Definition of Backcountry, Frontcountry, Sidecountry and Slackcountry Skiing

Sure wish I knew who keeps making these videos! :)

If I hear one more person say that they “skied the backcountry today” after riding the tram…I’m gonna puke! To purists like myself (maybe?) there is a BIG difference between backcountry, frontcountry, sidecountry and slackcountry. Yeah, we can have fun in all of them, but with the way skiing out-of-bounds and backountry skiing is taking off, it’s imperative that we get these terms and our actions straight. Granted, some of the terms may be included under the broad term of “backcountry skiing”, but some further description of the specific terrain is sometimes needed.snooty-skier Here’s what I think the terms mean.

Slackcountry = Terrain outside of the ski area boundary that is accessed from a lift without having to skin or bootpack. Usually this also bears true with access getting back to the lift as well. For purists, this could also include areas like Beartooth Pass where people ski from switchback to switchback and use a car as a shuttle.

Sidecountry = Terrain that is accesses from a lift with the use of a bootpack or skin track. Areas accessed by long traverses, though with no bootpack or skin track are still covered under the “sidecountry” label. For purists, no matter how far you skin away from the resort, if you used the lift to gain vertical, it’s still “sidecountry”.

Frontcountry = Mainly associated with mountain passes, it’s the areas that require a bootpack or skin track to access the goods, but then you ski right back to the road. For purists, this term could really be pushed to include anything that is a simple skin up…and ski back down to the road.

Backcountry = Ski terrain accessed by your own power, but I’m pretty sure it’s okay to drive to the trailhead. I think long approaches on flat terrain are what make the difference between frontcountry and backcountry…as well as starting from a low point or valley…as opposed to a mountain pass.  For purists…this is where they prefer to spend their time…shredding the pow!!

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46 Responses to “Definition of Backcountry, Frontcountry, Sidecountry and Slackcountry Skiing”

  1. 1 Forrest McCarthy Apr 5th, 2010 at 6:03 am

    So let me get this strait- at least from a Jackson Hole perspective:

    If I do a ski traverse out Death or Teton Canyons starting at the Tram these areas become “Side Country”?

    Places like Snake River Canyon, Hoback Canyon and the North side of Togwotee pass (no switchbacks utilized) do not qualify as backcountry because you make turns right down to the pavement and your car?

    Essentially the term “backcountry” is reserved for areas accessed by slogging across flats from Bradley-Taggart or Jackson Lake?

    Since Steve’s recent surprise at encountering a telemark skier maybe he has been trying to expand his horizons. However, one day at Teton Village hardly accomplishes that.

    This is reminiscent of the old discussion regarding the difference between ski touring and ski mountaineering. That discussion was at least based on a more qualitative difference in activities rather then geographic locations.

  2. 2 randosteve Apr 5th, 2010 at 6:23 am

    forrest…obviously there are exceptions to the rules/definitions and everything might not be as black and white as we would like them to be. your darby/teton canyon example shows this. in essence, for that tour, you would be traveling from the sidecountry…into the backcountry.

    IMHO…the frontcountry is mainly associated with mountain passes…so no…snake river/hoback canyons wouldn’t be considered frontcountry. BUT…they might to someone who skis them everyday. just like to me, wimpys, maverick, 25 short…are sorta in the frontcountry realm as well. it’s all about perspective. but yeah…the icebox…radio tower on togwotee…could be considered frontcountry by some. pinnacle buttes, breccia…maybe not so much.

    and i try to expand my horizons every day…just like you forrest. and i’m not sure i see how your argument regarding a discussion about skimo vs backcountry skiing being much different. to me…they both are very closely related to geographic location. you wouldn’t be ski mountaineering if you were meadow skiing…but you would be if you were climbing a steep couloir.

    yeah…we are splitting hairs when it comes to this kind of talk, but i think as the sport becomes more popular…they will be more useful. i mean…an automobile is an automobile…right? but if you were going to buy one, you’d probably like to know if it was a hatchback, sedan or station wagon. this one might be more akin to your thought process though. most of where was all ski is on public land…but some is national forest, wilderness, blm and national park…with each one have different rules and restrictions.

  3. 3 Forrest McCarthy Apr 5th, 2010 at 7:45 am

    Just having fun by stirring the pot. It is good topic for discussion. Thanks for bringing it up Steve.

    I do advocate the categories be defined by activity not location. For a summer comparison; what is a lap on the Grand Teton for one person is a mountaineering adventure of a lifetime for another.

  4. 4 Forrest McCarthy Apr 5th, 2010 at 8:17 am

    and the difference between ski touring and ski mountaineering: while I have always liked -the conditions are good (touring) the other they suck (mountaineering)you would appreciate Alex Lowe’s – “about 40 degrees.”

