Race Formats, Rules and Required Equipment

Race Formats

Individual Race

The individual race is the most common and popular race format in North America. It approximates a “normal” ski tour and is considered the most accessible and relatable format for recreational backcountry skiers. An individual race typically has a minimum of three ascents and descents for men and women, and 2 for juniors. The longest ascent will generally account for less than 50% of the total elevation gain of the event.

Naturally, race times vary depending on the course. Top racers should complete the event in approximately 1.5 hours, with a minimum elevation gain of 1,300 meters. The individual race should also contain at least one bootpacking section (on foot, with skis on pack).

Climbs are generally a mix of on and off piste skinning, with a preference for off piste skintracks. Off piste technical sections are also included, where bootpacks take racers across ridges, through couloirs or up particularly steep or difficult sections of the course. Descents may include any type of terrain, from groomed beginner and intermediate level ski trails found in entry level races, to expert level runs and even backcountry skiing in some events.

Individual races often include a recreational category with a shortened course and/or reduced technicality. Races may also include race categories for “skiduro” (cumulative descent time), “heavy metal” (traditional ski touring equipment above a certain weight) or other categories to help highlight the unique nature of each event.

Teams Race

Similar to the Individual race, but of greater length and must be completed with a partner or partners. Total elevation gain should be at least 2,100 meters and finish times should be 3 or more hours for the top teams, however some teams races can be much longer.

In the teams event, a team (usually composed of two racers) must race together for the duration of the event and must also finish together. During ascents, team members should not be separated by more than 30 seconds, and during descents no more than 10 seconds. Team members must leave all checkpoints and transitions together and must finish within 5 seconds of each other.

Team event formats and equipment requirements can vary widely. Many teams races offer increased technicality over individual races, with some European Grande Course style races traversing serious glaciated terrain and/or including mountaineering objectives. Always see specific race information for event details.

Sprint Race

The sprint race is a short-format event consisting of one or more skinning sections, a bootpacking section, and a clearly marked gate descent.

As the title implies, this is a very fast race, and is based on completing the total course in 3-3.5 minutes for the fastest racers. The total ascent and descent is approximately 70m, with athletes starting and finishing at almost the same point. The race begins with an individual time trial for seeding or qualification, in which athletes start one after the other every 20 seconds. After the qualifying round, athletes face each other in elimination heats.

Although the ascent is always on well packed or groomed snow to allow for passing, the descent is supposed to be fun and can be on or off-piste, with gates and small jumps.

Sprint races typically have qualifying phases, quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final round. Races have a maximum of six athletes per heat.

Avalanche/emergency safety gear and clothing requirements are frequently relaxed in this format. Always see specific race information for event details.

Sprint races will be included in the 2026 Winter Olympics at Milano-Cortina.

Mixed Relay

The relay takes place in a team of 2 competitors, where members of the team carry out a circuit one after the other, with each athlete racing twice. (Athlete A, athlete B, athlete A, athlete B.) At the ISMF level, teams are comprised of one male and one female racer, but in other events the rules may be a little more relaxed. Again, this is quite a fast event, with each circuit lasting about 15 minutes, including 2 ascents and descents, and a short section with the skis on the backpack.

The total height gain is about 150 to 180m as of this writing, but this new event is evolving every race, so changes are possible.

Avalanche/emergency safety gear and clothing requirements are frequently relaxed in this format. Always see specific race information for event details.

A mixed relay race will be included in the 2026 Winter Olympics at Milano-Cortina.

Vertical Race

The vertical race is a single ascent completed entirely on skis using skins, no bootpacking or downhill skiing is involved. Vertical gain should be at least 500 meters for men and women, and 400-500 meters for juniors.

The vertical is a simple race to the top. Rules on helmets, packs and other gear are frequently relaxed in this format. Always see specific race information for event details.

Universal Rules

Uphill skinning is marked with green flags – racers must use skins on skis to climb. Bootpacking, even in the case of equipment failure will be penalized.

Bootpacking is marked with yellow flags – racers must have skis or split board attached to backpack and travel on foot.

Descending is marked with red flags – racers must wear their helmet, remove skins and lock heels (if applicable to binding type).

If a competitor is in need of help, racers must stop to assist them. Finish times may be recalculated to account for racers who stop to render aid. Penalties will be applied to racers who fail to stop to render aid.

Helmets must be worn for descents (some races also require helmets for bootpacking). While it is technically legal for a racer to remove their helmet while skinning, is normal and recommended to keep one’s helmet on for the duration of the race.

Gloves must be worn at all times. This protects from cold, as well as injuries due to crashes and edges during transitions.

Competitors must wear a 3 antenna transceiver inside or underneath their clothing throughout the race, as well as carry a shovel and probe. This rule is frequently relaxed in the Vertical, Sprint and Relay formats if the course does not pass through avalanche terrain.

Additional rules vary by location, race director, and type of race. Always see specific race information for event details.

For more detailed and up-to-the-minute rules for the sport of Ski Mountaineering, please visit the website for the International Ski Mountaineering Federation and follow the links through Official Texts – Sport Regulations – Sporting Rules.

Required Equipment

Ski Equipment:

  • Skis with metal edges or splitboard
  • Bindings (alpine touring or telemark)
  • Boots (walk mode strongly recommended)
  • Skins
  • Poles

Safety Equipment:

  • Three antenna avalanche beacon
  • Probe
  • Shovel with handle
  • Helmet
  • Gloves
  • Pack (capable of carrying skis or split board)
  • Protective eyewear – usually sunglasses and/or googles
  • Emergency blanket or bivy
  • Whistle
  • Note that more or less equipment may be required based on specific race and format details


  • Three top layers
    • one long sleeve or skin suit (must be worn)
    • long sleeve breathable wind breaker top (optional to wear or pack)
    • second long or short sleeve top (optional to wear or pack)
  • Two bottom layers
    • 1 pants or skin suit (must be worn)
    • long sleeve breathable wind breaker pants (optional to wear or pack)
  • Note that more or less clothing may be required based on specific race and format details

Other recommended equipment:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Neck tube or similar insulating head/face covering

Equipment Specifications

Equipment MenWomen
Ski – minimum length160 cm150 cm
Ski and binding – minimum weight750 g700 g
Boots (shell and dry liner) – minimum weight500 g450 g


  • Must meet above length and weight specs
  • Must have 90% metallic edges
  • Minimum width: 60 mm under the foot


  • Must meet above minimum weight specs


  • Must be able to release from toe and heel.
  • Note: SMCC will not require bindings to include brakes or retaining devices in any Canadian races during the 2021/2022 or 2022/2023 seasons due to lack of brake availability. This includes 2022 North American Championships.
    • Beginning in 2021/2022, bindings used in ISMF World Cup Races, World Championships, and Long Distance Teams World Championships require a ski brake: defined as a retention device for ski mountaineering which is designed to slow down a ski after a ski binding release or ski loss.
    • SMCC aims to match this rule for its sanctioned events in the 2023/2024 season, subject to brake availability.


  • Must cover at least 50% of ski base area
  • Must cover at least 50% length of the ski.
  • Bungee/attachment does not count toward coverage/length requirement.
  • Note that most race skins exceed the above requirement by a considerable margin. New racers should consider leaving their race skins long and trimming gradually as they used to the equipment.