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Backcountry skiing — and equipment — see surge in interest as ski resorts limit crowds

The surge in sales of backcountry gear is similar to that of bikes over the summer, one industry expert said.
Sophia Schwartz, a former U.S. Ski Team member, in the backcountry in Jackson, Wyo.
Sophia Schwartz, a former U.S. Ski Team member, in the backcountry in Jackson, Wyo.Sofia Jaramillo

America’s backcountry, aka the road traditionally less traveled in the winter sports world, has soared to new heights during the pandemic — along with a boom in equipment and accessory sales.

While the industry has seen greater interest during the last decade due to innovations in equipment and technology, that interest has recently been amplified by skiers and snowboarders looking to get out of the house, avoid crowds at ski resorts and prepare for any potential lockdown restrictions that may cut their season short again.

“There's a large community that is saying ‘I'm going to take this into my own hands. I'm going to get away from all these people and go into the backcountry.’ There's a certain mystique about it that's cool and fun,” said Nick Sargent, president of Snowsports Industries America, a nonprofit trade association that represents winter sports suppliers and retailers.

Since many backcountry paths, known as lines, do not begin at the top of resort mountains, it can be hard to track the number of fans of the sport. But the huge uptick in gear sales is all the proof needed.

“When Covid-19 hit and all the resorts closed [at the beginning of the pandemic], there was a mad rush to load up on backcountry gear,” Sargent told NBC News. “Since we had another eight weeks of snow, people wanted to get outside, and they had a lot of time on their hands. So, what better activity when you have time, and you've got snow, to get out into the backcountry?”

Total U.S. backcountry-related equipment sales from August through October of this year are up 76 percent compared to 2019, according to market research company The NPD Group, in partnership with SIA.

On the ski side, equipment sales — which includes bindings, boots and skis — are up 51 percent. Accessory sales — avalanche shovels, beacons, probes and climbing skins — are up 74 percent.

Splitboards, the snowboard’s backcountry sister, saw a 151 percent increase in sales since last year, according to the same NPD data.

Snowboard manufacturing giant Burton is selling its splitboards faster than regular boards this year, with 63 percent sold-through versus 39 percent last year, said Chris Cunningham, Burton's senior vice president of global product.

Cunningham compares the surge in backcountry sales to that of bikes seen over the summer, as many Americans were looking to get some fresh air then just as much as they are now.

“The closest thing to that in our industry is splitboards, because you're not limited by the resort. It’s the same way with biking, you can go ride wherever so that you’re not in total lockdown,” he told NBC News. “By the end of the summer, you couldn't find a bike if you wanted one. Just as snow is starting to fly, it's going to be a matter of weeks before, it's like, you're going to be lucky to find a splitboard.”

Unfortunately, this optimism doesn’t stretch across the Atlantic Ocean.

“We're having what I would call an amazing North American direct-to-consumer sale year and in Europe we’re not,” Cunningham told NBC News. “Those restrictions are definitely hurting sales over there.”

Europe is currently in the midst of its second wave of Covid-19, prompting countries like Germany, Italy and France to close their ski lifts. French Prime Minister Jean Castex is imposing border checks to prevent residents from traveling to border countries such as Switzerland, where resorts are still open, according to BBC News.

On a smaller scale, Outdoor Gear Exchange, a sports shop based in Burlington, Vermont, is also seeing an uptick in U.S. sales this year. The shop experienced a traditional level of backcountry business almost two months earlier than normal this year, according to co-owner Mike Donohue.

Mike Donohue, head of Mission Control for Outdoor Gear Exchange.
Mike Donohue at Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vt.Mike Donohue

“For backcountry equipment, we normally do a big sale around Indigenous Day/Columbus Day,” he told NBC News. “That's usually when we kick winter off."

This year, however, "we were seeing that level of business the first week of September,” Donohue said. "It's been a record year, possibly not to be matched in the next several years."

More than 80 percent of what Outdoor Gear Exchange sold during that first week of September was backcountry-capable, he said.

“If it snows enough, I intend to just do backcountry ... just because I find more relaxation and enjoyment out of it," Anna Hulse, an employee at Outdoor Gear Exchange and a lifetime skier, told NBC News.

However, the growing popularity of a sport that takes place in an uncontrollable and desolate environment prone to avalanches has many members of the industry concerned.

“It's a long, slow process. It's something you learn with mentorship. It's something you learn with experience,” said Cody Townsend, a professional skier and athlete for French sports equipment manufacturer Salomon. “Learning to backcountry ski in a safe manner takes a lot of time and to just go out and get the gear and expect to go to the top of the biggest peak in your local range and ski down it, I think is really dangerous.”

Cody Townsend.
Cody Townsend in the French Alps.Jeremy Bernard / for Salomon

Avalanche education can be acquired through the National Avalanche Center and local subsidiaries like the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

“We encourage people to use public lands but also make sure that they understand the ethics, where to get information, how to use those public lands responsibly and how to do it safely,” Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, told NBC News.

Greene said the CAIC is collaborating with other state and federal government groups and expanding outreach on social media to increase avalanche awareness amid the interest spike.

Aside from learning about the mountain and how to navigate it, many who trek into the backcountry this year will also learn from it.

“You learn how small you are and how big nature is," said Sophia Schwartz, a former member of the U.S. Ski Team and professional big mountain skier based in Wyoming. “I think Covid kind of has that same fit. At the end of the day, it’s crazy that a virus that's so small that you can't even see it has completely changed our entire world for a year.”