Scottish backcountry skiing – Everything you need to know

Newsroom Most Popular Scottish backcountry skiing – Everything you need to know

Just as Scotland has ski resorts – check them out here – it also has rewarding backcountry. We spoke to a man who knows the Scottish backcountry like the back of his hand. Blair Aitken co-runs British Backcountry, a tour company that runs ski courses in… you guessed it, the Scottish backcountry.

Difference between Scottish and Alps backcountry

You might have had a few experiences skiing backcountry abroad, but that doesn’t mean you should dive into the deep end in Scotland. Backcountry in Scotland is a whole new world compared to what’s out there in the Alps and North America. Blair knows this better than most, as before he began British Backcountry, he was an instructor in Val d’Isère for years.

One of the biggest differences to bear in mind when doing this in Scotland, is the risks at hand. Backcountry in the Alps and North America, the main risk you’re facing is that of avalanches, that’s less of an issue in Scotland. Instead lots of the danger in Scotland relates to navigation. Getting lost and stranded is a serious concern, so it’s important you travel with someone who knows the landscape.

Speaking of the landscape, that’s Scotland’s is spectacularly unlike most off-piste skiing. Every freerider can’t help but marvel at the views you get when out in the middle of nowhere. However, in somewhere like the Alps, the views you get are taken up by other mountains. Whereas in Scotland, there’s far less density of peaks. As Blair puts it: “In Scotland you’re seeing horizontally, views can stretch out to the sea.”

Scottish snow capped Munro mountain cold winter walking out from Braeriach, Cairngorms, Scotland with solitary isolated trekker walking with ice axe
Braeriach is Blair’s favourite place to take people. Photo: © Shutterstock

If you have any experience of skiing in Norway or Iceland, then Scotland’s mountains won’t sound so foreign to you. The topography is related, as Scotland’s on the same longitude as much of Scandinavia.

Where to go backcountry skiing in Scotland?

As any proud Scot will tell you, Scotland isn’t one homogenous landscape. Instead there’s a variety of mountains, each offering a a unique experience. If you want steep descents, then your best bet is heading west, around Ben Nevis and Glencoe. Ben Nevis in particular offers some of the best gullies that Scotland has to offer. The Cairngorms are better for touring, as the mountains have more rounded tops. The east coast then offers the best of both worlds.

Blair’s favourite place to take people is Braeriach in the Cairngorms. He waxes lyrical about the cycle through the valley needed to on the approach, and the views at the top.

When’s the best time to visit Scotland’s backcountry?

It’s important to preface, that there’s no “correct” time to visit Scotland’s backcountry. Snow in Scotland is far too unreliable for that to be true – and with climate change, it’s getting harder to predict.

Blair broke down the general seasonal trend for us. Late November through to December, there might be snow, but it’s a complete gamble. This is followed by January, which recently has been pretty rubbish, or as Blair calls it “a snow blip”. Then by February half-term conditions start to come good.

Skiers climbing a mountain in Scotland
There are steeper ascents and descents in the country’s west. Photo: © British Backcountry

March and April are the most reliable times, and there’s still some snow hanging about in May. Blair says this time of year is particularly special, because there’s so much daylight. However, he concedes you need to travel higher to find the snow so late in the year, and therefore be aware that you might be trekking/cycling to higher altitudes.

Despite the unpredictability of the Scottish season, British Backcountry still run between 85%-90% of its courses on their original dates. Blair’s biggest piece of advice is for folks to be flexible with their plans. If you come to the Highlands with a fixed idea of what you want to do, there’s a probable chance you’ll leave disappointed. However, if the conditions aren’t right for skiing, you should still be able to go hiking or mountain biking and have an exceptional experience.

How good a skier do you need to be to explore Scottish backcountry?

Ski mountaineers nearing the summit of Cairngorm Mountain in typical Scottish winter conditions with Coire an t-Sneachda - corrie of the snow - just visible in the background
Mountaineers in the Cairngorms. Photo: © Shutterstock

British Backcountry recommend that you need to be a confident red run skier before attending one of their courses. However, Blair is keen to stress that there’s much more needed to exploring Scotland’s backcountry than skiing acumen. You also need mountaineering skills, to tackle the navigation side of the equation. Due to these elements, you will need a decent base level of fitness. Furthermore, a red run skier who’s only experienced carefully groomed pistes, is in for the shock of their life. Not only is everything in the backcountry ungroomed (obviously), you’ll also encounter types of snow completely foreign to mainland Europe. British Backcountry teach folks how to recognise and approach these various types of snow.

Blair says British Backcountry often get folks with one half of the skiing-mountaineering equation on their courses, experienced at one, but relatively new to the other. He stresses that’s not an issue, British Backcountry will fill in people’s missing skill gaps.

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