Alpine Touring 101


Ask Men’s Fitness: “I’ve heard alpine touring is fun and a great workout. So what the hell is it, how do I do it, and what do I have to buy?” — Andy M., Reno, NV

If you’ve ever felt like saying, “Screw the ski lift, I want to walk up!” then alpine touring, or AT, is for you. 

Also called “skimo” and “randonee” (from the French for “hiking”), AT involves climbing up a hill—skis on—then skiing back down.

“For the ascent, you attach ‘skins’ to your skis for traction and climb using a motion somewhere between hiking and Nordic skiing,” says author/endurance athlete Travis Macy. At the top, you remove the skins before skiing back down.

Essential Gear
To do AT, you’ll need skis with special bindings (so you can attach just the toe of the boot—not the heel—to the ski for hiking, then clip the heel in again for skiing) and light, flexible, highly specialized boots.

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Know Before You Go
To give AT a try, Macy says, “first watch online videos showing climbing form and the transitions between climbs and descents. Then start training in controlled conditions, always away from downhill traffic.” If you’re backcountry AT skiing, learn about avalanche safety and constantly monitor conditions. And if you’re planning to ski at resorts, consult the area ahead of time for rules and procedures. “Many resorts now post ‘uphill’ policies online; some allow uphill traffic everywhere, others enforce specific routes, and some require tickets and/or waivers,” Macy adds. So do your research. 

Prep Work
FYI, AT is one hell of a workout. “Many of the top American mountain cyclists and triathletes are turning to AT—not to maintain fitness, but to increase it,” Macy says. Cardiovascularly, it’s comparable to running, cycling, and swimming, since it torches your muscles and lungs simultaneously. What’s more, “because you’ll be going uphill, probably at altitude, you may not have the option of ‘going easy,’ and the sport generates a natural ‘interval’ workout as you transition back and forth between climbing and descending,” Macy adds. As you can imagine, AT targets and activates your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves; your arms and core also work hard to keep you balanced while you trek, so it’s an excellent full-body snow sport. 

Obviously, some prep work is in order since you want to traverse the mountain, not trudge and fall down it. Macy suggests hiking or running up and down steep hills to get your muscles and cardiovascular endurance up ahead of time. “If you can’t get outside, use a treadmill, stair climber, or lower body machines in the gym,” he says. “Pushups and pullups are helpful for developing the arms and core for poling and stability, too.”

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