How does skiing Backcountry in US differ from Off Piste in Europe?

So what’s the difference ? 

Well for a start we call it different things – in Europe we typically refer to it as Freeriding, or Off Piste skiing while in the US and Canada it’s known as Backcountry skiing. One key difference is in Europe, Off Piste areas are not patrolled, nor are avalanches controlled through blasting – except where an area is close to the lifts or may impact a pisted slope below. In the US and Canada, gates control who can access the designated areas which still form part of the resort. Access is managed by ski patrol.

st anton off piste skiing mountain anton guides freeride

(Photo: TVB St. Anton am Arlberg / Fotograf Josef Mallaun)

In Europe you can ski almost anywhere at your own risk. This is great from the sense of freedom perspective, however you need to know where you are going, know the terrain in order to access avalanche risk and be aware of weather conditions which may change quickly. This is one reason many people take qualified mountain guides to go Off Piste in Europe. 

Guide qualifications – is this important?

In Europe, the level of qualification of a ski guide will determine how far they can take you from the lift. Only IFMAG/ UIAGM certified mountain guides are free and trained to take you deep into the backcountry, other instructor guides will be limited. In St Anton, where the Off Piste close to the lifts is often quickly tracked on powder days, taking a mountain guide is the difference between enjoying fresh powder lines and skiing tracked crud.

IFGMA/UIAGM mountain guides are also the only ones who can safely take you ski touring – also known as skinning, where you put skins on touring skis, switch bindings into walk mode and then leave all the noise and hub hub of the resort behind in search of pristine powder. This can be a single day tour – or multiple days hut to hut touring.

UIAGM IFMGA Mountain Guide Logo

Official logo UIAGM/IFMGA

Off piste guiding with a Piste To Powder guide

If you want to explore the incredible backcountry of St Anton, Zurs or Lech –  join one of our Open Groups, try Private Guiding or if you are feeling adventurous, try one of our Hut To Hut Touring Trips.  We will provide you with all the  necessary safety equipment – transceiver, shovel and probe, and provide an avalanche safety briefing at the start. Safety is our number one priority – and after that it’s all about fresh tracks, fun and hunting great powder lines.

A brief word on Insurance

If you venture Off Piste, make sure you are also adequately insured as standard insurance will not cover you.

The Austrian Alpine club offers annual rescue insurance for £52 which provides helicopter rescue, without this you could be facing anything up from 5,000 euros. It is not a substitute for travel insurance but if you are European you can combine this with your EHIC card. Outside europe then you need to ensure you have adequate medical insurance. Brits be aware that if Brexit happens you’ll might have to double check your insurance’s coverage.

Photo: TVB St. Anton am Arlberg / Fotograf Josef Mallaun
Blog entry by Zoe