Backcountry Skiing in Canada

The definitive guide to the best backcountry in Canada

The backcountry scene in Canada is just about the most developed in the world, with many skiers and riders preferring to ski nothing but backcountry. As a result, there are a good number of advisory services, courses, local guides, easily accessible gear to rent or buy and good rescue services.

The conditions can be dangerous in Canada given how much snow falls. Most locals will tend to ski their local area almost exclusively, where they know the terrain traps and conditions. If venturing further afield, even experienced skiers will take guides.

Parks Canada is the Government body which oversees Canada’s Mountain National Parks of Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, Jasper, Mount Revelstoke, Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks, which are located in the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia.

They provide information on the Canadian backcountry and slackcountry – https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/mtn/securiteenmontagne-mountainsafety/hiver-winter/randonnee-touring

 

When to go

Snow starts to fall across North America around the end of November. Snow generally starts to fall a little earlier in Canada than in the US as it is colder. However, the snowpack needs to settle and develop, so backcountry starts to take off around mid-February onwards.

The cold, dry snowpack is often very weak and unstable during the early winter period in December and January, and touring options are not as good. This is particularly so where you would need snow bridges over crevasses as they won’t stabilise until a little later in the season.

However, from mid-February is also when a lot of avalanches can happen, so you need to be careful with your route finding. Parks Canada says that “The alpine touring season improves from March onward and is recommended in April and May on the icefields and snow peaks along the Continental Divide.” https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/mtn/securiteenmontagne-mountainsafety/hiver-winter/randonnee-touring

A lot of people love the spring conditions as the snowpack has consolidated a little more, and the days are a little brighter and sunnier. By the season’s end, the snowpack usually averages three to five metres.

 

Access to backcountry

Many resorts will have access to backcountry through specific gates; however, it’s important to recognise the signage at the resorts.

Within the ski area boundary of a resort

Open runs will generally be avalanche controlled by the avalanche crew at the mountain. When a run is closed, it’s closed for a reason.

Closed runs may not be avalanche controlled, and may be dangerous, including not enough snow and uncovered rocks. Often, they are illegal to access and punishable by fines or loss of your pass. They are closed not just for your safety, but in case you trigger an avalanche onto the people below.

Outside the ski area boundary of a resort

Once you leave the resort boundary, you’re in the backcountry. Some people refer to ‘slackcountry’ or side-country being terrain just next to the resort, but it’s important to realise that this is still in no way avalanche controlled and is subject to the same dangers as any other backcountry. You really need to be taking the same precautions in the slack-country as you do if you were in the complete wilderness.

 

Best backcountry skiing in Canada

Canada’s best backcountry touring is out in the western part of the country, in British Columbia and Alberta. This is also where the scene is most established. There is also some touring to be found out in the eastern ranges in Québec and Ontario.

Plenty of research is required before tackling an area given the variation in terrain, weather, snow conditions even within a small radius.

 

British Columbia / Alberta

1. Whistler/Blackcomb

There is excellent backcountry and slackcountry at Whistler/Blackcomb, especially if you are willing to venture further out. There is gated access to the backcountry and slackcountry around Whistler and Blackcomb. The Blackcomb side has more challenging and difficult terrain, while the Whistler side is better for those starting out in the backcountry. The Blackcomb side has nice couloirs, glacier riding and heaps of steeps. The Whistler side has more in the way of trees and the big alpine bowls. The west side of Highway 99 is a great spot to explore as well.

As the snow is wetter than the inland Rockies’ snow, the snowpack tends to be a little more stable, which means more days with lower avalanche risk. Check the local advisory service before heading out, of course (details below).

North of Whistler is the town of Pemberton, which is a good base to explore some of the amazing backcountry in the area. Some of the well-known areas include Miller Ridge and Duffy Lake Road.

