new menus and read through it only to find this:

    “Human power is its own end.” — Karl Marx


  17. Dostie September 16th, 2008 9:40 am


    Agree that using a sled or chopper for access does not change the experience of backcountry skiing in spirit OR in deed IFF (if and only if) it is used for access. As long as the earn for the turn is human powered, then I agree, motors do not change the essential experience of backcountry skiing. The key is that motors are only used to extend the trailhead to be closer to the base of the mountain skied. Even this can be a slippery slope, so that’s why I think accepting such motors in the definition is a conciliation that will backfire.

    Where I draw the line is using the motors for the ascent immediately preceding the descent. If motorized travel is used to get you in position, then it is slackcountry skiing. A good friend prefers heli-skiing and he calls it earning his turns, but more as a friendly jab at my slogan. He explains, “first I earn (make the $$ to pay for the ride), then I turn.” But he readily admits this is antithetical to the earn your turns spirit.

    Since you were a collaborator in the promotion and consequent growth of the sport you know that staying true to our values is important. Making a definition that compromises the spirit of adventure that comes from keeping the endeavor purely on a human powered level is merely appeasement.

    History shows that appeasement never achieves the peace it aims to obtain, it only erodes the position of the appeaser. Recognizing reality is important, but accepting it is not.

    As for Karl Marx quote, I’m unaware what the context of the quote was. Considering the source, I suspect a bit of cynicism here. Regardless of whether “Human power is its own end”, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” is an undeniable fact. Thus, when you add the turbo-charged power of motors to the backcountry experience, you absolutely corrupt it.

  18. cory September 16th, 2008 9:57 am

    Why is the line greyed on the ascent, but not the descent? Motor usage is easier…period.

  19. kevin hj September 16th, 2008 10:24 am

    Seems to me that Backcountry is in opposition to the Frontcountry.
    Instead of the mountain I see out my window above town, it is probably the mountains behind that. More remote, tough to get to and commiting to play in.

    If you break a ski or a body part and can descend easily to your car, sled or town. That seems like frontcountry to me. If you are a bit more remote than that and need to be more equipped, competent and self-reliant… backcountry.

    I guess sleds are a bit different than cars because if you get out there and have a mechanical, you can be deep in the backcountry and screwed!

    Anyhow, I think it’s a bit like the frontside/backside at a ski hill. Backcountry is the stuff you can’t see from the road or get to that easily. That’s not to say frontcountry skiing isn’t worthy… it’s what we do most days and have a great time doing!

    just an opinion

  20. Lou September 16th, 2008 10:32 am

    Dostie, I’m using the Marx quote only as levity, as a sort of reverse pun. It of course has nothing to do with muscle power.

    You present a good case. The thing is, motors have to be addressed somehow in the definition, if for no other reason than to say what part of backcountry skiing they are not. More, I think it’s fair to not speak in absolutes, but rather state something about how mechanized may play a roll, but there is significant public sentiment against calling motor powered skiing “backcountry skiing.” After that, we revisit the issue in 10 years and see how people are using the word.

  21. John September 16th, 2008 5:08 pm

    Here are the definitions that work for me.

    Frontcountry/Resort – Skiing on an area where there is regular avalanche control control work performed for the purpose of skiing. The primary mode of transport involves fixed assets (roads and chairlifts)

    Sidecountry/Slackcountry Skiing in an area where avalanche control work is not performed for the purpose of skiing. The primary mode of transport involves fixed assets (roads and chairlifts)

    Backcountry – Skiing in an area where avalanche control work is not performed, and the primary mode of transport does not include fixed assets. Instead transport is primarily provided by snowmachines, helis, and human power

  22. Luke September 16th, 2008 7:11 pm

    I like where Kevin is going with his point. To me, frontcountry vs. backcountry is the real comparison; the slackcountry vs. backcountry debate is one that, as many of you have already written, can too easily be obscured with technicalities. The direction this debate seems to be going is something like, “If you use a motor to get within 2 miles of a peak, it’s slackcountry, anymore and it’s backcountry.” Concrete definitions like these will always be debated, and we’ll never really come up with a true definition of “backcountry skiing”. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but to me backcountry skiing is the state of mind you have when you leave the trailhead.

    In the Northeast, where I live, we have a nice mixture of slackcountry and backcountry skiing. The old CCC trails in NH and VT are a perfect example of the slackcountry experience. They were built before there was serious lift-access skiing, and they were designed for the “everyman” skier. In those days, you weren’t a “backcountry” skier, you were simply a skier. They were designed to make glisse accessible to anyone, and for the most part they did. Now, with all the ski areas that are in New England these old trails have taken on a different definition, people consider skinning up an old woods trail and skiing down “backcountry”. To me, that’s easy; it’s slackcountry, but it’s also really fun.

    Like I said, backcountry skiing is a state of mind. It’s about going out there and being independent. It’s knowing that if your friend nails a tree at 25 mph, you’re going to have clean it up. It’s knowing that help isn’t around the corner, and that you’ll be left to your own devices in the worst circumstances. For me, backcountry means no ski patrol, no avalanche control, no outside help. It’s about making due with what you’ve got and being creative. Basically, it’s the freedom to go where you want, when you want, and ski in any way that you want without having to answer to anyone. Backcountry is badass.

    People will continue to debate the definition of “backcountry skiing” for as long as there’s snow on this planet. That’s a great thing. People are thinking about it. I happen to think about it quite a bit. This is simply my definition and you can take it or leave it. That’s the beauty of it. Nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong, but what really matters in the end is the powder!

  23. Lou September 16th, 2008 7:31 pm

    Wow Luke, nice. Usually when people say it’s a “state of mind” my eyes glaze over, but the way you present it I can totally relate. Indeed, I’m thinking that somehow this concept should be in the WildSnow definition.

    It’s like 10th Mountain Huts promoting “self reliance” in their mission statement. Especially these days of the nanny state concept, a bit of emphasis on self reliance can certainly help our culture. Self meaning other people involved as well as the royal “we.”

  24. MtnMentsh September 17th, 2008 9:50 am

    I like to ski in closed resorts before they open in the fall; no patrol work or people about, and usually early in the am so I am solo, does that blur the definition? Also I like to access sidecountry by skinning to it. Is it still sidecountry because others can get to if via lifts?

  25. John Gloor September 17th, 2008 11:41 pm

    I feel backcountry skiing is skiing anywhere except the ski resort. Terms such as sidecountry and slackcountry are created by human powered skiers to elevate themselves by denigrating others. One can skin for hours and thousands of rolling vertical from the top of the Highlands, so why is that any less notable than skiing a classic like Hayden from the bottom up? Is It slackcountry skiing if I sled to the base of a peak in March, but backcountry if I repeat the ski driving to the same point in June? The phrase “backcountry skiing” really defines itself. There probably is no debate over what is meant if one goes hunting/climbing/snowmobiling/camping in the backcountry. Why are skiers so eager to differentiate what they are doing when the phrase really describes where they going? I have come to the conclusion that the term “backcountry tourer” probably describes what most of us do but it sounds too tame to really catch on (those egos again).

  26. Lou November 26th, 2008 9:21 am

    I’ve got the glossary project started.
    The definition of backcountry skiing refers back to this blogpost and comment string.

  27. Sid January 4th, 2017 3:56 am

    and not one mention here of “AT Skiing”. I prefer that term………but perhaps backcountry is technically more accurate

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