Skiing Definitions: Backcountry, Touring, Frontcountry, Slackcountry, Sidecountry, Piste

Post by blogger | August 3, 2015      
Karina ski touring, or is it free touring? On Cerro Arenas, east of Santiago, Chile.

Karina ski touring, or is it free touring? On Cerro Arenas, east of Santiago, Chile.

Language evolves, sometimes changing quickly over just a few decades or years. Consider the English etymology of our beloved ski sport. (We’ve covered skiing definitions past, time for a new take). Thus, a 2015 glossary for what we in North America tend to call “backcountry skiing” and in Europe is called “ski touring.”

Everyone, please add your comments and suggestions. Help me refine the definitions and add synonyms. I intentionally left out photographs to inspire us to work harder on good verbal descriptions, and to prevent dating.

AT Skiing

This acronym gained popularity in the 1980s when I, Paul Ramer, Craig Dostie and others attempted to promulgate a term synonymous with how the French and many others were using the words “ski randonnee.” The initials stand for “Alpine Touring.” In terms of gear, “AT” ski bindings free the heel for uphill stride while providing a latch-down fixed heel for the downhill. “AT skiing,” generally means using such gear in alpine mountain terrain.” While the terms “AT gear” and “AT bindings; skis; boots” are still in common use, one doesn’t often hear the term “AT skiing,” instead the term “alpine touring” would tend to be used, or just “ski touring” (see below). For many examples of AT bindings, see our museum.

See this post for an introduction to AT backcountry alpine ski touring.

Alpine Touring

When applied to skiing, “alpine touring” means using human power to move through alpine mountain terrain. Would usually refer to using AT gear (see above), but one could alpine tour on telemark gear (see below).

Backcountry Skiing

Skiing on natural snow in generally unpopulated undeveloped mountain regions (as opposed to areas with avalanche control or snow grooming) defines backcountry skiing. In common use this broad term applies to everything from skiing just outside resort boundaries, all the way to the most remote regions of the world. While most backcountry skiing is human powered, accessing natural snow terrain by mechanized means (e.g., helicopter) can also be called backcountry skiing. This is perhaps our most inclusive and general term, and thus our subtitle for the WildSnow dot com blog and website.

Extreme Skiing

Traditionally, “extreme skiing” is a branch of ski mountaineering involving descents of steep dangerous terrain. The term “extreme skiing” was adopted by the ski film industry in the 1980s to describe fast agressive skiing we now tend to call “freeride” or “free skiing.” Presently, “extreme skiing” has returned to its original meaning — thankfully.

Freeheel Skiing

Defined by gear, see “Telemark Skiing” below.

Frontcountry Skiing

Most often “frontcountry” would refer to resort skiing using mechanized means of ascent. While frontcountry skiing is often the antithesis of ski touring, one can frontcountry ski on their ski touring gear, uphill in a developed area, and thus be “frontcountry skiing” under human power. For example, in Europe it is massively popular to uphill ski in developed areas. One would not call this “backcountry skiing,” though one could say she “ski toured up to the restaurant.”


Definitions of “freeride skiing” are just as flexible as the skiers who practice this discipline. The idea of “freeride” is skiing free, as in no rules, artistic freedom, fluid and fun, usually fast with swooping carves. The only guidelines for freeride are “avoid tight turns whenever possible, ride the arc of the ski, stay in natural snow whenever possible.” Note that “freeride” skiing is practiced with mechanization or with human power. I include here as a definition to clarify related phrases.

Free & Freeride Touring

Go under mostly or 100% human power, make your descents in freeride style (with emphasis on descents): you are “free touring” or “freeride touring.”

Nordic Skiing

Use of narrow light skis with flexible boots and a binding that only holds the boot toe, thus allowing up-down movement of the boot heel. Nordic skiing is generally done on lower angled terrain or prepared tracks. “Nordic” skiing on steep mountain terrain with heavier gear is usually called “telemarking,” “telemark” or “tele.”

Piste Skiing

“Skiing on piste” refers to packed snow, heavily human-influenced and/or machine groomed, usually at a resort. However, certain areas in Europe are not “resorts” per se, though they’ll run a grooming machine on a ski touring route, often to access a mountain restaurant. In that case, one might say he is “ski touring the piste to the gasthaus.”

