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How To Become An Off-Piste Ski Guide

1 March 2019
How To Become An Off-Piste Ski Guide


Ever thought about becoming a ski instructor or an off-piste ski guide?

Well… we thought who better to ask than a few highly-skilled, fully-qualified off-piste guides and find out for us what it really takes to become an off-piste guide.

It’s important to remember that an off-piste guide and a mountain guide aren’t the same things. A mountain guide holds the highest qualification in the world for leading people in the mountains and can guide you on glaciers.

An off-piste guide’s role is to keep their group safe on the unfamiliar terrain, away from the beaten track. Off-piste guides constantly think from a safety and risk perspective - it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of finding bigger lines, but a good off-piste guide will explain their choices for particular lines to ski.

What is a typical day for an off-piste guide?

To start, you’ll check the weather avalanche risk reports, the temperature and the wind from the last couple of weeks that affects the snowpack. If your typical day’s guiding begins at 9 am, the first thing you’ll do is get all of your equipment together, check in with your colleagues and then meet with your guests.

Remember, as a guest, you’re paying for a guide’s expertise and knowledge - any decisions made are not because your guide doesn’t think you’re capable, it’s their 15 years of experience that make a judgement call on where to and not to ski.

Director and off-piste guide Rowena from Matterhorn Diamonds, Zermatt talks us through a typical day off-piste guiding in Zermatt;


“Firstly, we check the equipment in the morning together - it can be the first time the group have used airbags and transceivers. We’ll then warm up on a trial run to assess the ski skills of the group and make an informed judgement call on the plan for the rest of the day. This will also depend on the size of the group - every decision made is safety influenced.

A second instructor or a more experienced skier will often be the ‘back marker’ to make sure everyone’s comfortable and confidently skiing. We’ll always watch the group’s fatigue levels - it’s exhausting if you’re working on your technique as off-piste skiing is hard work on the thighs. We make a break for lunch and drink a lot of water throughout the day.

We also avoid the last run of the day, especially on southern slopes - as the avalanche risk as the day goes on gets higher. Every part of the day has a different risk and processes associated with it, so we’re always checking the risk assessment as the day goes on to make sure we’re skiing the best snow.”

What's the training process to become an off-piste guide?

Ski Touring

When training to become an off-piste guide, you’ll have completed your ski instructor qualifications to the highest level, which is a level 4 with BASI (British Association of Snowsports). It takes at least 3-5 years to reach this level, and then you’ll go on to teach off-piste with additional qualifications. You’ll learn how to ski off-piste, how to use skins, use a map, understand a snowpack, avalanche safety, and rescue.

“You gain a broader idea on how to read a mountain - opposed to just how much edge angle you’ll get on the piste” - Rowena.

The qualifications differ from country to country, and so always do your research on where you’d like to become an off-piste guide. Speak with the locals, understand the country differences and what qualifications you already have, and what you need to obtain.

In Switzerland for example, using the BASI qualifications, if you complete your BASI Level 4 ski instructor qualifications, this includes the two off-piste courses. You can then convert to the Swiss system and you’ll be able to teach on some off-piste terrain. You have to learn a Swiss language too.

Just the off-piste course within the level 3 course takes 6 days and costs £505. The theory covers snow conditions, navigation, weather, emergencies and the responsibilities of a leader. You’ll also be assessed on the mountain to evaluate your group management and leadership qualities, and your off-piste technique.

Once you have completed the full Level 3, you’ll take the level 4 course that includes a European Mountain Security (EMS) training course which takes 7 days and costs £760. You’ll have 4 days training followed by a 3-day assessment. You’ll need to train by leading at least 6 tours with 1,000m of ascent off the beaten track to assess avalanche risk, navigation skills, decision making and leadership qualities once again. Once you have both of these qualifications, you’re able to teach anything below a glacier, although (of course) you’re still making constant decisions of safety based on slope steepness, snow type and snow depth, and avalanche danger levels to decide which areas will be safe to ski.


An Austrian off-piste guide is referred to as a ‘ski guide’, which has its own requirements. All of the training is in German, and they expect guides to know English too as part of the exam.

From the very first basic course to be a qualified ski guide takes at least 4 years in Austria.

In Tyrol, it’s preferred that ski guides complete all of their course levels there. It’s hard to get international courses acknowledged - It’s a lot of red tape. “It’s a closed community here - well, obviously to maintain high-quality standards! (and maybe a bit of arrogance that they are the best!)” - Toni, Off-piste Guide, Skischule A-Z.

What’s so enjoyable about off-piste guiding?

Ski Touring

Off-piste guides have such a passion for snow sports and love showing their guests a whole new experience, to get the most out of their time on the mountains.

Rowena comments, “Opening your clients’ eyes to a new world; even in terms of the skiing - some people have only skied 1cm of snow before! Initially, it’s common for our guests to think “I’m never going to be able to do this, and then it clicks and it’s such a fun experience.

Off-piste skiing is about skiing bumps, variable terrain and navigating a path - it’s much more tactical than piste skiing where each turn can be exactly the same, making it much more automatic.”

How do you become an awesome off-piste guide?

“Ski a lot! Ski when the weather’s bad, when you don’t feel like it, really get the mileage - it’s so important, some guides ski because they’re teaching and then don’t ski when they have free time - it makes such a difference to guiding if you ski every minute of the day.

Try and ski with people off-piste as much as possible. Pay for a mountain guide’s skills, they’re happy to share their skill and knowledge - they love it!” - Rowena.

We recommend completing your BASI ski instruction qualifications and decide which country and ski area you’d like to guide, once you’ve completed your level 4 ski instructor qualifications. A passion for the mountains coupled with a high level of fitness and the confidence to lead a group off the beaten track will help you to become an off-piste guide.