It’s kind of the skier’s version of the chicken and egg question (What came first, the chicken, or the egg? – for those who may have missed that question along the way). Does skiing in the backcountry improve your health and fitness, or do you improve your health and fitness to ski in the backcountry?
Both approaches work, and, depending on one’s own priorities, either approach is sufficient. But however one arrives at human powered adventures paired with skis, the short and thick of it goes like this: you’re going to arrive, or get, in shape if you regularly engage in backcountry skiing.
It’s simple physics, combined with human physiology, really. Add 10, 20, 30, even 40 or more pounds to the human body, then repeatedly send it merrily up thousands of vertical feet over miles of terrain. The only way a person wouldn’t see some health and fitness benefits from repeating this activity all winter is if they stopped to eat pork rinds and a slice of apple pie every half an hour along the way.
Short of working against oneself in an egregious fashion, improved health and fitness are a definite byproduct of skiing in the backcountry. Metabolic rates tend to speed up following regular cardiovascular movement (the entire uphill journey). From frequently holding up the weight of a loaded backpack, one’s back gets stronger. The legs, used to power both the uphill and the downhill, are constantly being subjected to a workout. Even the arms get used, as the ski poles get planted throughout an outing. About the only muscle group that doesn’t get a decent workout from backcountry skiing are the stomach muscles.
So, backcountry skiing offers a workout at the same time that it provides one’s fun. Multitasking at its finest. It’s hard not to get a little bit chiseled if you do it regularly. Depending on which sports are more interesting to you (summer or winter based), you may find yourself doing summer training to maintain/increase fitness for skiing. Or, you might find yourself skiing the backcountry to increase/maintain fitness for your summer sports. Either way, powering oneself uphill during the snowy months is a great way to keep fit without daily visits to a gym.
And that’s just the physical side of things. I think there is plenty of mental benefit to being outside, breathing deeply of the fresh – if cold – air. I’ve already touched upon this in writing about the sense of accomplishment, and the sense of adventure that accompany human powered ski outings. There are other mental benefits as well.
It may be a bit of a nebulous concept for some, but it strikes me as good for the mind to find itself guiding the body to work hard to achieve a goal. That goal could be to climb a 20,000+ foot summit or to repeatedly lap your local low-angle, avalanche haven slope. Either endeavor requires an output of effort. To achieve a goal – unless the bar is set really low – by one’s own power takes fitness. There are many ways to increase one’s health and fitness, and skiing the backcountry is simply another outlet which helps to achieve this end. Or does one get fit to enjoy more skiing? A never-ending question..