The Growing Business of the Backcountry

Whistler Backcountry Skiing | BCBusiness
Ski Touring in Whistler’s Backcountry

Can single-day ski touring in the backcountry save the dwindling ski industry?

Skiers and snowboarders are jumping on the backcountry bandwagon, which has led to fortuitous—and much needed—growth for B.C. snow sport companies.

According to Snowsports Industries America, sales of beacons, probes and shovels—necessities for the backcountry experience—are up 19 per cent in units sold in 2012. “The growth in backcountry and ‘side-country’ skiing over the last decade can also be attributed to the success of small ski manufacturers,” says Philip Drake, marketing manager for Utah-based DPS Skis.

One such manufacturer is Whistler-based ski and snowboard company Prior Snowboard Manufactory Ltd. Gus Cormack, marketing manager of Prior, says the backcountry is the one bastion of the industry that is showing really positive signs of growth.  “People are buying more and more backcountry influenced gear,” he says.

Prior is well known throughout the B.C. snowboarding community for its splitboards, which separate in two for climbing and essentially function as a pair of touring skis; the boards are then latched back together for the descent. The increase of outback riders has given Prior opportunity to diversify its product line.

“Five years ago we had four splitboard models in one construction, just fibreglass,” said Cormack. Now the company manufactures eight backcountry splitboard models and recently introduced a new lightweight carbon fibre construction, which reduces the weight of a board by 15 per cent. “We can build a bunch of different styles in a couple of different constructions at different price points and there is enough people out there now to support that,” says Cormack.

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While Prior focuses on splitboards to enhance the backcountry experience, Arc’teryx Equipment Inc. has been zeroing in on high quality outerwear. This North Vancouver-based company launched in the ’90s catering to the rock climbing market, but in 2005 came out with the White Line, a ski and snowboard specific line of apparel.

“The White Line makes up 35 per cent of our outdoor line and it’s continually growing,” says Peter Aird, a customer service representative for Arc’teryx. “Ski touring is what is going to continue to blow up. Backcountry skiing has been traditionally heli-skiing and cat skiing, where as now the real push is going to be towards single day ski touring. More snowboarders are on splitboards, there are more touring bindings, more skiers and that is really where the industry growth is going to lie over the next few years. We spend half our year really focused and dedicating products to getting people into hard to reach areas of the mountain in the best gear possible.”

Parks Canada has also tracked a significant increase in the number of backcountry travellers in the past few years. Glacier National Park, situated in the Columbia Mountains in the south-east of the province, is a mountain range known for legendary snowfall. Here, single day ski touring visitors have roadside access to nearly 1,400-square-kilometres of peaks and descents. The park recorded 16,663 visitors over the 2011/2012 winter season—a 124 per cent increase over the number of visitors in 2009.

Gord Bailey, vice president of sales and marketing for North Vancouver-based winter backcountry brand G3 Genuine Guide Gear Inc. says it’s the perception of skiing and snowboarding that’s evolving and resulting increased sales for companies that produce products for accessing backcountry.

“The sport of sliding on snow has become a lot more adventurous, which has given tremendous visibility to this big, big playground called the backcountry,” says Bailey. “We are no longer pigeonholing skiers into being just heli-skiers or backcountry skiers or resort based skiers. We now think of skiers as being lifetime recreationalists, and these people are venturing into the backcountry.”

Since backcountry safety is essential as recreational riders step beyond the boundaries of their local ski hills, G3 is also seeing large growth in its avalanche safety products, which it has been making since 1995.

“Avalanche probes and shovels, saws and snow safety tools, that business has grown 25 per cent in the last few years,” says Bailey. “People need those tools to make sure that they get back home alive. So those safety tools are now on everyone’s mind, which of course has a positive impact for companies like G3.”

Beyond the gear and the technology, both Bailey and Cormack say that the allure of the backcountry is its true mountain experience, the thrill of which is quantifiable not by numbers, but by the adventure that awaits.