WHAT IT TAKES: "There are old backcountry skiers and bold backcountry skiers, the saying goes. "But no old, bold backcountry skiers. In other words, if you're out there to prove something, you'll be lucky to live. The wisest backcountry skiers are patient, humble and cautious, and will turn around without complaint if any little thing gives them a bad feeling.
Finding a partner—one you'd trust in a dire emergency—is an out-of-bounds rule. Savvy skiers know the territory they intend to ski. They study topographic maps, talk to local skiers and collect avalanche forecasts, snowpit data, weather forecasts and slope histories before they ski. And they never, ever leave home without an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe.
Backcountry skiers are tuned in to their surroundings: They notice old slides, evidence of recent winds and other warnings. Help is often hours away, so self-rescue is usually the only rescue.
Until you've gained experience, avoid steeps. "Just because 100 people have skied (a certain slope) doesn't mean the wind hasn't shifted and loaded it up just enough to change the stability, says Aaron Brill, founder of Silverton Mountain, Colo.
Backcountry enthusiasts are strong skiers, not only in powder of all depths, but on anything they might encounter: ice, windpack, crust or corn. They pack extra food, water and clothing and backup beacon batteries. Safe slope-travel—one at a time through suspect terrain, with an eye on their partners—and having contingency plans—safety zones and escape routes plotted in advance—are imperative.
"The biggest factor in backcountry skiing is hazard-avoidance, Brill says. "If you steer clear of danger, your odds are very good. As your skills improve, you can slowly step up to steeper terrain.
HOW TO GET THERE: Take an avalanche-awareness class, get your Level I avalanche-safety certification, or at least attend courses offered at stores like REI and EMS. Go with a guide your first time. And work on your technique: Learn to ski cautiously and deliberately, for those situations where a fall means disaster. Above all, get off the groomers and master whatever the mountain throws at you.