Peacefully remote settings, sensational vistas, hardy adventure, and few of the costs associated with the standard ski resort scene
The big reason skiing costs so much is pretty obvious. Chairlifts, gondolas, and trams that transport skiers and snowboarders up the hill cost millions of dollars to build and pile up huge electricity bills. These costs are passed along to riders, most obviously in the form of a lift pass (and less obviously in the form of rip-off $8 hamburgers inside the lodge).
One possibility for getting around the expense of a lift ticket is also rather obvious: get your butt up the hill on your own, via hiking boots, snowshoes, or cross-country or telemark skis. Sounds exhausting, huh? And perhaps a little dangerous? It can be both. Some folks should be rightly scared off from attempting such madness. Others have given backcountry skiing one try, and ever since happily fork over their cash for lift passes.
But skiing in the backcountry--basically any mountain slope away from the standard ski resort--is beloved by thousands of hardcore skiers and outdoor enthusiasts. Not only is a backcountry skier rewarded with miles of untouched powder and remote mountain vistas only seen in ski mags or Warren Miller movies, but usually the costs of an off-piste adventure are usually minimal, and sometimes totally free. Some mountain areas where backcountry skiing is popular even have huts and lodges for overnight adventures. Conditions are usually pretty spartan, but the nightly bill is often under $30.
Finding a spot for backcountry skiing isn't as simple as locating a snow-covered slope. First off, backcountry skiing is not allowed everywhere. Many ski resorts will not let you hike their trails and ski down (in-bounds or out-of-bounds) without a pass of some sort. Plus, avalanches are part of the normal winter cycle in many mountain environments, especially out West.
Some research is required to make sure your adventure is fun, the snow is good, and conditions are safe. The best place to start research is at "Off-Piste: The Backcountry Adventure Journal," published monthly in the winter. This rag, written and edited by backcountry diehards, can be found in convenience stores, ski lodges, and coffee shops in most ski towns. It's also got a fine Web site, offpistemag.com/, with features on great backcountry spots, an online forum for Q&A's with fellow enthusiasts, lists of upcoming events, free demos, avalanche training sessions, and other news, plus a link for 20 or so books focused on backcountry adventure.
After reading up on the basics, do some soul-searching. An honest review of your physical conditioning is necessary too (perhaps this requires an outsider's opinion). Are you up to the task of carting yourself and your gear up a mountain in the snow? Would you rather the comforts of chairlifts, ski patrollers, and happy hour at the end of the day? Do you want a daytime trip only, or are you up for an overnighter? No matter where your personality fits in here, you should be in good shape, and have a goodly amount of experience in both skiing and hiking before giving the backcountry a try.
Some locales are easy enough for a first-time backcountry skier to give it a shot, while at others it's a good idea to go only with a seasoned veteran or a professional guide. Some trails would only be fun for snowshoers and telemark or cross-country skiers, while other steep slopes are only good for expert downhill skiers or snowboarders. Just know what you're getting into before heading out into the woods.
One of the first popular backcountry spots in the U.S. is Tuckerman Ravine, a bowl-shaped face above the tree line on New Hampshire's Mount Washington (the Northeast's tallest peak). Skiers have been coming here since the 1930's, and hundreds still come each weekend in late April and early May, when there's still plenty of snow and days are relatively warm. It's a fun scene, especially on sunny spring days--groups of friends picnic between runs or build jumps at the bottom of the slope.
Loads of East Coast people pick Tuckerman's as their first backcountry adventure, but it isn't exactly an easy day. First off, there's an uphill hike from the parking lot, which takes around three hours, depending on pace and conditions (which can be muddy in the spring, but I've seen people do it in sneakers). After the grueling hike (you'll be carrying skis or a snowboard, plus boots and other gear in your backpack), some are too tired climb the headwall to actually go skiing. Also, the skiing here is tough--it's a seriously steep descent (if this was a resort, it would be probably be a double black diamond). But if you're in good shape and an expert skier, a day at Tuckerman Ravine is a blast. It is simply a "must" for any East Coast skiers who considers themselves hardcore.
And the cost for a day's skiing at Tuckerman? $0. You will have to pay to stay in the area overnight of course, but there are plenty of affordable B&B's and motels in nearby North Conway, New Hampshire. Go to mountwashingtonvalley.org/ for a list of options. Find out about the limited camping and hut facilities located a short hike from Tuckerman Ravine at tuckerman.org/. Another good source of info on Tuckerman's, including its annual triathlon, at friendsoftuckerman.org/. The Appalachian Mountain Club (outdoors.org/) also operates a few lodges and huts in the Mount Washington area, starting in the neighborhood of $20 a night.
Big backcountry adventures
The West is where truly epic backcountry trips can be had. It's also where avalanches are more likely (they're almost unheard of in the East), so do some studying before heading up into the mountains. An avalanche training course couldn't hurt. Wherever there is fresh powder and an inclined slope, chances are some nutty kid has tried skiing it. But that doesn't mean you should do the same.
Finding the best backcountry spots can be difficult--some locals protect their favorite places just as a fisherman might be reluctant to tell of a hidden nook where he knows the bass are biting. There are some fairly well-known places, however, where the snow is usually sensational, conditions are usually safe, and the crowds still haven't arrived. In many cases, there are even huts or lodges in the area, where $20 or $30 pays for a roof over your head.
Skiers head to the backcountry to get away from the crowds, but it's a good idea to only go out where you'll see the occasional human face should something go amiss. The various backcountry lodges and hut systems are good places to get your feet wet (or at least, the outsides of your waterproof boots wet). In many instances, day trips are possible, so you can skip the cost of a hut overnight. You may still have to pay a nominal fee of $1 to $5 for access to the trails. Here's a quick run-down of some possibilities out West:
Sierra Club Ski Huts: a dozen remote lodgings spread about in the mountains of California, usually with bunk facilities, charging $10 to $30 a night. Web site: sierraclub.org/outings/lodges
10th Mountain Division Hut Association: 29 huts in the Colorado Rockies, usually a few-mile hike or ski away from the nearest road, with 350 miles of skiable trails, starting at $25 a night. Web: huts.org/.
The Alpine Club of Canada: an association of 20 backcountry huts in Western Canada popular among skiers, snowboarders, climbers, and mountaineers, charging about US$7 to $20 a night. On the Web: alpineclubofcanada.ca/.
Sun Valley Trekking: a group of huts and yurts (large, durable circle-shaped tents) in the backcountry near Sun Valley, Idaho, with rates starting at $30 a night. Web site: svtrek.com/.
Wallowa Alpine Huts: an Oregon-based outfit that offers guides, all meals, gear transport, and backcountry hut lodgings, starting at a little over $100 per day. On the Web: wallowahuts.com/.