Riding off-piste or freeriding can be an exhilarating and unforgettable adventure, forever changing the way you experience the mountains and the sports of skiing and snowboarding. In fact, we’d go so far as to say it’s a game changer. Once you go off-piste and get the experience of that powder snow, it’s like experiencing skiing or snowboarding as it’s meant to be.
However, venturing into this thrilling world requires not only some decent skills and levels of physical fitness, but also a good eye for some preparation. Oh, and a serious focus on your personal safety.
If you’re wondering about the wonders of riding off-piste on your next ski or snowboard trip, we’ve got the lowdown of how to do it, and do it safe.
What is the Definition of Off-Piste vs Freeriding?
At its core, the distinction between off-piste and freeriding comes down to terminology. In general, both terms refer to skiing or snowboarding outside the groomed, marked runs found within the confines of a ski resort.
- Off-piste is a term originating from European ski culture, translating to “off the beaten track.” This can include skiing or snowboarding on ungroomed terrain, glades, bowls, or chutes, as well as venturing into backcountry areas that are not maintained or controlled by a ski resort.
- Freeriding, on the other hand, is a broader term that encompasses a more diverse range of disciplines, including big mountain skiing, backcountry touring, and even park and pipe riding. While off-piste skiing is a subcategory of freeriding, the latter encompasses a larger scope of skiing and snowboarding outside of designated ski runs.
- Backcountry riding is a general term used to refer to exploring non-pisted areas of a ski resort, often in the actual wilderness. Exploring the backcountry will normally be done via something like heli-skiing or hiking (split boarding for example).
While you might encounter various types of snow when you venture off-piste, the main reason, for many, is to ride powder and enjoy the off-piste scenery. But of course you can encounter every type of snow terrain, as well as face numerous challenges…
Is Freeriding or Off-Piste Dangerous?
Undoubtedly, riding off-piste and freeriding come with a stack of risks which you don’t (or shouldn’t) experience within the controlled environment of a ski resort. While groomed runs are maintained and monitored for potential hazards, off-piste and freeriding areas can contain any number of dangers, including:
- Unmarked cliffs and crevasses
- Variable snow conditions
- Limited visibility
- Exposure to the elements
- Difficulty in rescue situations
That said, these risks can be mitigated through proper planning, preparation, education, and situational awareness. Always remember that your safety and the safety of those around you are paramount, and respecting the mountains and their potential hazards is crucial.
How to Plan Your Freeriding
Before heading out for an off-piste or freeriding adventure, it’s essential to invest time and care into thoughtful planning. If you come a cropper out here, you are usually on your own, and if things go wrong, it can become a life threatening problem.
But that said, if you know how to plan your freeriding or off-piste and bring the essential equipment, you can reduce the risk in the event of something bad happening.
Here are some considerations to make before you venture into the unknown:
- Physical preparedness: Off-piste and freeriding can be physically demanding, requiring endurance, strength, and a solid foundation of skiing or snowboarding skills. Assess your physical fitness and skill level honestly, and make sure you’re prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.
- Education and training: Enroll in avalanche safety courses, such as those offered by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) or Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA). Familiarize yourself with navigation and rescue techniques, and consider taking wilderness first aid courses.
- Research the area: Familiarise yourself with the terrain, local regulations, and any relevant information about the area you plan to explore. Study topography maps, talk to local guides or even consult with resort staff or local equipment hire shop workers, and gather as much information as possible to help you stay safe and navigate efficiently.
- Monitor weather and snow conditions: Keep a close eye on weather forecasts and changing snow conditions. Avalanche conditions can vary greatly depending on factors like temperature, wind, and precipitation. Ensure you have comprehensive knowledge of the current conditions and how they might affect your chosen area.
- Have a solid plan: Communicate your intentions to your group, make note of proposed routes, and establish check-in points and meeting times. Be prepared to adjust your plan or call off an outing if conditions change or risks are deemed too great.
How to Ride Off Piste
Riding off piste usually takes a little planning, especially if you’re venturing into backcountry territory.
