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Ski Touring in Canada

Ski touring is a Canadian winter sport that involves traveling over a snow-covered landscape while ascending or descending slopes as the need arises. It is a variation of Canadian backcountry skiing that requires a special type of skis. It combines the exhilaration of Canadian alpine skiing with the physical challenge of cross-country skiing.

History of Ski Touring in Canada

Ski touring originated as cross-country skiing in Scandinavia as long as 5,000 years ago. In the late 1800’s many Scandinavians’ immigrated to Canada bringing the sport of modern Canadian ski touring to this young country. By 1920 skiers frequented their local skiing hills and practiced “Telemark” turns that had been developed in Norway.

The Laurentian Highlands, the hills of Gatineau, and Collingwood, Ontario attracted weekend skiers during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The equipment included wooden skis and a pair of bamboo ski poles. The skis had adjustable toe-plates with leather heel straps and when combined with flexible boots became suitable for ski touring. Jackrabbit Johnson created trails throughout the Laurentians adding to the popularity of Canadian ski touring.

Popularity of Ski Touring in Canada

With the increasing popularity of cross-country skiing in Canada, ski touring is reaping the benefits by becoming a favorite Canadian winter activity. There is a movement to return to the all-purpose touring skis of the early 1900’s with flexible boots and heel-free bindings allowing for "Telemark" turns.

There are an estimated 3.5 million Canadian cross-country skiers with 2 million of those venturing out each week during the winter months. Many are making the shift to ski touring for an additional challenge. Of all the winter activities in Canada, ski touring may provide the greatest growth potential.

Requirements of Canadian Ski Touring

Backcountry skiing in Canada, sometimes called off-piste skiing, is not for the average recreational skier. Due to the dangers involved, thorough training in mountain emergency tactics is necessary for safety reasons. Rescue equipment, such as a snow probe, shovel, and radio, should be carried by all skiers in case of avalanche.

In addition to mountain survival training and an avalanche kit, the ski tourist must be in phenomenal physical condition. An efficient aerobic system and physical strength are vital in climbing the sometimes steep slopes.

Special skis and foot attachments are necessary to enable the skier to navigate the climbs as well as descend the slopes. The skis are equipped with a binding that allows the skier to keep their heel free for ascending mountain slopes. Skins are attached to the bottom of the skis to enable gripping on the slippery snow. This prevents them from sliding backwards during a climb.

While the skier is able to climb slopes up to 30 degrees, a touring rucksack may be necessary for steeper climbs. The skier carries the skis in the rucksack while ascending the slope on foot. Another option is to attach ski crampons to climb the steeper slopes.

Once the summit is reached, the skier prepares for the descent. The skins or crampons are removed allowing for traditional downhill skiing. Some choose to descend with the heel still free while others lock them down.

Touring skis are shorter than downhill for ease in maneuvering up the mountain slope. If the goal is to find fresh powder skiing conditions, a wider ski is often used. For those into extreme skiing, a stiff, straight ski offers better gripping on icy surfaces. The ski boots are flexible and are cut shorter than traditional ski boots. They feature a rubber sole for climbing.

Ski Touring Techniques

Due to the danger of avalanches in these areas, ski touring techniques have been developed over the years. When ascending a steep slope, the skiers will create switchback trails as they kick-turn their way up the mountain. You can see the tracks as they zigzag their way up the slope. They are trained in detecting possible danger zones where avalanches may occur.

With the popularity of snowboarding in Canada it wasn't long before snowboard touring provided an additional challenge. The snowboarder ascends using snowshoes or short skis and carries their board uphill. They then snowboard their way down the mountain.

Using Mountain Guides

Ski touring in Canada can be a dangerous endeavor for the most experienced ski tourist so a knowledgeable mountain guide can be very beneficial. Mountain guides are usually an accredited professional trained in mountaineering. When skiing in unfamiliar territory, hiring a local mountain guide can substantially improve the chances of a successful trip.

They are aware of mountain routes, the best downhill runs, and are adept at monitoring weather patterns. Novice and intermediate skiers may be advised to take a mountain guide with them on their ski tour. Even advanced skiers may benefit from the mountain guides knowledge of the most challenging ski runs.

Canadian Ski Touring Destinations:
  • Banff, Alberta offers some of the finest ski touring in Canada. Base-camp lodges include Banff Sundance Lodge, Skoki Lodge, and Shadow Lake Lodge.
  • Roger's Pass in British Columbia offers the Glacier Park Lodge.
  • Whistler, B.C. is home to the Callaghan Lodge.
  • Wapta Traverse is where Yamnuska Mountain Adventures offers hut to hut ski-mountaineering adventures.
Canadian ski touring is not for the faint of heart and only those with physical stamina should attempt it. Proper training is a prerequisite for a safe and enjoyable experience. If you’re up for it there are plenty of options throughout Canada for you to experience.
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