Not everyone can afford heli-skiing’s price tag—even in Canadian dollars. So if your bucket list dream of doing it in British Columbia (its birthplace) is a little too dreamy this year, there’s a far more affordable option that still includes a helicopter ride deep into the same world-class terrain. The only catch: You’ll have to earn your turns by slapping skins on your skis or splitboard and hiking. You see, the best heli-skiing in Canada to save some cash is by booking a backcountry lodge.
Taking the heli to the lodge and letting your legs do the rest (instead of dipping into your portfolio) is becoming a booming trend—and for good reason. First, it’s a less expensive ski trip of a lifetime, coming in at around $2,000 per person. It’s also better on the environment, by not burning fossil fuels every lap. It’s great exercise, quieter, and lets you book an entire-12-person hut to fill with friends and compatible skiers. You can add a cook to the package (it’s worth it) as well as a guide (ditto, unless you have the necessary backcountry skills and know the terrain). Plus, it warrants stuffing your face back at a cozy lodge after etching your powder tracks in Western Canada’s prime alpine outback.
After that heli commute to the lodge—and grabbing that bird’s-eye view of the pristine terrain—you’ll settle into your routine. This includes waking to fresh coffee, breakfast, and provisions for your bag lunch, poring over maps and checking avalanche conditions to decide where to go, then schralping freshies all day. After laying tracks until alpenglow crests the surrounding ridgelines, you’ll return to the lodge, hang your skins, prop your boot bladders by the stove, slip into your hut clothes, crack a beer (most likely a Kokanee), and fall into your après-ski groove. Then it’s onto appetizers, soups and main courses, and maybe even a sauna and guitar session before turning in to start it all over again.
Most trips fly in and out either Saturday to Saturday or Sunday to Sunday, giving you seven days to shred while leaving your other life behind. Sold? Here are some of our favorite BC backcountry lodges to consider for next season.
1. Mount Carlyle Backcountry Lodge
If ever a Canadian backcountry lodge benefited from 30-plus years of hut-keeping experience, it’s owner Brian “The Bald Bomber” Cross’s Mount Carlyle in British Columbia’s Selkirks. Cross bought it from founder Jeff Gfroerer in 2010, and he hasn’t looked back since—except to see his tracks. “It’s a true skier’s lodge,” says Cross. “It has the best terrain I’ve found yet.”
Situated at the “magic powder window” of 7,200 feet, the lodge, resting on a sunny shelf and surrounded by fluttering Tibetan prayer flags, is within day-touring access of 10 different basins, serving up everything from alpine steeps to old-growth trees. Hooks are hung in all the right places, boot-warming tubes rise off the chimney, and a family-style dining table seats 12 exhausted skiers perfectly. Wood skis cross the living room wall, dried flowers protrude from vases, and the ski poster-lined commode serves up views of Mount Carlyle out the window. A motto hanging on the wall reads: “If you choose not to find joy in snow, you’ll have less joy in life but the same amount of snow.”
The lodge’s living room is replete with couches, yoga mats, and a guitar. A wine glass rack hangs over the cedar-walled kitchen. The sauna—with pine, eucalyptus, and other scented oils—has signs telling you where to hang your headlamp for the hot gravity-fed shower.
As for the skiing, combine its 10 basins with more than 500 inches of annual snowfall, and you’ll be lucky to have the energy to even make it to the sauna during seven straight days of shredding. But you can always hit the Ainsworth Hot Springs (a snowball’s throw from the heli landing zone) on your last day.
Know Before You Go
Mount Carlyle books its hut Sunday to Sunday, so those are the days you’ll fly. The lodge takes care of the helicopter logistics, which picks you up in Kaslo, BC, about a four-hour drive from Spokane. Tip: En route, stop in beautiful Nelson, BC, to experience one of the quaintest BC ski towns and a Leafs Junior B hockey game.
2. Bill Putnam (Fairy Meadow) Hut
I need to check the altimeter twice back at the hut. After climbing up to Friendship Col, traversing an Antarctic-like icefield, lunching on Sentinel Peak, and skiing back down, it reads: VERTICAL FEET—5,250; NUMBER OF RUNS—one.
The stats speak volumes about the terrain surrounding the Bill Putnam (aka Fairy Meadow) hut in the Adamant Range of the Selkirks. “These mountains are about as big as they get,” says my Canadian friend Paul, a veteran of more than 30 such fly-in hut trips.
The book Summits and Icefields spells it out further: “This is big country—you should be able to navigate on glaciers, perform crevasse rescues, and deal with other hazards of backcountry travel.” Out comes the topo map, bringing the area’s ruggedness to life in spaghetti-close contour lines. Glaciers ooze here like spilt milk. Peaks bear such names as Gargoyle, The Gothics, Unicorn, Houdini Needles, and Turret.