 

2. Revelstoke

Revelstoke has some of the best in-bounds terrain in Canada, let alone the terrain in the backcountry. There are trees, glades, massive vertical and serious steeps and chutes, to go with stunning scenery. The advantage of Revelstoke is that its home to a large number of guided and tour operators, meaning you can get out into the backcountry a little more safely. Probably not the best spot for those starting out, but for those with a bit of skill and experience, backcountry Revelstoke is a treat.

 

3. Roger’s Pass

In between Golden and Revelstoke, on the Trans-Canada Highway, Roger’s Pass in Glacier National Park is one of the iconic spots of ski touring and mountaineering in Canada. The terrain around here is steep and difficult, and requires a strong level of backcountry knowledge to ensure the least risk possible. You’ll find trees, couloirs, glaciers and complex bowl terrain around here, not to mention a ton of snow. The trek to turn-payoff is pretty damn good at Roger’s Pass.

You’ll find the famous ‘Pillow Lines’ out here, a series of powder pillows that the pros tackle in ski movies.

Parts of Glacier National Park are ‘Restricted Areas’, which means they face a highway and require a permit to enter. This is due to the risk of triggering an avalanche on the road below. The Avalanche Forecasters at Roger’s Pass provides an update to the status each morning. Passes can be obtained at the Roger’s Pass Discovery Center.

 

4. Golden and surrounds

Golden is at the base of Kicking Horse ski resort, one of the best in Canada for chutes, steeps and powder. The touring around the region is exceptional, with some of the best hut networks in the Selkirk range, and all of Canada for that matter. This is serious stuff around here, so make sure you are familiar with the snowpack and local conditions before heading out.

 

5. Whitewater and surrounds

Whitewater is near the town of Nelson, British Columbia, one of the most well-known counter-culture towns in Canada. The vibe around here is extremely laid-back, with shops in town likely to close if there’s a good powder day.

In terms of touring, the terrain is accessible and there is plenty of nice beginner and intermediate terrain in the surrounding areas. This makes Whitewater a nice place to sink your teeth into the backcountry. There are also some really nice slackcountry options around the Whitewater resort for skiers who are just starting to venture out. It’s a great base to spend some time and really start to understand BC backcountry, learning from a bunch of chilled-out, but knowledgeable, touring folk

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6. Icefields parkway

The Icefields Parkway runs between Banff and Jasper.

It is extraordinarily beautiful, in addition to containing some of the most popular backcountry routes in Canada.

Most of the good routes can be accessed from the highway. There is also some really great hut-based backcountry routes in this area, which adds to the accessibility of the terrain. There are glaciers and crevasses out here, so be careful of the terrain and make sure your group has the right knowledge.

 

Québec

It’s not only out west where you can find nice touring options in Canada. The eastern side of the country, particularly in French-speaking Québec, is full of touring enthusiasts. The snowfall is a little smaller than in the west, but this sometimes make the touring options more accessible.

 

1. Les Chic-Chocs

The Chic-Choc Mountains in Gaspésie are Québec’s classic region for touring. Out here, you’ll find nice glades, couloirs, and stunning vistas near the St Lawrence River. The nice thing about Québec touring is that you also get to experience some of the classic French-Canadian food once you get base to base.

A lot of the nice touring options are accessible by chairlifts of the local resorts. Some of the best options include the glades of Mount Miller and York Mountain, as well as the open fields around Porphyre Mountain.

 

2. Mont Tremblant

Touring is well established at Tremblant, to the point where the mountain hosts an annual touring festival each year. You can demo gear, go out with a guide, or even combine this with a bit of yoga or a downhill fatbike ride. There are also nighttime guided tours which is cool

https://www.tremblant.ca/things-to-do/events/festival-rando-alpine-tremblant

 

Hut-based backcountry skiing

The best huts in Canada are around the Icefields Parkway area, in particular in the Yoho National Park.

https://backcountryskiingcanada.com/Rocky%20Mountains has a good list of huts to check out.

