The Economics of Backcountry Skiing

IMG_3122 copyIn these strange economic times most people I know are sticking to basics and any money for frills is very judiciously spent. If it’s not a necessity, it better pay back some dividends like a good investment should.

Which is why, even though skiing has always been considered a luxury, you need not be in the well moneyed class to enjoy it. As with most things in life, there is the way everybody knows—skiing at resorts—and there is the alternative way. Resort skiing requires substantial amounts of money. For us regular folks, despite recent congressional decrees, discretionary income remains in short supply.

The alternative is backcountry skiing, the way less traveled. Instead of riding chairlifts, you earn your turns the old fashioned way—by hiking up. Having to hike makes it seem even worse, but if money is too tight to afford a ticket, that means you’ll be skiing less too unless you are willing to give it a shot. With the right gear, it’s a casual hike in the mountains, with the reward of fresh tracks back to the trailhead.

While it isn’t exactly free, it’s the closest you’ll ever get to skiing free. The actual out of pocket expenses associated with backcountry skiing, including the personal investment in sweat, are better likened to an investment. By comparison, spending money to ride the lifts could be considered downright reckless in these tough economic times, especially if you’re racking it up on the credit card with bankster rates and fees.

Like any good investment, backcountry skiing requires an up front payment, but it’s one that yields big dividends, not interest with penalties like the easy credit card way. Those dividends pay out soon and for a long time down the road. The biggest objection, and the one that weeds out the wannabes real fast, is the necessity of hiking. Except that once you’ve done it, you realize very quickly that the uphill leg has rewards of its own. As you’re headed up, each step steeps you in the conditions you’ll be skiing back down in. The anticipation fuels the desire and once you’ve tasted ‘em you will agree, turns taste sweeter when earned with sweat.

In addition, while you’re hiking up you’re getting an awesome physical workout. It’s similar to cross-country skiing, where you get a total body workout. Instead of gliding through a meadow, you’re hiking up a mountain. Arms are used for balance and pushing power. Legs do the brunt of the work, hiking up the mountain at a steady pace with no jarring motion to your knees while your heart and lungs are pumping double-time to feed your limbs. While you climb, toxins leak out your pores, cleaning and honing your body.

Did I mention there aren’t too many out of shape backcountry skiers? Some even tip the scales of Olympic caliber fitness, ready to scale the world’s highest peaks, and then rip turns down their flanks afterwards. In fact, many more would if it weren’t for that ol’ money issue.

For some, the workout is reason enough to head ut, but life is more than our physical surroundings and being. The beauty of the mountains in winter rarely fails to give one pause to consider the spiritual realm. The mere act of skinning up a mountain, with the emphasis on a steady, rhythmic pace acts as a natural inducement for meditation. It’s a perfect time for quiet reflection, a soothing balm for the soul.

The latter element is perhaps the greatest enticement and payback for your investment in earning your turns. If part of what you enjoy about skiing is getting out of the rat race, you’ll appreciate even more that you’re making new lines, not standing in them. By leaving the lifts, you leave the crowds and enjoy a bit of solitude an comraderie with friends only. At the end of the day you may make fewer turns, but you’ll be satisfied because you were able to savor them, then look back and admire them, even later on. Such views are fleeting at best under the lifts where turns are burned in futile attempt to beat the crowd to patches of untracked snow. In the backcountry, there’s no race, and the whole slope is waits for you to leave your tracks.

Finally, there are the simple economic reasons for becoming a backcountry skier. Truth be told I had to experience a bit of financial hardship myself before I was willing hike for my turns. I did it the really old-fashioned way, by simply hiking uphill in my ski boots. Even though conditions were pretty good, and I enjoyed the workout, I also realized that there had to be a better, more efficient way of doing it. It was an awful lot of work, even though the turns were more satisfying. Which is why you need to complete the deal and buy the specialized equipment made for backcountry skiing.

25_G copyIf you’re already a slope dopin’ downhill skier, the economic news is very good. All you need to begin backcountry skiing is upgrade your bindings to a pair of Alpine Touring bindings and buy a pair of climbing skins. If you buy new, expect to spend about $500. Cut that in half if you pick up used bindings and a new pair of skins.

Alpine Touring bindings allow you to walk with your skis on, fairly naturally, with your heel unhinged, pivoting at the toe. Go ahead and keep your alpine ski boots. Once you’re hooked you’ll want to change those too, but there’s no point in spending too much until you are.

The climbing skins allow you to walk uphill with your skis on without sliding backwards. In the right conditions you can go straight up a 30 degree slope, which is about as steep as most black diamond runs are at most resorts. Straight up. You don’t have to, it’s much easier to go at a more moderate angle, but the macho guys seem to like grunting up a tougher, steeper trail.

If you do get bitten by the backcountry bug, you know that there will be more expenditures down the road. So the question quickly arises, do the costs still favor backcountry skiing?

Consider the basic costs of skiing 20 days per year for five years. This assumes that within five years all gear will need to be purchased anew at least once, and that it will last five years. It also includes required and recommended equipment. Lift tickets are valued at $50. Though this is less than the average lift ticket cost, the reduction is made to account for the effect of discounting via season passes.

Item Resort Cost Backcountry Cost

Skis $500 $500

Boots $500 $500

Bindings $200 $400

Poles $70 $130

Lift Tkts $5000 $0

Skins $0 $150

Sub Total $6270 $1680

Pack $100 $200

Avy Beacon $0 $350

Shovel $0 $80

Probe $0 $80

Clothing $800 $1200

Class/Lesson $200 $500

Sub Total $1100 $2410

Total $7370 $4090

The net cost savings is about half, and as is plainly evident, the lions share of the cost of resort skiing is the lift ticket. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that resort skiing is bad, or even something you want to eliminate. Maybe just minimize it.

When you investing a little in earning your turns what really happens is that you end up skiing more. Being able to make turns wherever there is snow, not just where there are chairlifts, opens up amazing possibilities. Your number of days at a resort may drop, but your total will grow. And with the money you save backcountry skiing, you can better afford to be selective about the days you do pay for a lift ticket, like when the powder is so deep that the avalanche dangers requires you to feast on acres of powder with easy access from a chair.

As you can see, the only reason not to be a backcountry skier is if you’re not even a skier. And if you’re neither, hopefully I’ve made a compelling case for becoming one. After all, the best investment you can make is in yourself. Backcountry skiing doesn’t cost much to begin, it costs less to maintain, and the longer you do it, the more beneficial it is for you on many levels. So do yourself a favor. Invest in yourself and earn your turns. You couldn’t find a better state to enjoy them in.

Craig first tasted the satisfaction of earning his turns in ‘82, and El Nino year. He’s been extolling the virtues of that way ever since and lives in Truckee to maximize his investment in hard earned turns.

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