Cat skiing (aka snowcat skiing) is highly likely to get you purring, even (or especially) if you’re a powder hound. Powderhounds love powder days, and thankfully with cat skiing, every day is a powder day.
Cat skiing is perfect for anyone who is addicted to skiing fresh powder and craves face shots and deep dry powder flying over the shoulders.
What is Cat Skiing?
Cat skiing is a form of guided backcountry skiing. Rather than hiking or using a chair lift or helicopter, skiers and boarders are transported up the mountain in a snowcat, a grooming machine with a cabin on the back. Whilst guides escort riders down epic powder runs the cat makes it way to the bottom to pick them up and take them up to the next run.
Cat skiing operators have access to vast areas of backcountry terrain so the likelihood of skiing virgin snow is very high, if not guaranteed.
Benefits of Snowcat Skiing
Why cat ski rather than resort ski?
Benefits of cat skiing over ski touring
Cat skiing offers an opportunity to get away from the crowds commonly found at ski resorts. At the majority of resorts you have to race to get the first lift, elbow your way down a couple of runs, and then the freshies have disappeared. Unfortunately at ski resorts fresh tracks are far from guaranteed, even on a powder day.
- Sure cat skiing is a little more expensive than a lift ticket, but you get better value for money when you consider the number of quality powder turns you get.
- Ducking the ropes at a ski resort to get to fresh powder may lead to confiscation of your lift pass, or you may get lost and end up a long way from a lift.
Why cat ski rather than heli-ski?
- With ski touring, only the super-human has the fitness and endurance to hike or skin, especially at altitude.
- The ratio of up-time to down-time is completely skewed in the wrong direction.
- You have to be very knowledgeable regarding backcountry touring, be well equipped with avalanche and other safety gear, and be self-sufficient. With cat skiing you can largely rely on the expertise of multiple guides, and rely on radio communication.
- Cat skiing is guided, so there’s (generally!) no fear of getting lost.
- Cat skiing is less than half the cost of heli skiing so some people call it “poor man’s heli-skiing”.
- Heli-skiing has grounded days where the helicopters can’t fly due to the weather conditions. Cats can still go out in this weather (except with New Zealand cat skiing and Chile cat skiing), and when the powder is falling is when you most want to be out there skiing.
- You get a bit of a rest between runs where you can relax, warm up and dry out in the snowcat. You don’t have to share the cat with other groups (unlike with heli skiing) so you can leave a back-pack in the machine with snacks and drinks, and if someone gets tired, they can always sit out for a run.
- You still get to cover plenty of vertical when cat skiing.
- Cat operators manage and know an area well which adds to the avalanche safety element. Snowmobiles can be used to implement snow testing and slope stabilization measures.
Canada Cat Skiing
Cat-skiing was pioneered by Selkirk Wilderness Skiing
in BC Canada, and British Columbia continues to the home of cat skiing with 21 great cat ski operations. Canada also has one cat ski operation in Newfoundland (the very east of Canada).
Cat skiing BC
is world renowned, particularly in the British Columbia Interior. Here the light dry powder falls in abundance with an average of 12-18 metres of snow per season. Many of the cat skiing companies sit within the “Powder Triangle”, a term coined to recognise the quality and quantity of the snowfall. See our BC Canada cat ski comparison
document for locations of the cat skiing operators.
USA Snowcat Skiing
USA cat skiing
is also big with more than 28 snowcat skiing companies spread across the states of California, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming and Alaska. Colorado cat skiing
is the most common with this state having at least eight operators, whilst there are three cat skiing Utah
operators. See our US cat ski comparison
document for locations of the snowcat skiing operators.
Japan Cat Skiing
Japan cat skiing
is gaining in popularity, particularly in Hokkaido, the north island of Japan. The Hokkaido cat skiing is typical conducted at former ski resorts on cut ski trails and the terrain is generally fairly mellow, but the quality of the Japan powder is amazing. There is an operation at Tomamu, the former Kitataisetsu, NAC Cat Skiing
near Kamui, and a couple of Niseko cat skiing companies (e.g. Rising Sun Niseko Cat Skiing
, Niseko Weiss Powder Cats
An exception to the general style of Japanese cat skiing is Shimamaki Snowcat Adventures
which offer multi-day trips (with transfers from Niseko), some steep terrain, amazing Japanese culture, and the phenomenal powder for which Hokkaido is renowned.