However if you’re just riding a bit of off-piste in a ski resort is usually a little simpler. Whatever you do, check the piste map and plan your route, or at least make sure you understand that you know where you’re heading.
Try and scope our your route from the ski lift, or if you’re going backcountry, use Google Maps.
Make sure to keep an eye out for dangerous obstacles such as:
- Gorges, cliffs or other dangerous features
- Roads and villages
- Densely forested areas
The idea is that you don’t want to get caught out in a potentially dangerous situation, so knowing what to expect in advance will save you a lot of potential problems.
When you finally start riding off-piste, adjust your riding to allow you to respond to challenges in time. Start off slowly and take regular breaks to scope out the terrain and check your route.
Riding powder comes with it’s own challenge, depending on whether you’re snowboarding or skiing. You usually need to adjust your weight so you’re leaning back slightly, allowing the nose of your skis or snowboard to come up above the snow. You’ll also need to carry enough speed to cruise through the powder conditions without being slowed down and getting stuck.
Powder can be variable in it’s depth, so it’s possible to find yourself stuck if you fall or don’t ride through fast enough.
If you’re riding off-piste in a ski resort, you can usually track through and back onto the piste with relative ease. If you’re new to off-piste riding, do a smaller off-piste run to start and aim to do more and venture deeper in subsequent runs. As you spend more time freeriding you’ll start to adjust and learn how to analyse the terrain, how to ride at the right speed, and quite likely learn how to get yourself out of sticky situations.
Talking of sticky situations, there are things to prepare for when you first start venturing off piste.
What to Expect When Freeriding or Going Off-Piste
Freeriding and off-piste skiing often involve starkly different experiences than riding within the boundaries of a ski resort. And while they are A LOT of fun, and this is the kinda style of riding you see in all those cool snowboarding and skiing videos, there are factors to bear in mind.
Being prepared is more important when heading off the beaten track, as if something goes wrong, you’re on your own.
So, here is what you might encounter when you venture beyond the resort’s ropes:
- Variable snow: Powder snow, wind crusts, corn, slush, sastrugi – off-piste terrain can have a diverse range of snow conditions. Be prepared for varying conditions, and adjust your skiing and snowboarding techniques accordingly.
- Terrain challenges: When skiing off-piste, you will likely face technical challenges such as steep slopes, narrow chutes, tree runs, and open bowls. Practicing on milder off-piste terrain first can help build your confidence and skills before tackling more difficult routes.
- Route finding and navigation: Freeriding often involves navigating complex terrain, requiring the ability to read the mountain and choose the safest and most efficient lines. Become proficient in using maps, GPS devices, and compasses, and understand how to follow and interpret visual cues in the landscape.
- Solitude and self-reliance: The further you venture from the resort, the fewer people and resources you will have at your disposal. Be prepared for solitude and self-reliance, knowing how to address problems and make decisions independently.
- Risk management: Beyond the groomed runs, you’ll need to assess and manage risks independently. Use your knowledge and experience to navigate hazards, make informed decisions, and exercise sound judgment.
- Tree wells: If you’ve not heard of these, they are basically the killer sharks of the off-piste world. These deceptively deep snow pockets can trap riders and be either extremely hard or impossible to get out of if you’re on your own.
What Equipment Do You Need for Freeriding?
In addition to your skis or snowboard, there are specialized pieces of equipment that you will need for off-piste and freeriding adventures. While these might seem like overkill, you should definitely consider the risks and where you’re going.
When popping a few runs off the main pistes in a major ski resort, you might not need GPS trackers and such. But if you’re planning to go ski touring/split boarding, or exploring a broader area away from a main resort infrastructure, you will need to be prepared.
Some of the essential freeriding and off-piste equipment includes:
- Avalanche safety gear: A beacon, probe, and shovel are essential items for freeriding in avalanche terrain. Familiarize yourself with how to use them and ensure they are easily accessible in your backpack.
- Backpack: A sturdy, appropriately sized backpack that can hold your avalanche safety gear, food, water, extra layers, and other essentials is a must.
- Helmet and goggles: A helmet is essential for protecting your head from falls and potential impacts, while goggles help protect your eyes and ensure good visibility in various conditions.