    What would you call skiing across Floyd Wilson Meadows?

  5. 5 randosteve Apr 5th, 2010 at 8:25 am

    well that would be ski touring…duh!!!

    just like hiking on the trail in the same place would be called hiking…NOT mountaineering.

  6. 6 moulton Apr 5th, 2010 at 9:26 am

    So, I live at Utah, in the middle of skiable terrain. The nearest drivable road in winter at least 2 1/2 miles away. Four humans living yearound…This must be Mycountry.

  7. 7 Forrest McCarthy Apr 5th, 2010 at 9:28 am

    That is where we disagree I consider Floyd Wilson Meadows ski-mountaineering; “and you ask your self, well how did I get here?”

    I confess to being critical of the loose application of the term ski-mountaineering to the popular race series. My criticism stems from the attributes that to me define ski-mountaineering: multi modes of travel (skinning, cramponing, and descending), the decision of which mode to use and when, avalanche hazard mitigation, and most importantly – route finding.

    As far as differentiating back country, front country, side country and slack county maybe the Alpine Grade System or National Climbing Classification System (NCCS) would provide a better model. In addition to technical difficulty NCCS factors remoteness, complexity, objective hazard, duration, and commitment.

    In the U.S. NCCS Grades are defined as:

    I. Just an hour or two of technical effort. These are the easiest routes, a step or two above hiking.

    II. A half day of technical terrain, requiring real climbing, but for a limited number of pitches.

    III. Most of a day on technical ground. Although a rock grade might be easy (4th class, low-5th, etc.), issues such as length, route finding, or complexity will keep the challenge up.

    IV. A full day of technical climbing. Teams that are not “dialed in” should expect an unplanned bivouac. Expect rock climbing of at least 5.7, or steep snow/ice on the route.

    V. Typically requires a bivouac on the route. Expect rock climbing of at least 5.8, or serious aid or ice climbing.

    VI. Two or more days of hard climbing, whether aid, free or ice. The realm of big walls of all types.

  8. 8 randosteve Apr 5th, 2010 at 10:08 am

    nice moulton!!!

  9. 9 Derek Apr 5th, 2010 at 10:49 am

    If I am responsible for my life and own snow evaluations I am in the BC. Sorry I must not be the purest type. Great post though love those video’s.

  10. 10 Derek Apr 5th, 2010 at 10:52 am

    On a side note I hate the term BC, and anyone who talks about going to the BC in terms of how rad they are, I am going riding and hopefully wherever the deep snow is how I like it.

  11. 11 Mark H Apr 5th, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    In my mind, true backcountry skiing is about going where there is very little ‘social proof’ (which usually means long approaches). It’s about having to completely rely on your own route finding/avy skills (not following someone elses skinner and deciding a run is safe to ski cause there’s other people hitting it). This kind of ‘follow the herd’ mentality is the norm in the Cottonwoods. I find that many of these herd skiers are rather unprepared for real backcountry tours even though they have been regularly touring the Cottonwoods ‘backcountry’ for years.

    I think Mt. Superior is a prime example of how social proof can redefine ‘backcountry’. Although this mountain is just across the road from Snowbird, it was once considered an extreme backcountry descent owing to its intimidating appearance and 3000 ft climb. Nowadays, it is regularly skied by people who know little to nothing about backcountry skiing.

  12. 12 Tom Kennedy Apr 5th, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    Sure wish I knew who keeps making these videos!

    Every single one makes me laugh so hard I have to stop and replay it.

    I love the: “I think you might be retarded” line.

  13. 13 randosteve Apr 5th, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    mark h…in general…i tend to agree with you.

  14. 14 Lee Apr 5th, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    Lets leave Togwotee out of this!

  15. 15 Wyatt Apr 5th, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    What if you (gasp!) use a snowmachine to access the goods?

  16. 16 Bryan Apr 5th, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    The backcountry in terms of wilderness medicine = 2 hours from definitive care, if that helps stir the pot a bit…

  17. 17 Omr Apr 5th, 2010 at 10:21 pm

    If I cross another ski track I consider the day a failure. It makes me laugh to hear about fighting for parking space at the TH. In the Wasatch there are infinite lines that go ignored while the Cottonwoods get tracked out within hours of a storm. Just because one does not ride a lift does not necessarily mean they are “backcountry” skiing. And often the grungiest looking lines turn out to be gem ski descents. Even in an over used range like the Wasatch, one can claim first descents on a regular basis if willing to work and explore.

