Backcountry Skiing FAQ

Filed in Ski Day Tours, Winter Adventures by on September 10, 2015


Go beyond the groomed to discover the thrill of backcountry telemark or alpine touring.

Here’s where it all began.  Paragon Guides started as a small backcountry ski ranch, called Crooked Creek Ski Touring, in the late 1970’s and has evolved as the premier guide service on the 10th Mountain Division Hut System.  Our guides are passionate about skiing in Colorado’s High Country while providing opportunities for participating skiers to share in the beauty of backcountry skiing.

How is Backcountry Skiing different from Lift-Service Alpine or Cross-Country Skiing?  

Not so long ago, there was no difference, but ideas, skills and technology have allowed for specializing each skiing style.  While the history of skiing itself can be traced back to the Northern climates where it was the most efficient form for traveling on snow.  Skiing, as we are most familiar with it today, took quite an evolutionary arch in the past six decades.
During WWII soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division trained in our local mountain terrain at Camp Hale and its surrounding peaks, slopes and rock faces.  Many of those soldiers returned from the war with a passion and vision for skiing and mountaineering.  Many of our current ski areas and outdoor equipment can be traced back to their contributions.

Alpine skis are great for lift-service ski areas with their locked down heels, wide bases and metal edges. Little to no flat terrain is encountered with this equipment.  Cross-country skis are great for moving over flat to rolling ground with their light equipment and kick-and-glide or skating techniques.  Backcountry skis, whether Telemark or Alpine Touring (AT) / are the best of both allowing for a skier to maneuver on flat, rolling or sloped (downhill and uphill) terrain.  ATelemark Ski has a cable binding with a fully free heel using the telemark turn for slope skiing.  AnAlpine Touring or Randonee Ski has a releasable binding that can be open for uphill terrain and then can lock down for Alpine turns on slope skiing. Steep uphill terrain is aided with addition of Climbing Skins, a strip of synthetic mohair temporarily glued to the base of the ski, allowing the ski to slide forward,  grip, without allowing the ski to move backward.

The 10th Mountain Division Hut System

In the early 1980’s a system of backcountry huts was conceived by Fritz Benedict,  starting near Aspen and born of the idea similar to the hut system in Europe seen by the 10th Mountain Division soldiers.  Today, Paragon utilizes this “American Haute Route” with its 16 huts and the well-placed Diamond J Ranch spread between Aspen, Eagle, Vail and Leadville in central Colorado. A wide variety of routes can be designed ranging from 3-6 days.  The huts are best accessed on Backcountry Skis with wonderful touring and downhill terrain around each.  Trips can access one hut for 1-3 nights or traverse from hut-to-hut for a more extensive trip.  Mileage will vary from 3-9 miles into or between huts, 500′-3000′ elevation gain.

The huts are two-story log buildings sleeping 8-20 people (16 on average).  Mattresses with pillows line the upstairs great room and 2 side rooms; heating and cooking is done on wood stoves; lighting comes from a photo-voltaic system; water is obtained from snow-melt; and the facilities are outhouses.

Paragon Guides provides:

  • 2 professional guides
  • Hut fees
  • Trailhead transportation
  • Sleeping bags cached at the hut
  • Clean sleeping bag liner and pillowcase
  • All meals from breakfast day one through lunch final day
  • All group gear including first-aid and repair kits
  • Personal ski instruction
  • Pre-trip Orientation Ski Day
  • Trip Preparation packet
  • US Forest Service Use Fees
  • Insurance

Ski Packages, leg gaiters and backpacks can be rented through Paragon Guides or local shops.

How about snowboards? 

Backcountry snow boarding is growing in popularity and we have seen quite an increase in snowboard use in the backcountry.  Some of our guides wrote articles last season with their thoughts on snowboards.  Contact us and we will discuss options and send you a couple of articles written by our guides.


What is the difference between alpine, cross-country, and backcountry skis?
Alpine skis are great for lift-service ski areas because of their locked down heels, wide bases and metal edges. Little to no flat terrain is encountered with this equipment.   Cross-country skis are great for moving over flat to rolling terrain because the equipment is light and kick-and-glide or skating techniques make for efficient travel. Cross-country skis work best on groomed track or on low-angle trails. Ski bases can be waxed or come with textured ‘fish scales.’ Both offer forward glide with minimal backward slide.

Backcountry skis, whether telemark or alpine touring (AT), or randonee, are the best of both styles. They allow a skier to maneuver on flat, rolling or sloped (downhill and uphill) terrain thanks to metal edges and a free-heel climbing position.

Telemark skis have a cable binding with a fully free heel that makes for efficient climbing and a graceful ‘tele’ turn descent. Alpine touring skis have a binding that can be released to allow for for free hill climbing, but then locked down for alpine-style descents.

I’m new to backcountry skiing – is that OK?

If you’re new to backcountry skiing, going on a custom tour with a private guide is a great way to be introduced to the skills, equipment, and terrain that make up the backcountry experience. Your guide will offer tips on efficient backcountry travel – from setting an up-track to removing skins – and will select a tour that complements your skiing ability.

Shouldn’t I be worried about avalanches? 

Colorado’s snowpack is notoriously unstable at times and demands your full attention and respect. The potential for avalanches is always our number one safety concern. Big lines in steep terrain in mid-winter is not what we offer. We select conservative routes that are appropriate to the condition of the snowpack, time of year, and size of group. Our guides have a minimum Level II certification from the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE). From December through March, Paragon Guides announces the daily avalanche report, issued from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, on KZYR 97.7 FM. We require that all participants wear a beacon and carry a shovel and probe. We provide this equipment on our custom tours and hut trips. Equipment is available for rental if you’re participating on a scheduled Paragon Ski Club tour.

What are climbing skins? 

Climbing skins are used on both Telemark and AT skis for uphill travel. Skins are simply a strip of bristled nylon or natural mohair that attaches to the base of the ski. The skin allows the ski to slide forward and grip so that you don’t slip backwards. They’re kind of magical! Once you’re ready to descend, you remove the skins, fold them, and stow them in your pack or jacket until you need them again.

What skis do I need for a backcountry tour? 

You have two choices: a backcountry ski with a telemark binding (and telemark boot), or a backcountry ski with an alpine touring (AT) binding (and AT boot). Telemark set-ups allow the skier’s heel to be free both climbing and descending. If you’re new to backcountry skiing, telemark skiing can be challenging to learn without first spending time at a lift served ski resort. For this reason, alpine skiers who are new to the backcountry often prefer AT equipment, which allows for free-heel climbing and locked heel descending. Paragon Guides’ runs the Vail Valley’s only Dynafit Test Center, exclusively renting and retailing Dynafit AT boots, skis, and skins.

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