Off Piste Skiing

In its broad definition, “off piste” simply means skiing natural snow within or outside resorts. When used in conversation (“I skied off piste today”) would imply being in the backcountry, but not necessarily.

Sidecountry Skiing

Refers to natural snow areas near resorts or civilization, often heavily used. Sidecountry skiers often use standard alpine skiing gear without uphill capability, and seek out routes that end with access to ski lifts or road transportation. While here at we would publish trip reports involving larger sidecountry routes, we would tend to not cover most sidecountry. If a “sidecountry” route required ski touring AT gear, we would tend to call it something like “lift accessed ski touring.”

Ski Mountaineering

This somewhat generic term refers to skiing in mountain terrain, generally with summiting or at least climbing part way up peaks that are fairly rugged or even technical. “Ski Mountaineering” may involve a broad skill set including technical rock and ice climbing, glacier travel and more. In many cases, a ski touring route might reach a mountain summit, but by a route that’s technically moderate and thus not really “ski mountaineering.” An example of ski mountaineering would be using skis high on Denali, Alaska. Conversely, doing powder laps on a lower peak in Colorado or the Alps would not be ski mountaineering even though the route accessed a summit.


Basically an abbreviation of “Ski Mountaineering,” but common use is to describe ski mountaineering racing. As in “she is a fast skimo racer.”

Ski Randonnee

French for “ski touring.” Common use worldwide for decades to describe backcountry skiing under mostly human power, generally using gear that allows lifting of the heel for uphill striding and latching of the heel for downhill skiing.

Ski Touring

In North America the term “ski touring” formerly connoted nordic skiing (see above) but has come into common use as a more specific term meaning backcountry skiing under mostly or 100% human power in alpine mountain terrain. The term is commonly used under the same definition in western Europe. That said, if you are located in the U.S. or Canada and skied with nordic gear on low angled terrain or prepared nordic tracks, you might still say you “went ski touring.” (Europeans and Canadians? Comments?)

Telemark (Tele) Skiing

Defined by gear, not regions or terrain. Use of ski equipment that does not latch the heel down for descent. The gear comes from nordic skiing roots, but present day telemark downhill ski gear is significantly different from what you’d call “nordic skis.”

Please check out our core ski touring glossary for much more in the way of etymology.


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


39 Responses to “Skiing Definitions: Backcountry, Touring, Frontcountry, Slackcountry, Sidecountry, Piste”

  1. ptor August 3rd, 2015 9:25 am

    And don’t forget to dress accordingly! 😉

  2. Hacksaw August 3rd, 2015 9:41 am

    Lou, you forgot “Heliskiing.” 😉

  3. Lou Dawson 2 August 3rd, 2015 9:47 am

    Hacksaw, thanks, it’s supposed to be a list for mostly human powered “ski touring” synonyms. Heliskiing might fit, but I think I’ll leave it out for now. Not sure I want to open the can all the way (grin). Lou

  4. Matt Kinney August 3rd, 2015 10:05 am

    Mechanized Skiing – Heli, lifts and sleds for laps. No skinning, just descending. Has nothing to do with “human-powered”, backcountry or independence.

    Airplane or heli drops for base camps may need to be defined as a separate category,. “From The Road” is different than a base camp drop off in the middle of the Chugach or the Chilkats.

    Thanks for a clean definition of tele… 🙂

  5. Steve August 3rd, 2015 12:28 pm

    There has been a movement in the NA avalanche community over the past two years to make the term “Sidecountry” obsolete. It’s too misleading, especially since this terrain is often prone to avalanche danger.

  6. AT Fred August 3rd, 2015 12:42 pm

    And what about “ski mountaineering”?

    I’ve always been hard pressed to explain to people what I do here in Colorado, and on trips to Europe; i.e., alpine ski touring. Saying simply “ski touring” conjures up visions of kick & glide through the forest ( with the comment “Oh yeah, I’ve done that.”); whereas, “ski mountaineering” would seem to emphasize using skis as a tool, along with ropes, etc. to primarily climb, and descend a peak.

    Perhaps it’s a matter of mindset, but possibly the ski mountaineer is more focused on reaching the top, whereas the alpine ski tourer is more interested in the journey and the ski down.

    It’s all good!

