SKI touring in Scotland has seen a sharp rise in popularity in recent years. Heading away from the ski centre pistes and into the ‘backcountry’ has unleashed a sense of freedom. While the rest of us are just waking up to the wonders waiting to be unlocked on a pair of touring skis, there are communities out there who’ve long enjoyed the benefits of this well-kept secret.

In Scotland there are many companies and organisations heading out almost daily teaching people how to discover the backcountry. Scotland is home to a network of bodies such as Snowsport Scotland, and the Cairngorms is home to Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre, Glenmore Lodge, which has been training people for more than 70 years.

Skiing and boarding days in the Scottish winter mountains is a soulful experience. The combination of the natural colour palette of greens and browns contrast against the monochrome white, leaving everyone refreshed, exhilarated and hungry for the next adventure.

Sliding effortlessly through the snow, travelling further into the hills than possible on foot and enjoying the thrills of a descent are certainly memorable. No longer are you tied to the lifts and potentially one or two aspects of the hill. Instead, once you have the knowledge you need, you can start to predict where the best skiing is.

However as a beginner it can feel quite specialist. Navigation, rope-work, avalanche awareness and even crevasse rescue. How do you get started? We chatted to Blair Aitken of Snowsport Scotland to find out how and why you might like to get involved in backcountry skiing.

Backcountry skiing seems like a tough sport. Why would someone want to get involved in it rather than jumping on a ski lift and gliding down the piste?

It may now be the only sustainable way for intermediate skiers and above to regularly find interesting terrain. The past year is a good example of how unpredictable temperatures can make winter conditions unreliable. Although we do still get large quantities of snow it is often followed by a harsh thaw that strips the slopes.

Our strong winds help however – they deposit huge amounts of snow onto lee slopes and cross load gully lines and hollows. This means even during periods of thaw, a ski tourer can find good conditions if they tune into the past wind directions. However, these snow-filled slopes are often not where the ski lifts are.

The physical side of the sport can be a barrier, but as equipment becomes lighter it is now more efficient to travel on soft snow in winter on skis than on foot. The skis glide across the surfaces that a walker would sink into, and it’s often possible to take a much more direct line up, speeding the ascent.

On our introductory courses we do around 600 metres of vertical in a day. If you can walk up a Munro in summer then that isn’t a huge amount. A normal day in Scotland would be closer to 1000 metres vertical with two or three descents. This might not seem a lot of runs compared with lapping a ski resort but the route is normally a journey where you travel a much greater area and the ascent, for me, is just as enjoyable as the descent.

The Scottish resorts are doing a terrific job of introducing people to skiing through their maintenance of nursery slopes, and when the snow does come they still offer fantastic terrain, but you can’t plan too far in advance to visit as conditions are so fickle.

How would someone get started in backcountry skiing? Do you need to have lots of experience? What level of skier do you need to be?

It’s not uncommon in the Alps for climbers and tourers to use skis as a tool to travel through the mountains with a basic skiing technique.

In the UK we are more reserved, seeing backcountry or off piste as something that comes after we have mastered all the available ski runs (normally this means being a good black run skier).

In contrast to this most of the terrain I ski with clients while ski touring in Scotland would be considered a blue run if gradient alone was the benchmark.

What makes it more difficult is that once you move beyond a patrolled and maintained area the snow can be unpredictable and hazards are unmarked. Experience on skis certainly helps when it comes to adjusting to ever changing terrain and snow but the minimum technique needed is what ski instructors call plough-parallel (a stage in between snow plough turning and parallel turning which looks like a step turn).

This can be learnt on dry ski slopes, in snow domes and on the snow factory slopes that the Scottish slopes produce. If you are careful with your route choice and have the other necessary winter journeying skills needed, then this will get you most places within reason.

What else do you need to take part in backcountry? Navigation? Survival training?

Navigation, route choice and knowledge of weather are the priority.

I tend to use the Mountain Weather Information Service and the MET office in the run up to a trip along with checking the updates on the Scottish Avalanche Information Service website or their app. Nearer the time I use the MET office as I find their regular updates to be excellent.

The online British Backcountry group is used so frequently now that you can often find recent pictures showing the extent of snow cover, along with the various webcams. I also look at historical wind patterns, trying to gauge where the best snow will have been deposited and whether it is likely to be stable or avalanche prone.

After that, the ability to get yourself safely off the mountain if conditions deteriorate or a slope becomes more challenging than you first envisaged. This might involve mountain skills such as traversing, side slipping, following a bearing on skis or simply being able to walk off the mountain using axe and crampons.

Avalanche avoidance should also be a priority. This starts in the planning stages. Unlike many commonly used alpine routes, it is perfectly possible to ski tour or split board in Scotland and avoid slopes that are steep enough to avalanche.

This includes slopes above and below you, as well as the one you are travelling on. Avalanches can occur on slopes as low as 20 degrees, although in Scotland it is more likely to be a problem when wind slab has accumulated on slopes of 30 degrees or more.

Vigilance whilst travelling through the mountain is necessary and calibrating yourself to recognise a 30 degree slope is a useful skill.

If you do make the decision to ski in terrain with avalanche potential then you need to learn about snow structure and stability, as well as learn how to carry out an avalanche companion rescue using an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe.

Which is your favourite Scottish mountain to ski on?

I try to ski a new area every year and this year I am determined to head to the North West and ski the gullies in Torridon and An Teallach. Last winter I finally made it into Bidean nam Bian and was blown away by the alpine feel of the peaks, combined with the magical approach through the Coire Gabhail, the so-called Lost Valley.

If I’m honest, though, the most fun I have each year is on Ben Nevis. We run trips below the North Face and spend two days skiing as many gullies as we can. The terrain is steep and challenging and demands a combination of winter climbing, scrambling and steep skiing skills.

Which is your favourite foreign resort for backcountry?

The Vanoise, in France, is perfect for ski touring – either from the uplift the various stations offer, or using the huts to join up a a multi-day trip. It is possible to completely avoid glaciated terrain and there are slope angles to suit everyone, although there are also a lot of highly avalanche prone slopes.

However, my new favourite is Grimentz. This little resort in the Valais canton of Switzerland is quiet, has impeccable piste skiing, endless couloir options, good access to tree skiing and access into high mountain ski touring routes, while being surrounded by 4000m giants. I am hoping to run trips there next winter for my British Backcountry clients who are looking to take the next step after mastering ski touring in Scotland. If they can do it here, they can do it anywhere.

How do people get involved?

Ski touring now accounts for a significant portion of Glenmore Lodge’s winter work. As the number of participants increase, so do the opportunities for UK-based snowsport instructors, leaders and coaches to find rewarding work that will save your knees and be a lot of fun. Snowsport Scotland have recently launched a new range of off-piste leadership qualifications for skiers and boarders, reflecting the growth in popularity Scotland’s mountains have seen in ski touring.