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Has backcountry skiing hit a plateau?

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  • Has backcountry skiing hit a plateau?

    It struck me the other day while talking to a rep in the ski industry that we may have hit a saturation point for backcountry skiing. There are an absolute ton of passport bindings to chose from, the Dynafit system is no longer proprietary with Fritschi offering a tech binding in early 2014, plus several knock-off companies building a tech binding, and tele, if not dead, is certainly flat for equipment sales. Even snowboarding is in retreat.

    The industry sentiment seems to think Alpine Touring is still growing, and maybe it is, and splitboarding is growing, but the statistic that haunts me is the indication that about 9% of the total ski population now considers themselves backcountry skiers/snowboarders. For a long time I've held that 10% number in my head as the maximum percentage of skiers that would realistically become BC skiers. What do you think?

    Have we hit the high mark, or are we only just beginning the growth and interest in earning your turns?

    For reference, look at the graphs from SIA's latest report.

    Of course, I hope not, but 10% seems like a pretty reasonable percentage of the population to be willing to hike up to ski down.
    Last edited by Dostie; 2 September 2013, 08:17 PM. Reason: add link to passport bindings

    ain't no turn like tele!

  • #2
    each new year I feel like I'm mounting more and more skis for uphill travel whether it's for ski area skinning with maybe a small/light dose of bc travel, or for folks that wanna dive head 1st into the bc cuz they are tired of the lift served rat race/expense.

    I've definitely seen a big decline in tele interest and an ever increasing interest in AT and rugged touring. now the gear is getting kinda crazy (imo) with all of the offerings. I mean I woulda stopped at the cobra r8 (best tele binder ever imo) and the fritschi freeride+, but i'm simple like that
    good snow comes in many different types and consistencies. STICK YER FEET IN IT!!!


    • #3
      I too see the only possible place where backcountry skiing is growing to be in AT--especially sidecountry. The biggest obstacle many of them have is complete ignorance of the gear. Some people come in and say they want to tele but when they learn what tele actually means, what they really want is AT. Others want to ski a BD Justice in rando races with Dynafit bindings and Scarpa F1 boots to save weight. There is a segment of the skiing population that wants to start skiing outside the resort boundaries but doesn't really know anybody else who does it and doesn't know how to get started. They hear (thankfully) that it's really dangerous to ski out of bounds and have no idea where to go to get the skills. So they are hesitant. They finally come in our shop and start asking questions. There is opportunity, but the obstacle is they are not aware of all the different options and what it means to pair an appropriate boot with a particular ski. And for some reason, they have never heard of Friends of Berthoud Pass, AIARE, AAA, or AMGA guides who can teach them the sport safely. We need to do a better job of getting the word out.

      Agree, tele is in decline. You wouldn't think that to ski at Loveland, but overall, I think more people are quitting tele for AT than are taking up tele for the first time.


      • #4
        I hope it has peaked, starting to get crowded in the Wasatch BC. Tele in major decline in Utah backcountry, Seems like just five years ago or so at least half of local BC folks were on Telegear, I'd be surprised if one quarter are now. I;m sure that 90 percent of the new comers are AT while most of the folks I ski with that used to tele have switched to Dynafits including myself.


        • #5
          I'm always grateful when my backcountry skiing hits a plateau. That means I can take it easy, kick and glide for a while, smell the roses and enjoy the high country before heading back down.

          Tele is definitely going out of fashion these days. Modern culture praises achievement and getting the "best" of everything. As ATers love to point out, Tele is less efficient than AT. For me, the concept of engaging in a sport for its "efficiency" misses the point of engaging in sports and outdoor adventure, but I accept that this is a minority viewpoint. I also don't get the concept of ranking ski areas or resort towns and declaring which is "best" but that sure is a popular pastime these days.

          Overall, demands on the BC in winter are going to increase. Travelling in winter once was reserved for hardy adventurers, but winter outdoor activity is becoming mainstream. Look at the continued rapid growth in snowshoeing. Some of those people are going to transition to skis.

          Attempts to chart the growth/decline of tele suffer from a lack of clear definition. I have a quiver of five or so skis with freeheel bindings that get a lot of use (as well as other skis that don't) and it is a personal opinion as to which are tele and which are nordic or "cross-country".