Other Cat Ski Locations
Cat skiing in Europe is a rarity. There’s one spot in Macedonia, Eskimo Freeride, but that’s about it.
In the southern hemisphere, Chile cat skiing
is an option either at Nevados de Chillan
(an informal operation) or at Arpa
, a fabulously wild and magical adventure way up high in the Andes. There is also the Baguales Cat Skiing
outfit near Bariloche Argentina. The quality and quantity of snow doesn’t match that of BC cat skiing
, Colorado cat skiing
or Japan skiing
, but the terrain is very impressive.
Also in the southern hemisphere and with similar snow quality, New Zealand has a couple of options for cat skiing. One example is Queenstown Snowcats
. Sweet as bro…!
NZ’s next door neighbour Australia also has a cat skiing shuttle at Mt Hotham. And who said Australia was just known for its beaches?!
Types of Cat Skiing
The format of the cat skiing packages on offer varies somewhat between countries. Many of the BC cat skiing
operators offer multi-day packages whereby accommodation and meals are included as part of the holiday. Some of the accommodation is provided in remote lodges that are only accessible by snowcat or helicopter, so you really know you’re out in the wilderness! Canada also has various outfits that offer single day cat skiing, of which only one is adjacent to a ski resort. See our BC cat skiing operations
for an overview of the type of package offered by each of the cat skiing companies.
With USA cat skiing
, all offer single day skiing, with the exception of one operator in Alaska. Two companies offer the option of an overnight stay in their backcountry yurt, but these tent structures are a far cry from the luxurious lodges of Canada. About half of the US cat skiing operators are associated with a ski resort, with the cat ski area adjacent to the in-bounds terrain. The other half are independent cat ski operations that are not located at or next to a ski resort.
Single day trips are the norm for cat skiing in Chile, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.
Cat Ski Terrain
The cat skiing terrain varies somewhat across the world. Firstly the size of the terrain differs significantly. Most of the cat skiing tenures in BC Canada are enormous (an average of 7,200 hectares) with plenty of space to find the best snow and fresh tracks. A couple of operators in the US have significant terrain, but otherwise the size of the terrain is very small relative to Canada. On average, terrain size in the US is 2,600 hectares (6,400 acres). Cat skiing in other countries is also small relative to BC cat skiing
. See our Canada cat skiing versus USA cat skiing
page for more information.
The presence of trees is another major variation. North American cat skiing has a combination of alpine and tree skiing, whilst New Zealand and Chile have treeless terrain. Cat skiing in these countries is weather dependent, and the snow quality may be affected through exposure to the sun and wind.
Safety and Risks
Snowcat skiing is not without risks considering that it’s in the backcountry that is largely uncontrolled. The primary safety concern is the risk of avalanches. Some operations undertake blasting to lessen the risk, whilst many others have to use slope avoidance techniques to mitigate the risk of avalanche.
The cat ski industry in BC is highly regulated, so as a general rule, the emphasis on safety is the highest with BC cat ski
operations. Here the guides are highly qualified and experienced, and the safety briefings provided are of good quality. In other parts of the world, the level of risk management can be highly variable.
Most operators provide an avalanche beacon, and some also provide guests with a backpack with a shovel and probe. A couple of top notch companies may also provide avalanche air-bags or an Avalung, equipment that increases burial survival time.
Other backcountry hazards include tree wells (in North America), crevasses, unmarked cliff bands, creeks, and getting lost (for those who can’t follow the guide’s instructions!). All the other common skiing and boarding related risks and injuries also apply.
Where is the Best Cat Skiing?
Everyone has different factors that are important in the decision making process regarding which is the best cat skiing operation. For some the choice is related to the quality of the tree skiing, the amount of expert terrain, the emphasis on safety, or the value for money. To help you choose the best cat skiing for you, we have provided ratings on various operations in Canada, USA, New Zealand and Chile, and broken the ratings into various determinants including the most important factor of all….the powder! Check out our Powderhounds cat ski ratings
Go Cat Skiing
Put on your fat skis or powder board and you’ll feel like a complete legend. And if you’re lucky enough to be riding ego powder snow, you’ll feel like a complete prodigy.
With cat skiing there are miles and miles of lines of fresh powder on offer, as opposed to the miles of lines that may be found at the ski resort lifts. Once you’ve been spoilt with cat skiing, you may never want to go back to resort skiing again.