- Extra layers and appropriate clothing: Be prepared for varying weather conditions by packing extra layers and wearing appropriate clothing designed to manage moisture, provide insulation, and protect against wind and precipitation.
- Navigation tools: Maps, GPS devices, and compasses are important tools for route finding and navigation in off-piste terrain.
- First aid and emergency supplies: Carry a basic first aid kit, emergency shelter, and signaling equipment (such as a whistle or flare), and know how to use them in case of emergency.
- Communication devices: A fully charged cellphone or two-way radio can aid in communication and emergency situations.
Which are the Best Ski Resorts for Freeriding or Off-Piste?
While this isn’t a comprehensive list of the best resorts for freeriding and off-piste, these are the freeriding and powder skiing meccas that many rave about and flock to each year.
Europe’s Top 10 Resorts for Freeriding/Off-Piste
- Chamonix, France: A mecca of freeride skiing and snowboarding, Chamonix offers steep, challenging terrain and unparalleled access to the Mont Blanc massif.
- Verbier, Switzerland: With its vast and diverse off-piste terrain, Verbier is a favorite destination for freeriders seeking powder stashes and challenging descents. Read our Verbier guide.
- St. Anton, Austria: Known for its legendary après-ski, St. Anton also boasts abundant off-piste opportunities within the Arlberg region.
- La Grave, France: This lift-accessed, off-piste-only ski area offers serious skiers and snowboarders some of the most challenging freeriding terrain in Europe.
- Zermatt, Switzerland: Combining stunning Matterhorn views with a massive network of lifts and varied off-piste terrain, Zermatt is a paradise for freeriders. See also neighbouring Cervinia in Italy for the same terrain at Italian prices.
- Andermatt, Switzerland: Andermatt has earned a reputation for its deep powder snow and a variety of off-piste opportunities, from mellow slopes to steep couloirs.
- Courmayeur, Italy: Freeride enthusiasts rave about Courmayeur’s breathtaking views of Mont Blanc and options for both challenging steeps and mellow tree skiing.
- Engelberg, Switzerland: Known for its impressive snowfall, Engelberg offers off-piste aficionados plenty of powder and a mix of challenging and more approachable terrain.
- Les Trois Vallees/Meribel, Courcheval etc: The highest and biggest ski region in Europe offers more than enough opportunity to hit the powder. Discover off piste and freeriding across 600 kms of ski area. Check our cheap Three Valleys package guide.
- Freeride World Tour destinations: Keep an eye on the Freeride World Tour, as its stops typically take place at iconic off-piste destinations such as Fieberbrunn (Austria), Vallnord-Arcalís (Andorra), and Kicking Horse (Canada).
We’ve also recently enjoyed a few trips to Switzerland which is a hotspot for top quality freeriding and off-piste. And while Switzerland might seem like an expensive option, actually, we think there are tons of opportunities for affordable skiing and snowboarding.
Read our guide to cheap ski resorts in Switzerland for more info.
Non-European Resorts for Freeriding
- Jackson Hole, Wyoming, USA: With its steep, rugged terrain and plentiful snow, Jackson Hole is a freerider’s dream destination in North America.
- Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia, Canada: This massive ski resort is renowned for its abundant snowfall, vast backcountry access, and a wide range of off-piste terrain options.
- Alta/Snowbird, Utah, USA: Known for their light, dry “Champagne Powder” snow, Alta and Snowbird offer incredible off-piste skiing opportunities within Little Cottonwood Canyon.
- Niseko, Japan: Famed for its abundant snowfall and “Japow”, Niseko offers tree skiing, wide-open bowls, and a unique cultural experience.
- Las Leñas, Argentina: For Southern Hemisphere freeriding, look no further than Las Leñas, known for its steep terrain, backcountry access, and abundant snowfall.
So there you have it. Going off-piste is a lot of fun, and while you can enjoy some great freeriding in ski resorts such as Whistler, Verbier, Crans Montana, The Three Valleys and the Arlberg region you should make a plan and make sure to prepare with the right equipment if going deeper into the backcountry.
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