backcountry vs side country

Side country vs Backcountry: Is There A Difference?

by Fraser

Side country and backcountry are often used interchangeably among the winter sports community.

With backcountry riding gaining popularity, it is super important for all interested skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts to know the difference so everyone can ride safely. Let’s discuss side country vs backcountry.

Side country pertains to terrain accessed via a lift; areas easily approached from a resort. Conversely, backcountry comprises of un-groomed, rural terrain. The backcountry is usually unmonitored and often requires gear for the ascent. Many people wrongly assume that side country terrain is therefore safer to ride than backcountry. 

Let’s talk about the differences between side country and backcountry skiing or snowboarding. I’m going to focus on how these relate to your safety. Exit the article at your own risk!

Side Country vs Backcountry

Regular readers will know all about this from our discussions about the slackcountry. 

Slack-country is essentially another term for the side country

Next time your buddies suggest “shredding the gnar in the slack country” you’ll know exactly what they mean. 

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at how the side country differs from the backcountry. 

Differences Between Side Country and Backcountry

The Side Country

Side-country skiing (or snowboarding) is essentially skiing on any off-piste terrain that can be accessed via a lift.

Resorts typically provide excellent transportation to and from these areas via modern lift networks. 

Skiers or snowboarders can make short hikes from the top of lifts, accessing untouched powder riding.

side country vs backcountry

The problem with the side country is the assumption that it’s relatively safe. 

After all, the nearby resort slopes are often in sight. 

These are well groomed with regular ski patrol presence. This gives skiers a (falsely) heightened sense of safety and security.

In reality, the side country areas are rarely monitored. They are not setup to be ridden and are likely to have hazards underfoot. The only difference between these slopes and the backcountry is that they happen to be accessible. 

The Backcountry

The definition is easy, it’s basically any time you’re in the mountains away from a designated resort. 

Many experts (myself included) would say that, whether it’s side-country, slackcountry, or off-piste… they are all backcountry!

Nature, especially on snowy mountain tops, can never really be tamed. Just because terrain is in close proximity to a man-made resort, does not make it any safer for you.  

Which Is More Dangerous — Side Country or Backcountry?

There’s really little difference between the side country and the backcountry in terms of the terrain. They both pose the risk of avalanche, tree wells, crevasses, hidden obstacles and cliff drops. Some even say that the side country is more dangerous because of accessibility by inexperienced riders without adequate safety equipment or knowledge. 

Skiers/snowboarders who prefer backcountry are generally more experienced and skilled. They come equipped with knowledge of first aid and rescue. They have invested in specialized equipment and are often trained to respond to various situations, such as an avalanche.

They’re also hyper-aware of the dangers posed by the terrain and should have made plans for the worst case scenario. 

Side country riders are generally more relaxed. Most are resort vacationers and let their guard down because they use consistently maintained and patrolled terrain. 

They may have no rescue gear, plans or expertise. 

Hence there is a misconception that sidecountry is a safe zone.

How To Be Safer In The Side Country (And Backcountry)

The safest route is to avoid off-piste riding and stick to resort riding. 

However, for some riders (myself included) riding powder is the very best part of winter sports. 

If you do plan to head out into any untamed terrain, be sure to invest in some proper equipment and training. 

A good beacon/transceiver is a good place to start, along with a shovel and probe. 

Here’s the best beacon from our in-house tests:

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BCA Tracker 3 Avalanche Beacon
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Key Takeaway Message

Side Country = Backcountry.

The only real difference is the terrain’s proximity to a ski resort. 

Nature is unpredictable.

You can’t count on snow not to slide simply because there’s more foot traffic in a particular area. You’re still leaving the safety of your resort, so please take the appropriate precautions!

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