  7. Lou Dawson 2 August 3rd, 2015 1:13 pm

    AT, that’s why I’ve always liked the term “alpine touring” as in a more robust form of ski touring. Good suggestion on “ski mountaineering,” I’ll put it in there. Thanks, Lou

  8. Andy Carey August 3rd, 2015 1:16 pm

    Some finer distinctions: backcountry skiing includes alpine, subalpine, and forested/shrubland/grassy terrain. Ski touring, to me, includes the same terrain but connotates the object is touring–travelling through the backcountry to enjoy the bc winter environment and scenery in general. Touring for turns restricts touring to have the objective of traversing the bc to find slopes to ski. Yo-yoing means minimizing traversing and maximizing turning. The term Alpine Touring (AT) equipment is still applicable because it references the original purpose for developing the equipment, just like Telemark gear defines the primary purpose of developing the gear but the gear can be used for touring and, quite often, for parallel skiing. Amongst the free heel crowd, a distinction is often made between telemark gear and backcountry gear, the latter meaning lighter boots, narrower skis oftern with a waxless pattern, and lighter weight bindings including 3-pin, NNN-BC, SNS-BC all capable of turn in the alpine, subalpine, and lower elevation terrain.

  9. Matt Kinney August 3rd, 2015 1:38 pm

    Under different condition, a route might be “ski-mountainering” and under other conditions, it might be a steep solo boot with no rope. An icy couloir or a powdery one? Whippet or not? Depends. I thing you outline this in your rating system.

    Some consider any glacier travel ski mountaineering. I ski glaciers, icefalls, bergshrunds, etc.. I travel without ropes where other do, but there are reasons for that. So perhaps “glacier travel” would be a component of ski mountaineering?

    AAS defines “mechanized skiing” for statistical purposes. They also define “backcountry skiing”.

    How about “Stunt” skiing?

  10. aside August 3rd, 2015 4:46 pm

    I like the term ‘sidecountry’, but it is apparently leading to a misrepresentation of avalanche (and other ) hazards in the midst of the current “BC Boom” (and accompanying gear sales.) Apparently ‘Sidecountry’ sounds safer to less experienced participants than ‘Backcountry’.

    North American avalanche industry participants are being encouraged to use the term ‘lift served backcountry’, at least in public. That may seem like an oxymoron, but in terms of avalanche hazard, it is where most people are being exposed, so the term is merited. Uncontrolled avalanche terrain often starts immediately after you leave resort boundaries. Therefore so to does Backcountry avalache risk managemnet.

  11. Toby August 3rd, 2015 5:15 pm

    Nice glossary Lou, very good definitions, those should be added to the Webster Dictionary of the English Language! Thanks for the WS

    SKIHOCHTOUR is German speaking term in the Alps for higher altitude ski tour(ing) that includes glacier travel and typically contains mountaineering elements e.g. boot packing steeper sections with crampons etc. Also overnighting at the high elevation alpine huts is common part of a ski-hochtour.

    Maybe this could be called: Haute Route Skiing?

  12. Lou Dawson 2 August 3rd, 2015 5:25 pm

    Matt, thanks, I’ll add a sentence about conditions dependent nature of definition. Lou

  13. Lou Dawson 2 August 3rd, 2015 5:35 pm

    Toby, I’m keeping it mostly English for now, but good to get the other languages into the comments. Skihochtour is a good term, is it commonly used? I’d not heard it. Lou

  14. Lou Dawson 2 August 3rd, 2015 5:38 pm

    Aside, the language change is well intentioned but for skiers I don’t see the term “sidecountry” going away for a three word phrase “lift served backcountry.” Fine for legal reportage.

    As for sidecountry being safer, it often is. Ski patrol is close and sometimes the snowpack is stabilized by skier compaction. Reality.


  15. jasper August 3rd, 2015 8:00 pm

    Don’t forget cross country snowboarding!

  16. Jim Milstein August 3rd, 2015 8:19 pm

    I got excited to think I would learn what slackcountry is when I read the headline, but no — Lou was just teasing.

    Is slackcountry a place where no one feels like skiing today? Or, if they do ski, they don’t get far or climb much? I’ve been there.

  17. JRR August 3rd, 2015 9:20 pm

    Solid points about safety in the sidecountry Lou – although I would argue that sometimes it could be more dangerous as well – inexperienced skiers may come down from above w/o avoiding dangerous features, ski compaction at the top of the run could limit your ability to assess conditions further down, etc.

