What is freeride skiing? Equipment, Best Season, Top Spots

Freeride skiing ―or side country skiing―describes a particular type of skiing which takes place on a natural off-piste terrain and includes deep powder snow and steep runs. The term is not only applied to skiing but also to snowboarding. In fact, freeriding is the most essential form of snowboarding. Freeriders don’t follow a marked route. On the contrary, they enjoy the freedom of untracked runs.

The starting point for freeride skiing is generally a ski resort. However, unlike off-piste skiing and slack-country skiing, freeride skiing goes a little further away from the marked ski areas boundaries (the area within or around the resort is known as ‘sidecountry’). Freeriders use the ski resort elevation means to go up the mountain and also may combine this with a short hike uphill using skins or snowshoes, in order to reach untouched powder snow and explore the mountain away from crowds.

Rather than in going up, the focus of freeriding relies on the adrenaline and thrill of the ski descent. “Easy up, wild down” ―the motto of the Skicircus Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang Fieberbrunn, a freeride mecca in Austria― is what best summarizes the core of this ski discipline. Besides, freeriding involves a deeper immersion in the mountain environment and allows incredible views!

Freeride skiers must have good skiing abilities, as well as some previous off-piste or backcountry skiing experience. Like every off-piste area, the sidecountry is an unmarked, ungroomed and unpatrolled terrain. Freeriders are responsible for their own safety and are exposed to avalanche risks and other hazards like trees, cliffs, crevasses and rocks. Taking an avalanche safety gear (and knowing how to use it) is mandatory.

When is the Best Time to go Freeride Skiing?

Freeride skiing in Andermatt, Switzerland. Photo: Paul Degonda.

Ski season ―the period where ski resorts are open and ski lifts are available― varies depending on the location of the resort. Typically, it runs from early-winter to late-spring. However, glacier ski areas usually have an early-opening and some of them are available all-year-round.

When it comes to freeride skiing, snow conditions and snow stability (key to assess the risk of avalanches throughout the day) must be carefully checked before venturing on the terrain. Snow conditions are extremely variable and depend on a series of factors like snowfall, temperature, wind and the depth of the snow on the ground. Several days of heavy snowfall (in a cold weather with no wind) provide the best type of snow for freeriding: deep powder snow. Freeriders love this fluffy fresh snow!

What Equipment do you Need?

Freeride skiing in the French Alps. Photo: Mathis Dumas.

The essential equipment for a freeride skier includes the following items:

  • Avalanche safety gear
    • Transceiver: it’s worn under clothing and must be always ‘on’ (in transmitter mode), so you can be found by other skiers in case of an avalanche.
    • Probe: it allows to find the exact location and depth of an avalanche victim.
    • Shovel: it’s essential to dig avalanche victims out of the snow.   
  • Avalanche airbag (ABS backpack) and helmet
  • Skins, snowshoes
  • Skis
  • Bindings
  • Boots

Why should you hire a guide for a freeride skiing trip?

A group of freeriders with a guide in Niseko, Japan. Photo: Tsutomu Sugisaka.

Freeriding involves venturing on untouched terrain, where runs are not maintained or controlled at all. It’s very important to be realistic about your skills, experience and fitness before tackling an off-piste route. As a first rule, never go off-piste alone.

Hiring a certified guide is mandatory if you don’t have previous experience outside of piste. It’s also highly recommended if you are not familiar with the area. A guide will help you improve your freeride technique, provide valuable information about the terrain, assess weather and snow conditions and pick the safest scenario for your powder ride.

Best Spots in the World to Go Freeride Skiing

Freeride skiing in Nagano, Tsutomu Sugisaka.
  1. Chamonix-Mont-Blanc. Lying at the foot of the mythical Mont Blanc, this place is a true mecca for freeriders in the Alps.
  2. Verbier, in Switzerland, is a legendary freeride skiing spot. It’s a part of the 4 Vallees area, a cluster of four ski resorts.
  3. Andermatt and Engelberg: these two destinations in Switzerland provide world-class powder runs!
  4. In the heart of the Italian Alps, Gressoney is the gateway for freeride skiing in the majestic Monte Rosa.
  5. La Grave: an iconic freeride paradise in the massif of Ecrins (France). Only reserved to advanced skiers, it has an epic 2300 m vertical drop!
  6. Those chasing the famous Japanese powder must head to Hakuba, a group of 11 ski resorts in the Northern Japan Alps.
  7. Marmolada (Italy):  enjoy adrenaline ski descents in the highest peak of the Dolomite mountains!