https://www.alpineclubofcanada.ca/web/ACCMember/Huts/Booking_Huts_Info/Hut_Availability/ACCMember/Huts/Availability_Search.aspx?hkey=d010d8a4-156e-470c-b403-11430ce53648 has the full list of availability in terms of hut bookings. Make sure to get in early as they do book out. Members get discounts and advance booking privileges

 

1. Wapta huts traverse

This route is one of the iconic tours of Canada, covering around 50km over 4-6 days. You can space your trip to stay in the four Alpine Club of Canada huts along the way – Peyto Hut, Bow Hut, Balfour Hut and Scott Duncan Hut. The scenery is stunning, and you will encounter glaciers and craggy peaks. A number of guides operate in this area, and it’s not a bad idea to take a guide if it’s your first trek on this trail.

Note that Parks Canada requires everyone 17 years old and older staying overnight in the Parks backcountry to purchase a Wilderness Pass. This is also for people staying in the Alpine Club of Canada huts in the National Parks. Parks Canada states that these fees are used for trail maintenance, servicing outhouses and trail signage, so you’re doing everyone a disservice if you don’t pay.

 

2. Bow Yoho

Another classic route, but this one is less busy than Wapta. It takes you over two glaciers – Yoho and des Poilus in addition to the Wapta icefield. There is typically a little more powder here than on the Wapta traverse.

 

Heli-skiing

Canada, British Columbia in particular, is basically the birthplace of heli-skiing. If you want one of the experiences of your skiing lifetime, and have a bit of money set aside, British Columbia is among the best places in the world to go given the established and credible operators.

See our separate page on heli-skiing in Canada.

 

Avalanches

Strong avalanche awareness is a must before heading out into the Canadian backcountry. You need to have transceivers, probes and shovel and be capable of using these if necessary.

Parks Canada at https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/mtn/securiteenmontagne-mountainsafety/avalanche/echelle-ratings has information on terrain ratings as well as a terrain exposure scale.

Parks Canada also has information which is updated regularly on road closures due to avalanche control at Parks Mountain Safety Facebook page and @ParksMntSafety Twitter

ACMG  has seasonal snow and ice conditions.

Avalanche ratings advisory services

https://avalanche.pc.gc.ca/index-eng.aspx?d=TODAY is an essential tool to consult before heading out. It provides the latest ratings for each region which is regularly updated by Parks Canada.

Mountain rescue services

Parks Canada operates one of the best mountain rescue outfits in the world. They provide a dedicated backcountry emergency rescue program. They also provide information to the public and ensure highways are clear from avalanche dangers. 

https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/mtn/securiteenmontagne-mountainsafety/programme-program

Make sure you get a hold of the emergency number for the Mountain National Park you visit. Numbers are available at https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/mtn/securiteenmontagne-mountainsafety/contact. Remember that reception is not always possible out in the backcountry.

Having said that, a quick rescue is not always going to be possible due to weather or other conditions, so you really need to be self-reliant.

Guides

A few options for guided backcountry tours include

 

Direction

Get the Avenza app, which will allow you to input coordinates onto your phone. A solar charger is not a bad idea to keep your phone charged.

https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/maps-tools-and-publications/maps/topographic-maps/10995 has information on Canadian topographic maps.

Insurance

Check your insurance before you go. You might think it’s Canada, not the US, and so medical costs would be lower. But a helicopter rescue and emergency care in a hospital is still going to cost an eye-watering amount. Make sure to check the fine print to ensure skiing outside resort boundaries is covered.

See https://mountainculturegroup.com/bc-search-and-rescue-costs/ for some of the local politics on charging for search and rescue.

Gear

Beacon, shovel and probe is essential out in the Canadian backcountry due to avalanche risk. It’s not like Australia, where people can get away without these due to the lower avalanche risk.

Check out our Backcountry Gear article for further information on the necessary gear to head out into the backcountry.

Rental gear is also widely available, including AT bindings, avi backpacks, transceivers, probes, shovels and other backcountry gear.

 

Happy touring!