  18. Toby August 3rd, 2015 11:24 pm

    Lou, Skihochtour is commonly used term

    “Skihochtouren sind die Königsdisziplin im Bergsteigen”

    I thought you would implement it to the English language. WS approval stamp on it?

  19. Wookie August 4th, 2015 3:38 am

    Toby – I would disagree. The only use of it I’ve seen is in the DAV catalogs to denote ski mountaineering trips as opposed to ski touring trips.

    Also – whether or not we approve of slackcountry, it should get a definition. Its a commonly used term.

    Also an important omission: Apres Skiing!
    I’ll offer up a preliminary attempt:

    Apres Skiing: Group activities engaged in upon completion of any skiing activity. Generally including imbibition of alcohol and a recounting of the activities engaged in immediately prior. Notable regional variations are known to occur; re: North America: see beards, can beer, trucks, baggy clothing. re: Europe: disco, prosecco, Russian models, designer underwear.

  20. Joel August 4th, 2015 3:53 am


    Here in France we use the the “free touring” to mean:
    used some mechanical mean to get up to some point + some part human powered. You then obviously have to “free ride” down.
    The same type of terrain and ride down would be called either:
    -ski de randonnée/ski touring if 100% human powered
    -free ride if 100% engine powered


  21. Lou Dawson 2 August 4th, 2015 6:12 am

    Thanks Joel. Wookie, Mahogany Ridge, last run of the day. Lou

  22. Pascal August 4th, 2015 7:10 am

    Thank you Lou, for summing up the new and old definitions.
    As frenchman in Germany i’d like to notice :
    In french language we say : ski de randonnée. This is only correct with »de« between the two words.
    As for Skihochtour, this means in german an alpine tour entirely or partially going on a glacier. You need alpine climbing skills and gear for managing your security and the one of the group on the glacier.
    This has not much to do with Haute Route Skiing. Which is an alpine tour on ski up and down trying to reach one destination staying as high as possible to be able to navigate in the mountain with the skis, eventually for days. The most known example : Chamonix -Zermatt, or when this track is object of the annual race : La patrouille des glaciers.
    Skihochtour is typically german speaking. There is, as far as I know, no concept expressing the same in french or english. I suggest putting Skihochtour under the category ski mountaineering.
    My two cents from the german Alps. 😉
    Thanks for the blog, long live!

  23. gjaldimont August 4th, 2015 9:00 am

    Hey Lou, since a lot of “foreigners” are giving their two cents on the subject, I wanted to join the discussion.

    I’m from the (extreme) north east of italy: here we distinguish between “scialpinismo” (ski-alpinism) which comprises both spandex-clad racers (“tutine” as they’re called, which kind of stands for spandex again) as well as free-tourers. The term “freeride” is only used to describe resort side-country.

    i think the most interesting aspect refers to “steep” skiing: here the concept was never influenced by “freeride”, so that when you talk about “ripido” (direct translation of “steep”) everybody knows that we’re talking about serious stuff (definitely human-powered)

    It’s quite of a weird scene here, 90 % of skiers have 75/80 mm wide skis but the level (both on the up and the down) is equally high.

    Thanks for the blog, always a good read

  24. Mike August 4th, 2015 9:01 am

    The movement to eliminate the term “Sidecountry” or “Slackcountry” from the vernacular is pointless. It accurately describes the method in which the terrain is accessed. If we just start calling everything outside the ropes backcountry, then we will only be using a far less accurate term. And if you don’t know the difference, maybe you should stick to the lifts, because you probably don’t know how to use any of that expensive gear you are hopefully carrying in your pack. Otherwise, it’s just natural selection.

  25. Lou Dawson 2 August 4th, 2015 9:33 am

    Pascal, thanks for the French lesson, one does hate to bastardize the French language, as they do unpleasant things to those of us who would do this nefarious deed!

    Gjald, Italian is always interesting!


  26. Pascal August 5th, 2015 2:12 am

    Indeed, Lou, just try this again and I’ll throw you camembert cheese at the next ISPO.

  27. Jason Hummel August 5th, 2015 11:07 am

    Also, more slang, is slackcountry 😉 – BC skiing near a ski area.

  28. Trent August 5th, 2015 2:15 pm

    This discussion reminds me of my roommate and ski school colleague in Norway. He was a brilliant alpine, telemark, nordic, frontside, backcountry, sidecountry, and slackcountry skier, as well as an excellent snowboarder. To the dismay of the sectarians, he called all disciplines, “skiing.”