  18. 18 tommy romunsky Apr 5th, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    I don’t give a crap what any of those terms are, but I’m amazed that this comment thread totally missed how awesome that video was.

    Did any of you even notice these quotes, or were you too busy worrying about whether or not Steve offended you with his definitions?

    "misty stash of backcountry"

    "it was mega-gnar and we totally savaged it like a phish jam"

    "you have got to keep it all clear when you spray you people know how dope you are"

    Priceless. Thanks for posting.

  19. 19 ptor Apr 6th, 2010 at 2:01 am

    I think there only needs to be two words, backcountry and slackcountry. Side and front seem ambiguous and redundant. In BC, there is so much logging road access which with a sled makes it as easy to get to a zone as a car and highway. Also, the video should end with some ‘mortal kombat’ violence, otherwise there’s no point to them having their discussion;-)

  20. 20 randosteve Apr 6th, 2010 at 4:47 am

    wyatt…well that is just plain called….cheating!!! :)

    …and i guess it would be cool if blondy just up and tore that squigy-looking dude’s head off at the end. hello feelio barber!!!!

  21. 21 randosteve Apr 6th, 2010 at 4:54 am

    and bryan…i think you make a very good point. i’m sure one’s mindset isn’t the same when they know tons of others are watching them ski and could respond to an emergency…vs just your buddy/backcountry partner.

  22. 22 bonedoc Apr 6th, 2010 at 6:50 am

    Ok, to stir the pot a bit more….

    All classification systems are either devised as “lumpers or splitters.”

    I propose a simpler, perhaps naive, classification:

    1. Frontcountry= inbounds; lift served terrain requiring no avy knowledge or uphill effort
    2. Sidecountry/slackcountry (lumped), lift served, not consistently (or none) avy mitigated, may or may not require any uphill effort to either access or return.
    3. Backcountry-no lift, no avy mitigation.

    I think this eliminates confusion with car access, road access, snow machine access, on a pass, on a trailhead etc. When you start to split hairs with these it starts to make the classification useless.

    It’s almost like you are trying to differentiate front/back range, long/short approach, time to target, etc and place it in this classification. Someone mentioned climbing classification. Maybe you need a subclassification system: ie.
    Backcountry-short approach/return-ie. Glory, Taylor
    Backcountry-long approach/return-ie. Middle Teton
    Sidecountry-short approach/return-ie. Rock Springs
    Frontcounty-anything inbounds

  23. 23 bonedoc Apr 6th, 2010 at 7:07 am

    Just for clarification:

    1. Whether or not you come across someone’s tracks is irrelevant for this classification.
    2. Whether or not you think social proof comes into play or not, is irrelevant.
    3. Whether you are 1 hour, or 3 hours from medical care is irrelevant.


    #1. This is more elitism or purist philosophy, not helpful for a general purpose classification
    #2. This is far too ambiguous. Suppose you do a remote route/first time descent and film and post it. Was this social proof because no one saw it from the road/pub or is it social proof for posting it rather than just keeping the accomplishment quietly to yourself?
    #3. You can die in 3 minutes or 3 days. Why is distance to medical care considered? So if you are on the pass (usually less than 2 hours), the pass closes and now we are more than 2 hours from care, you would change classification simply because of condition change rather than terrain/location?

  24. 24 Collin T Apr 6th, 2010 at 7:32 am

    “Don’t let me catch you snowshoeing in my skin track you knuckle-dragger.”


  25. 25 Eric Apr 6th, 2010 at 8:16 am

    Your long approaches are so much more worthy of my ‘efficient’ access to the backcountry. Yeah right! It’s all about the down.
    “It is all totally different terrain with totally different meanings. You’ve got to keep it all clear so when you spray, people know how dope you are.”

  26. 26 Tom Kennedy Apr 6th, 2010 at 9:29 am

    “What’s that? Chumpcountry?”

  27. 27 Shawn Apr 6th, 2010 at 9:36 am

    I ski in bounds, out of bounds, sometimes I go for short tours, sometimes I go for long tours, sometimes I do what you would call ski mountaineering. Basically, I love skiing. The Video is funny, the discussion afterward is pure douche baggery.

  28. 28 Michelle Smith Apr 6th, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    I agree with you Shawn, way to sum it up…

  29. 29 Greg in Utah Apr 6th, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    Bonedoc’s system matches my prior understanding of the terms. Backcountry has no avalanche control, and no lift service. Who cares if you can see the road? Who cares how many miles of flat skinning is required? How about this equally absurd definition of backcountry: “Backcountry skiing requires multi-day approaches with a backpack that weighs at least 80 pounds. Backcountry skiing does not begin until the elevation of 9000 feet is exceeded. If any contrails from aircraft are seen while skiing, the tour is downgraded to frontcountry status as contrails are a sign of human activity. No processed or GMO foods are allowed on a backcountry tour. Consumption of such food immediately downgrades the experience to frontcountry. Posting your photos of backcountry skiing on a ski-oriented blog is allowable but posting them on facebook revokes backcountry status.”