          Classic tele has certainly lost its gloss, because it is no longer unusual or noteworthy. Twenty years ago, one stood out on the hill doing tele turns and that generated talk and interest. Now it's just one more way of doing things, and not favored in today's culture of achievement, which is about doing things "better" and bucket lists. But travel on skis with freeheel bindings is here for the long term, and will continue to grow in popularity.


          • #6
            I think BC skiing is definitely in a growth pattern around here. IMO, there is a couple of reasons for this, first with the new gear average recreational skiers can now ski powder and wild snow. So, at the resort with the ability of alot of skiers to slay the powder on a powder day the resort is punched out in a couple of hours. Resort powder days are way more aggressive now days too, so the only way to ski alot of powder is to add BC skiing and sidecountry skiing to your skiing plate. Second, the new gear is light, comfortable and climbs well and of course skis great on the decent so the days of sufferfests are miniumized and good days in the BC are doable for the average skier. Lastly, there is a fitness component to BC skiing as well as a tech component like maybe Mt. Biking and that draws people in too.
            I don't see much growth in Tele around here, lota skiers are dropping tele in the BC to cut weight and most skiers who are new come from fixed heel resort skiing and stay with what they are good at. So, growth in AT skiing. Also seeing alot of Split boards last season. Anyway, for me and my ski partner(Lynn) we are pretty much soft snow specialists and are on a mission to ski powder everytime we go out and we will climb for it.
            Lynn, finding soft snow three days after small storm toward the bottom of Incline Pk. Not punched out either
            Click image for larger version

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            Last edited by Quadzilla; 2 September 2013, 10:16 AM.
            "Just say no to groomed snow"


            • #7
              some of this depends on how one defines "growth", and how one defines "backcountry skiing". also, the last 2 seasons super sucked in some BC-meccas, while three seasons ago was super duper awesome.


              • #8
                Folks I know that have just started earning their turns over the last 2-3 years have all purchased passport bindings. They are skinning for two reasons - a) to get some exercise by skinning at the resort in the early morning before the lifts start turning, or b) to ski powder in closed areas or 'side country'. The few that I've invited for real backcountry skiing have turned me down as they weren't interested in going out into the woods, having to skin for any length of time, and then enjoy only 1 or two laps. I think this is a large portion of the new 'backcountry skier'. After realizing they can't get as many vert that they do riding lifts, their passport bindings/skis only come out on pow days at the resort. They certainly would answer a survey that they are 'backcountry skiers' because they have the gear and have earned some turns, though.


                • #9
                  A couple of points. I do think there are a finite amount of people willing to hike for turns. What the exact percentage is would only be a guess, but 10% of regular skiers seems like a good wag. That number is certainly higher in areas where there is good access to quality BC terrain ala the Wasatch,Tahoe etc. There is an obvious explosion of AT gear options. This makes perfect sense for gear companies, as it's a lot easier to sell AT gear to existing alpine skiers as there is no need to learn a new turn. Seems every sport I have been involved in goes thorough a predictable evolution. There is a period of discovery, and period of rapid growth and finally a leveling off (and/or decline) and maturity. In tele, the discovery was 70's and 80's, the boom happened in the mid to late 90's and now things have matured and the level of participation has fallen off. I do wonder where the tele market would be if gear like the TTS and NTN Freedom binding had been released 10 or 15 years ago. I'd say AT is definitely in the boom period and things will shake out over the next few years. As far as tele, I think there will always be a small core of dedicated tele skiers, as it is too damn fun to die completely. However, the days of big growth are likely behind us for good. Even with the vast improvement in tele gear over the years, it is still comparatively a difficult sport to learn and get good at. This will always limit the amount of participation.
                  Last edited by rip; 2 September 2013, 01:39 PM.


                  • #10
                    Well I had a nice post written but i lost it somehow.... growing pains.

                    It would be interesting to see the breakdown of that 10% of backcountry skiers. Do the guys who boot up spots next to the road once after the resort gets tracked out count? Slackcountry skiers?
                    Regardless, there definitely has been an increase in the number of people skiing common bc skiing spots. I don't necessarily have a problem with this as long as there are regular replenishings of snow, which has been a struggle the past two years here and in most other places.