Many call Fairy Meadows the premier backcountry ski destination in North America—and it’s easy to see why. Located in the heart of the Selkirks, its peaks are straight out of Whoville, harboring every type of skiing imaginable: bowls, trees, glacier tours, peaks, and big mountain extreme lines. Couple this with 30 feet of annual snowfall and you get Alaska-type terrain just a four-hour car ride (and 20-minute helicopter flight) from Calgary.
Know Before You Go
To reserve the hut, you have to be an Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) member (for CN$48). You can book half (10 spots) or the entire hut (20 spots). Just do so long in advance during the lodge’s most popular windows in March and early April. Guides and/or cooks can be arranged through ACC. Arrange helicopter flights through Alpine Helicopters in Golden, BC.
3. Sol Mountain Lodge
Atop Sol Mountain in British Columbia’s Monashees, our skins are a tangled, flapping mess in 40-mph winds—sticking to pants, jackets, poles, and each other. Hopes for neat folds long gone, we wad them into our packs and click in. If our skins are unsightly, our ski line down Sol Mountain is anything but. Silhouetted against a backdrop of spires you’d find in a ski movie, we rip tracks down a bowl off the summit into the tight chutes of Tunnel Vision—a mushroom-filled gully that leads us back to the valley floor and Sol Mountain Lodge, where a dinner by Chef Bernie of homemade pulled pork with gnocchi and butternut squash awaits.
Ski-wise, you’ll explore such lines as Mission Ridge, the north-facing slopes of Twilight Zone, and such wine-themed runs as Chardonnay, Merlot, Malbec, and Premium Red—all offering the variety of terrain that former forestry consultant Aaron Cooperman was looking for when he brainstormed the lodge while stuck in a tent on a ski tour. Reconnoitering the region by helicopter, his search ended here, where he built something with “the amenities of a cat-skiing lodge, but for the backcountry crowd.”
“It’s a great location,” he says, touting the area’s 60 feet of annual snowfall, endless north-facing glades and high alpine terrain. “You can tour seven different summits and five different drainages right from the lodge.”
The lodge’s permit area encompasses 30,000 acres, including 18,000 in Monashee Provincial Park (where heli operations are prohibited and Cooperman is the only concessionaire) and 12,000 outside the park. The region’s easier terrain lures families, while harder terrain feeds the lodge’s bread and butter—guided and non-guided bookings for experienced backcountry skiers, augmented by special avalanche courses and split-board weeks.
The 3,800-square-foot lodge is reason enough to make the journey. With beds for 18 and another seven staff, it has full plumbing, including three showers (two heated by a woodstove and one on-demand), and five bathrooms—a luxury usually reserved for higher-end lodges. A foosball table bookends a ski bench in the mud room downstairs, while electricity comes from a hydro system piped from a nearby creek, powering Wi-Fi.
Know Before You Go
Unlike most other BC huts requiring longer stays, Sol Mountain offers four-, five- and seven-day options. The helicopter landing zone is about an hour’s drive north of Kelowna, which offers direct flights from most major airports, or a seven-hour drive from Seattle. Bring your own gear or choose from their rental packages.
4. Valhalla Mountain Lodge
Located at 6,900 feet just below Mt. Woden in the West Kootenays just outside Nelson, BC, Valhalla (of which Mount Carlyle’s Brian Cross is a co-owner) offers skin-to access to 10 different alpine basins out its front door. It offers guided and self-guided options, but you find your own way to the sauna.
5. Kokanee Glacier Cabin
Built in honor of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s son, Michel, who was killed in an avalanche nearby in 1998, the Kokanee Glacier Cabin resides on the shores of Kaslo lake in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park. The area is a ski touring paradise, located north of Nelson, in southeastern British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains. A bit on the fancy side, it sleeps 15, with flush toilets, electric lights, electric heat, and gas fireplace. Choose between short slopes just outside the door to peaks, long tours, and experts-only chutes.
Backcountry Ski Lodging Insider Tips
- As with any backcountry trip, bring all necessary safety equipment, including avalanche beacons, shovel, and probe pole. Other important gear includes avalanche airbags, radios, water hydration systems, first aid and repair kits, and more. If your hut offers glacier touring, add a harness, rope, and prusik system to the list.
- Dress as if you’re skiing when you board the helicopter and pack your clothes and other gear in small bags for easy loading. You’ll have to weigh everything, so consider booze over beer.
- Forget protocol—and do whatever you can to snag the front seat of the helicopter.
- Hang and dry your gear every night, including skins and gloves, and pull your ski boot bladders out as well.
- Bring eucalyptus oil to add to the sauna water, and slippers and sweatpants for inside the lodge.
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