Transitioning from On-Piste to Off-Piste Skiing

At some point, most experienced skiers feel the urge to go off the beaten path and leave the well-groomed runs being frequented by others for the thrill of skiing fresh, unadulterated powder. This is known as skiing off-piste and although it can be thrilling, it can also be extremely dangerous.  Because of this, there are certain things that should be taken into consideration by any skier who is thinking about making the transition. 

Off-piste skiing should first and foremost be handled with a certain level of respect. It is always a good idea to employ the use of a qualified mountain guide, particularly in areas that one is not overly familiar with. A guide also offers the benefit of being able to see the best routes available that are typically only known to “locals.” If you do, however, choose to head off-piste without a guide, the following guidelines should be followed in order to stay safe:

  • Never ski off-piste alone
  • Always let someone know where you plan on skiing
  • Don’t follow tracks blindly
  • Be aware of the snow conditions and how they change throughout the day, particularly in spring to help avoid the risk of an avalanche
  • Make sure each person is properly equipped with a shovel, a probe and a transceiver

For more safety tips, check out our articles on Avalanche Safety and Enjoying the Mountains in Winter – Safely.

There are some factors to keep in mind with regards to the equipment used in off-piste skiing. For instance, wider skis tend to be better in powder and soft skis turn more easily whereas stiffer skis can be driven faster and more aggressively. Boots should be comfortable and well fitted, and race boots should be avoided because they are too stiff.

Another important key to safe off-piste skiing is balance. The body should remain as relaxed as possible in order to maintain the proper balance and remain in line with the various forces of nature at work.  One of the best ways to describe this posture is the popular skier’s term “strong muscles, lose joints”, which indicates that as long as the skier remains relaxed, the body will be able to adapt to whatever train may lie ahead.  The best stance for off-piste skiing is similar to on-piste: knees bent with a light forward pressure on the shin, facing down the fall line.

Technique for off-piste skiing is based mainly on that of on-piste, however there are some inherent differences. Off-piste skiers must apply equal weight on both skis to turn, rather than reducing the weight on the uphill ski. The skier must also rise and compress on each turn, essentially creating the distinctive bobbing motion. Additionally, ski poles, which become the center of the turn radius, should remain forward and placed early in the turn. 

Another important factor in safe off-piste skiing is understanding different snow conditions.  Powder may be light or heavy, deep or shallow. Skiers need to learn how to bounce or bob in this type of snow and to weight and unweight their skis to best handle turns. Crust, on the other hand, may be hard or breakable so weight should be kept equally on both skis. In hard-pack snow and ice, on-piste techniques apply and with thin snow, that has protruding rocks the technique should be slow and light. Each condition and technique can be learned and mastered with proper training.

Perhaps most importantly, skiers who attempt off-piste skiing should be in excellent physical shape.  Recreational skiers who only hit the slopes one or two weeks a year should remember that it can take a while for joints and muscles to strengthen so several days of on-piste skiing should precede any off-piste runs. It’s also a good idea to participate in various aerobic exercise activities prior to heading on your ski holiday to best prepare your body.

Skiing is certainly one of the most exhilarating outdoor winter activities one can participate in, and experienced skiers often get the urge to venture off-piste to face the thrill and excitement of skiing in unblemished snow and the challenge of tackling unfamiliar routes.  As long as the proper precautions are taken, off-piste skiing can be a safe and enjoyable experience for all involved.

Check out our Winter & Spring Skiing Trips.

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