                    Anyways, I don't know the term passport binding but I'll assume it allows people a free heel for climbing.
                    I wouldn't be surprised if there continues to be growth in the number of people dabbling in earning turns but as rip mentioned, there will always be a finite number of participants because so many people just don't like to climb. The gear will probably continue to sell well the next couple seasons and there will probably be more people venturing out but at some point a lot of people will realize that they'd rather ski groomers and use their special bindings on powder days than do any significant climbing.


                    • #11
                      The Earn Your Turns post including the SIA stats points out that tele-ridership has increased in recent years despite the fact that overall snow sports participation was down in the last two years, due (presumably) due to below-average snowpack. I'd suggest the mediocre conditions might be exactly why more folks are learning the tele turn. I took it up in part to keep things interesting and challenging while living in a place where they call the hills 'mountains.' If the conditions aren't inspiring you to huck yourself, why not find another challenge?

                      Of course I also took up tele in order to access the backcountry, about 2004, before dynafit became popular. The only AT binding designs I'd seen were essentially what we're now calling 'Passport bindings,' and you could still argue that tele was a more elegant solution (lighter, simpler) than the AlTernative. If I'd have been a couple years later to the party, or been in a different place, I would still be a backcountry skiier now, but it's unlikely I'd have learned to telemark.

                      Backcountry skiing has many merits, as we all know. Some (especially weekend warriors buying day passes) see BC skiing as an economical alternative to paying through the nose to wait in liftlines for pre-shredded snow. More dedicated riders see BC trips as a way to get freshies after their resort is tracked out. The peace-and-quiet, the good workout, the beautiful scenery, etc. etc. As barriers to entry are broken down by better gear thats more readily available and without a steep learning curve, I suspect that more folks will find one of these reasons valid enough to give it a try.

                      Few serious skiiers spend all their days in the backcountry; most of us divide our days between skin tracks and chairlifts. Like tele skiiers at the resort, there will always be a small but dedicated faction of backcountry purists who don't ride lifts at all. However, if anyone who has used climbing skins or ducked a rope at the resort feels like they can identify as a backcountry skiier, then surely the statistics will continue to grow. I wouldn't be surprised if ten years from now, the majority of those serious enough to ski 20+ days in a season spent at least one of them skinning. The percentage of those willing to skin the majority of their 20+ days? Probably much smaller...


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by PeterTheRed
                        Few serious skiiers spend all their days in the backcountry; most of us divide our days between skin tracks and chairlifts.
                        That depends on how you measure it. If you only consider people who are in the backcountry -- at least around Tahoe -- there is a fairly high percentage (I think well over 25%) who rarely if ever go to resorts. This includes xcd skiers as well as those skinning for turns. If you measure by skier days in the BC, the percentage is even higher, as many of these folks are out several times a week.


                        • #13
                          Hi all, I think I agree with the undercurrent I read here. Backcountry skiing participation has levelled off or dropped. It is only sales dollars of backcountry equipment that has grown as of late; particularly AT bindings. As far as I have seen, the majority of those stay inbounds or hoof it sideways to spots that used to stay good a lot longer in the past


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by gregcan
                            Hi all, I think I agree with the undercurrent I read here. Backcountry skiing participation has levelled off or dropped. It is only sales dollars of backcountry equipment that has grown as of late; particularly AT bindings. As far as I have seen, the majority of those stay inbounds or hoof it sideways to spots that used to stay good a lot longer in the past
                            I guess there are regional differences, but you are right, growth in sales don't equate to growth in numbers who actually go out and ski the BC. I wonder if the somewhat recent popularity of snow shoeing has cut into the growth of entry level BC touring. Cesare makes a good point about education and lack of as a deterent to skiers getting out and earning turns. So, bottomline, earning turns is a tough physical sport, not for the masses, takes time, practice and knowledge to get good at it.
                            "Just say no to groomed snow"


                            • #15
                              I have a feeling a lot of that gear will see the same kind of action most SUVs see: none. If I were a resort skier and I could get an AT setup that skied as well (or close to it) as an in-bounds-specific setup, I'd probably get the AT setup "just in case". Not sure how that puts them in terms of these statistics but if it puts them under the Backcountry Skier moniker then we will continue to see growth.