    Not withstanding the importance of reporting honestly about style on first descents, and the need for clarity on avalanche and rescue dangers, beware those who distract us from the pleasures of “skiing.”

  29. Jim Milstein August 5th, 2015 4:09 pm

    I agree with Trent. Even snowboarding is skiing. However, I draw the line at waterskis. Like skis but not skis.

  30. Bruce Baker August 5th, 2015 5:32 pm

    My little nit pick: Telemark is a turn. Parallel is a turn. Both are possible on freeheel gear.

    Alpine, AT, randonnee, and all other fixed heel equipment allow only the use of parallel technique.

    I really like to separate the technique nomenclature from the equipment nomenclature.

    “Fix the heel? No heel… No problem!”

  31. Pascal August 6th, 2015 6:33 am

    One more french concept from the ancient : ski de printemps, which means spring ski. This words are used to describe what is call today as ski de randonnée, which itself means Alpine Touring Ski.

    Bonne journée à tous,
    Have a good day

  32. JCoates August 6th, 2015 2:44 pm

    I just tell everyone it’s “ski touring” if they ask. If they don’t know what it is then it doesn’t really matter…you could call it Ski-Mcloogen and they wouldn’t know the difference. And for those who do ski tour then the semantics aren’t that important. Here is how a typical “après ski” (excellent point Wookie) conversation goes:

    Buddy: “Hey dude, I heard you went out today. What did you end up doing?”
    Me: “Dude…I got into some serious $h*t!!” (This denotes ski mountaineering)


    Buddy: “Hey dude, I heard you went out today. What did you end up doing?”
    Me: “Not much man…was pretty laid back and just skinned up to the hut for a beer.” (This denotes ski touring).

  33. Paul August 7th, 2015 7:20 pm

    I think those who wish to abolish the term “sidecountry” are generally giving up, or at least are being left behind. It’s a little like deciding we are going to eliminate breast cancer by abolishing that term. Sidecountry issues are different than backcountry issues if you consider the culture, self-identification, and typical degree of awareness, education, and preparedness. Sidecountry certainly isn’t safer than backcountry and is potentially more dangerous – that is the point being delivered by most avalanche educators. We don’t make the sport any safer by pretending to ignore all that.

  34. Alex August 8th, 2015 3:08 pm

    one thought on ‘ski mountaineering’ as a term – I think the term can be used in reference to the down as well as the up. Where as it usually would not apply to an easy skin up a peak, I tend to think it could apply if the descent involves some form of technical skiing (i.e. a steep committing couloir, required rappels, possible roped skiing, etc). In this use it might overlap with ‘extreme skiing,’ but I do think in common usage it shows up in this way.

    Also, I wonder if given its growing popularity, it might be worth adding ‘skimo’ as another term to the list?

  35. Lou Dawson 2 August 8th, 2015 3:49 pm

    Alex, I’ll add skimo, thanks, Lou

  36. Pablo August 17th, 2015 6:16 am

    Here in Spain the most common term is; “esquí de travesía” or just “hacer travesia” which can be translated as “crossing skiing” or “journey skiing”, as it implies traveling from one point to other, both uphill and downhill, by skis.

    In the very last 5 years the term “esquí de Montaña” is growing fast as it spot on the terrain globally and making opposition to on piste skiing, as we don’t see resorts as Mountain terrain.

    Other term we use a lot, and that I love so much, is “foquear” > “vamos a foquear”
    It could be translated as “sealskinning” or just skinning.> “let’s go Skinning”

    We use it for every terrain, style, steepness, kind of gear or techniques. If you are using skins to uphill. you are “foqueando”
    We accept the fact that if you uphill skinning… you are going to ski down…

  37. Lou Dawson 2 August 17th, 2015 8:36 am

    Foqueando! My Spanish vocabulary just increased! Excellent! Lou

  38. Pablo August 18th, 2015 7:52 am

    Lou, take care about the use of “Foqueando” as I don’t think it’s used out of Spain.

    I can’t imagine an Argentininan or Peruvian people saying foqueando…

    If you come to Spain in winter, don’t hesitate and tell me ” Vamos a foquear!” 😉

  39. Lou Dawson 2 August 18th, 2015 3:15 pm


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