If you’re new to skiing, there are plenty of terms, phrases, and words you need to learn that are unique to the sport. From hitting the powder to bombing the pipe or stomping a landing, there are slang words specific to sliding on the snow that can leave you scratching your head, wondering if the local skiers speak your language. One of the terms you may have heard is cat skiing. In this guide we’ll break down what it means.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Cat skiing doesn’t mean to take your fuzzy little kitty out in the snow with boots and a beanie on. It doesn’t reference skiing on all fours with a fake tail attached like a cat either. Cat skiing actually refers to using a snowcat to take you to an area of a mountain that isn’t accessible by ski lifts.
What is a Snowcat?
A snowcat is basically a snow tank. It’s a motorized vehicle that has an enclosed cabin where the driver and perhaps a passenger can sit and stay warm while the rig navigates the snowscape outside. Instead of having wheels, a snowcat has tracks that allow it to drive and grip on snow and ice. If you’ve ever seen a tank, then a snowcat has a similar sort of track except they are specifically engineered for the snow.
Check out this video of a snowcat in action to get a better idea of what the vehicle looks like if you’ve never seen one before. There are multiple varieties of snowcats in use around the world, but they all have the same basic design of a cab on a set of tracks. The ‘cats’ in my home state of Colorado are usually bright red and if you look at a ski resort during the night you can see snowcats all over the mountain. The hills are commonly alive with their headlights.
Snowcats were first designed to allow for transportation in snow- and ice-filled environments where other vehicles would quickly get stuck and become inoperable. They almost always are powered by a diesel engine and are capable machines in tough environments where people like to ski. Snowcats serve all sorts of purposes, ranging from grooming the slopes at a ski resort to giving tours of a mountain and hauling skiers to untouched runs.
Snowcats and Cat Skiing
Cat skiing can be truly amazing. If you’ve ever skied in the backcountry, you know how amazing it can be to find untouched lines in deep powder. In that way, cat skiing is almost like cheating into the backcountry. You can access different parts of a mountain that you would either have to hike otherwise or maybe even couldn’t access at all.
There are two main ways to go cat skiing. The first one is to ride inside of the cab while the cat driver takes you to the desired or planned starting point for your run. You either load your ski gear into a rack built onto the outside of the snowcat or you bring it in the cabin with you. Either way, you’ll be sitting comfortably inside a (probably) warm cab enjoying the scenery while you eagerly wait for some fresh snow.
Second, and this is my preferred way to go car skiing, you can get towed behind the cat. This process involves hanging onto a large rope with knots in it while the cat drives towards the starting location. You simply grab a hold of the rope with your skis on and start moving. Getting towed usually only happens on a cat track, which refers to when deeper snow is compacted so you don’t sink down into deep powder.
The Benefits of Cat Skiing
No matter how you’re able to ride a snowcat, the process has some excellent benefits. The obvious appeal is fresh powder. By having access to an area of the mountain that isn’t accessible by ski lift, it increases your chances for finding fresh tracks. If you can go cat skiing on a powder day, you’ll be in for some serious memories.
Another benefit you’ll enjoy is the lack of crowds. Cat skiing usually takes skiers to advanced and expert locations where only the best skiers are able to go. That means there will be far fewer tourists and beginner skiers, which then opens up new lines and fresh tracks. Another awesome part about cat skiing is that it’s a unique and exciting experience that isn’t like anything else out on the mountain.
How to Go Cat Skiing
You won’t be able to go cat skiing everywhere, but if you know where some potential options are, you can take advantage of the opportunity. Check with your local ski resorts to see if they offer cat skiing. If they do, the snowcat will most likely have specific hours of operation. Make sure to do your research and get up early in order to make the most of a cat skiing day.
There are also backcountry guide services that offer cat skiing away from the resort. They are sometimes hard to find, but if you do an online search of cat skiing opportunities in your area you’ll be able to see if there are any available options nearby. If there are, I would highly recommend giving it a shot because it can easily turn into a once in a lifetime experience.
It doesn’t matter if you go cat skiing at a resort or with a guide service, it’s going to cost you. At a resort, you will be charged a fee on top of your ticket. This can be anywhere from $5 to $20 depending on where you are, and it can go even higher. A guide service will most likely cost a few hundred dollars at least, but if you think about how much great skiing you’ll get, it’s more than worth it.
Cat skiing is amazing and I would recommend any serious skier give it a shot at some point. If you want to ski untouched powder away from crowds without having to hike in the backcountry, cat skiing is the only way to go. As with any skiing, make sure that you stay safe by always wearing a helmet and being prepared for backcountry situations you might find yourself in.
Have you ever been cat skiing before? Where did you go and how was the snow? Let us know in the comments below!