What’s the difference between freeride skiing, ski touring and ski mountaineering?

You thought off-piste skiing just involved putting your skis on and sliding downhill? Well, think again! There are many different types of off-piste skiing and if you’ll be venturing outside the boundaries of a ski resort, it may be useful (in fact, crucial!) to know the differences.

Let’s start by listing some of the most commonly used off-piste skiing terms:

  • Slackcountry skiing
  • Sidecountry skiing
  • Freeride skiing
  • Backcountry skiing
  • Splitboarding
  • Ski touring
  • Ski mountaineering

The graph below will serve as a visual aid: the distance to the ski resort and the experience required are key to defining these activities. For example, an intermediate skier might be able to do some off-piste skiing on the side of a groomed run, while ski touring far away from the resort requires far more experience and a very good fitness level.

Bear in mind, however, that some overlap may exist among some of these activities and there may even be some differences in how people in different countries use these terms. But you can trust this Explore-Share guide to serve you as a basic road map to navigate among them (and off-piste terrain!).

DOWNHILL OR EXPLORATION?

A sign marks the ski area boundary in Chamonix.

Although we will go into each of these terms in detail, it may be useful to split off-piste skiers into two main groups:

1) a first group for whom the emphasis is on the downhill (with little uphill)

2) a second group for whom the value is in exploring the mountains away from the crowds and who finds enjoyment in going uphill.

Sidecountry skiers and freeriders are clearly in the first group while ski touring and ski mountaineering fall into the second group.

Take into account, however, that despite these differences all these activities expose you to mountain hazards and risks. Avalanche risk; cliffs, rocks or other unexpected obstacles; and having no access to the resort’s ski patrol can turn a backcountry adventure into a safety hazard for inexperienced skiers.

Avalanche equipment (and knowing how to operate it) and skiing in the company of a certified mountain guide are key to guaranteeing a great out-of-bounds experience.

OFF-PISTE SKIING / SLACKCOUNTRY SKIING / SIDECOUNTRY SKIING

A trail map of Breckenridge ski resort in Colorado. The red circles show off-piste skiing areas.

Off-piste skiing is the umbrella term to refer to skiing that takes place on unmarked or unpatrolled areas, outside the boundaries of a ski resort. This, however, may just involve crossing the trail marker poles or ducking a rope to make some turns on the ungroomed snow on the other side.

Off-piste skiing, slackcountry skiing and sidecountry skiing usually refer to skiing out-of-bounds but close to the resort. Wikipedia defines the “slackcountry” as the “terrain outside of the ski area boundary that is accessed from a lift without having to use skins or bootpack.” It usually involves areas that also provide access back to the lift.

Although not as demanding as ski touring, off-piste skiing requires an overall good skiing level because skiing on ungroomed snow is generally harder than skiing on piste. Powder snow and being able to use the lifts (instead of having to hike up to access the terrain) are high up in the list of priorities of off-piste skiers.

Want to give off-piste skiing a try? Join Tomoki for a half-day of sidecountry skiing in Niseko, Japan or let Olivier take down the Gébroulaz Glacier in the 3 Vallées backcountry in France. If you choose the Swiss Alps instead, Yann can guide you on the 4 Vallées off-piste terrain. And if Norway is your destination of choice, Magnus will show you around Narvik’s slackcountry.

FREERIDING

Freeride skiing in Hokkaido, Japan. Photo: Cédric Nobels.

According to Wikipedia, “freeriding is a style of snowboarding or skiing performed on natural, ungroomed terrain, without a set course, goals or rules. It evolved throughout the sport’s formative early years as a contrary response to the highly-regimented style of ski competition prevalent at the time.”

Freeride skiers or riders generally have solid skiing or snowboarding skills and some experience on backcountry terrain. They love untracked runs and mainly enjoy the descents, even if some hiking may be involved.

Although freeride terrain may be accessible from lifts (plus, eventually, a short hike), it may also be accessible on the side of a road, where you hike up or ski down as far as you want. Freeriders may use skins or snowshoes to hike up or may opt for touring skis and bindings for a lighter set-up.

Avalanche equipment is a requirement for freeriding and even expert skiers find that hiring a mountain guide is a great way to enhance their experience and find the best lines.

Also, make sure you don’t confuse “freeride” with “freestyle”, which involves aerials, half-pipe, rails and slopestyle.

A skier gets air over a half-pipe during an international freestyle competition.

Ready for some freeride action? Join Robin on a freeride skiing adventure in La Grave or let Mathis show you around Chamonix’s off-piste terrain. If in Austria, Mathias can take you freeride skiing to the Kitbuheler Alps or Renato could take you on a freeride day in the Dolomites in Italy.

BACKCOUNTRY SKIING / SKI TOURING / SPLITBOARDING

Ski touring in France. Photo: Gauthier Poncelet.

Backcountry skiing (more commonly used in the US) and ski touring (Europe) refer to “skiing in remote areas, not within ski area boundaries”, according to Wikipedia. Ski touring generally involves the use of skins, which are placed underneath skis to help on the uphill. They are crucial to backcountry skiing because skinning up is more effective and less tiring than hiking.

Ski touring generally involves exploring remote areas of the mountains, with no lifts around, and is reserved for advanced skiers with a very good fitness level. You could choose a hut-to-hut option — where you travel from one mountain refuge to the next —or opt to have a hut or lodge as your base and ski around it.

It is always a good idea to hire a local certified guide when backcountry skiing far away from the resorts. Carrying avalanche equipment is also crucial and, depending on the terrain, ski crampons (traction devices) might also be necessary.

“Splitboarding” deserves its own definition. “A splitboard is a snowboard that can be separated into two ski-like parts used with climbing skills to ascend slopes. The two halves can then be connected to form a regular snowboard for descent”, explains Wikipedia.

Ready to go ski touring for the first time? Let Elis be your guide on the famous Chamonix-Zermatt Haute Route or go ski touring in Finnmark, Norway with Fred. If in Japan, Toshiya can show around Rishiri’s backcountry terrain or you could choose a more off-the-beaten-path destination and go ski touring in Kyrgyzstan with Jean.

SKI MOUNTAINEERING

Ski mountaineering requires advanced skiing and mountaineering techniques. Photo: André Charland

Among all these disciplines, ski mountaineering is the one that requires the most experience . It involves climbing a mountain to then descend on your skis — it is basically the combination of backcountry skiing and mountaineering.

Ski mountaineering requires advanced skiing skills and, depending on the ascent, can also involve advanced mountaineering skills (including rock climbing, crossing a crevasse field or ice climbing on steep couloirs). Apart from touring gear and avalanche equipment, mountaineering gear may be necessary (ice axe, crampons and, possibly, a harness, a belay device, etc).

A ski mountaineering expedition requires a guide for general mountain safety, navigational purposes and technical assistance.

Ready for a truly epic ski mountaineering expedition? Summit Mt. Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe, and then ski down in the company of Ivan.

We hope this guide has helped you get a clear idea of what all these terms mean and how they compare to each other. If you’d like to know more about the equipment you need when going off-piste, read our backcountry checklist. And if you need help picking an avalanche airbag for your next expedition, don’t miss our post on the subject.

Have fun and stay safe out there!