  30. 30 Mark H Apr 6th, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    Fun discussion! I think the term ‘backcountry’, the ‘backcountry’ we dream about, denotes being away from it all, not just stepping on the other side of the rope. No? Nevermind what EXACTLY defines it.

    Suppose the Grand Teton always had a booter up it and it was usually tracked out (like Superior). Would skiing that mountain have the same value to everyone? I doubt it. I would argue that it would be missing that certain ‘backcountry’ feel.

  31. 31 Mark H Apr 6th, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    I think Lou Dawson sums up the LETTER of the law well:

    “Backcountry skiing is skiing ungroomed “natural” snow in sparsely populated areas, generally outside designated ski resorts. Human power is frequently the means of access and ascent, but mechanized means such as helicopters and ski lifts may be used so long as the land accessed is backcountry”

    But I say the SPIRIT of the law is: seeking “the UNTRACKED experience” (quoting the magazine)

    K I’ll shut up now….time for skiing (50 inch dump in the Wasatch!)

  32. 32 Brenden Apr 6th, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    Sounds like classic backcountry snob talk. For some the side/slack/front country in and around resorts are their gateway to the backcountry. Where does Central couloir fall into this discussion?

  33. 33 ptor Apr 7th, 2010 at 12:03 am

    If one just says the name of the thing or zone they skied, it’s self explanatory and then one doesn’t even need to say which ‘country’ one was skiing in.

  34. 34 randosteve Apr 7th, 2010 at 5:49 am

    brenden…central = sidecountry. as i doubt people would be sending the 80ft huck if central was say…on the middle teton.

  35. 35 nick Apr 7th, 2010 at 10:13 am

    I think the amount of time from medical care is quite relevant. Steve is right, people don’t send 80 footers in the park simply because there is a big difference in response time. If you broke your leg sending central you’d probably be in the hospital within a couple of hours, if you broke your leg in the park, there’s a good chance you’d be spending the night.
    There is also the issue of effort required to access your line. I cant imagine anyone feeling comfortable dropping an 80 footer after 5 hours of climbing and and 5000′ of vertical gain… but a mild half hour walk to the top on central gaining 300′ of vert is far less taxing leaving more in the tank and the legs for the way down.
    Ptor is right though, just name what you skied and people can make their own judgement and call it what ever they want.

  36. 36 Lee Apr 7th, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    It was a powder day in Sinks Canyon today. That should be called rarecountry.

  37. 37 randosteve Apr 7th, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    well that is good to hear lee…i’ve got my eye on something in that area.

  38. 38 ExtremeSnowlerBlader Apr 7th, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    Who the fuck cares what you call it… we are supposed to be having fun and making some turns. Quit being an elitist holier than thou ski snob.

  39. 39 randosteve Apr 7th, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    right…cuz i’m not having fun.

    …and why do people think it’s elitist to talk about this? its skiing…let’s talk about it!!

  40. 40 ty Apr 8th, 2010 at 11:30 am

    What about where I ski at Bridger Bowl? I count 6 (old school) D-route laps as a huge day, comparable to any of the slogs I have made to peaks around here, and that is within resort boundaries!. I scoff at the term slackcountry. The lifts in the southern bridger range make it’s unbelievable ski terrain accessible wile the north of Ross Peak terrain is accessed with snowmobile.

  41. 41 randosteve Apr 8th, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    sounds sick ty!!!

  42. 42 js Apr 8th, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    Frontcountry is resort. Side and slack border the resort, however you want to define them. All the rest, accessed under your own power, is backcountry.

  43. 43 randosteve Apr 8th, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    stick to the SPET tax js and leave the technical backcountry terminology to the experts. jk. ;)

  44. 44 Shiny Deadman Apr 8th, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    Where on the Beartooth can one go switchback to switchback w/out hiking? Rock creek is a nice march over that soft tundra and ya gotta hike outta ’57 chevy and that other main vein. huh?

  45. 45 randosteve Apr 9th, 2010 at 6:06 am

    shiney…not sure of all the names…maybe gardiner headwall? i know i’ve seen some dudes pulled over picking up skiers at one of the switchbacks.

  46. 46 Mike T Apr 10th, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    Before there was ski lifts it was all backcountry!

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