What is mechanized Skiing?
Mechanized skiing is a type of skiing that uses either a helicopter or snowcat to take skiers and snowboarders up remote slopes in the backcountry, to untouched mountains, with deep powder, stunning views, and terrain features not found on-piste. This is very different from a ski resort, which may use a chairlift, gondola or T-bar to take skiers up marked and groomed slopes.
Cat skiing and heli skiing allow backcountry enthusiasts to enjoy the thrill and adventure of skiing and boarding while exploring the mountains in their own way. For those who have gotten a taste of powder skiing at their local ski hill, and want to take things to the next level, we’ll outline some of the key differences between these two styles of mechanized skiing so you can decide what’s the best winter vacation for you.
Cat Skiing vs Heli Skiing – What’s the Difference?
Snowcats, short for snow caterpillar, are enclosed-cab, truck-sized, fully-tracked vehicles, that are designed for grooming ski resorts, and have been used to shuttle skiers up remote backcountry slopes for years. They have the look of a tank, with enough space for your ski and snowboarding equipment and everything you’ll need for a day on the slopes.
Snowcats require snow roads, which must be maintained, in order to access ski terrain. You get in the snow cat, ride up to the top, then ski back down and wait for the cat to come pick you up. And while most cat skiing lodges have a lot of snow roads, by their very nature, you are more limited to what terrain you can cover. Snowcats typically travel around 10-15km/h (5-10 mph) depending on the condition of the snow roads they’re on.
One of the biggest advantages of cat skiing over heli skiing is that the snowcats can travel in almost any weather. So when it’s really storming out and the snow is falling hard, most helicopters can’t fly, but snowcats can still go out. For This reason, some heli ski operators have snowcat backup for storm days.
Heli skiing is a type of skiing where you are whisked away on a helicopter to incredible ski terrain. With a helicopter you can go almost anywhere. If conditions are great on north facing slopes in the alpine, you can spend the day skiing there. If conditions change you can simply move and ski what’s best. The freedom and speed of the helicopter is one of its biggest advantages over snowcats, and the fact that you can ski and board significantly more vertical with a helicopter than a snowcat.
The Cost of Heli Skiing vs Cat Skiing
Depending on whether you’re day skiing or staying at an all inclusive cat or heli ski lodge, the price of cat skiing and heli skiing can vary considerably. An all-inclusive cat ski lodge in BC costs between CAD1200-1600/day (USD950-1250). An all-inclusive heli ski lodge typically costs between CAD1800-2400/day (USD1400-1900).
At cat ski lodges you will usually ski between 10,000-14,000’ (3000-4500m) vertical per day, and there are usually no extra charges for bigger days or minimum vertical guarantees. With heli skiing, it’s a bit different. The industry standard is 100,000’ (30,000m) vertical per week, or 14,300’/day (4285m). Anything skied beyond that amount is an extra fee. This is due to the high cost of operating helicopters vs snowcats.
Expect to pay around $40-50 for each additional 1000’ (300m) of vertical, or about an extra $150/run. So let’s say you were going for a really big day and skied the height of Everest (29,000’); that would set you back an extra 600 bucks and the total cost for the day would be $2600 (assuming a $2000/day heli package). But since you’d be doing more than twice the vertical of a day cat skiing, the cost per vertical foot skied would actually be less.
For this reason, many heli lodges now sell unlimited vertical packages, so you can ski as much as you want, without worrying about an ‘extra’ vertical bill at the end of your trip.
Another consideration when deciding between cat skiing and heli skiing is the lodge and amenities. Again, these can vary widely, but generally most heli ski lodges have a higher standard of accommodation, food and service than cat ski lodges. So if you’re after a true luxury ski vacation, heli skiing is for you.
Which is Safer?
Relative to the terrain, there is little difference in safety between helicopter skiing or snowcat skiing.
The biggest risk in the backcountry comes from the terrain and elements: avalanches, and terrain hazards like trees, cliffs, and tree wells, not the type of machine you use to get there. These days, heli ski pilots are highly skilled and have years of mountain flying experience. So when doing either cat skiing or heli skiing, the most important consideration is finding a reputable operation with highly trained, certified guides. For safety equipment, you’ll be provided with an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel. And always wear a helmet and be dressed properly for the weather.
Many people choose cat skiing over heli skiing based on the cost. And while a week-long heli trip in peak season may indeed set you back $15-20K, there are much cheaper ways to try it. Many heli ski outfitters now offer shorter, two, three and four day trips. And low season heli trips, in December and April, can have excellent conditions, and are much cheaper and may even cost less than a cat ski trip.
Regardless of what you choose, either of these sports will provide a winter vacation in the mountains of British Columbia you’ll never forget.
A Premium Small Group Heli Skiing Experience
Since 2004, Northern Escape Heli Skiing has operated small group heli skiing in Northern BC’s Skeena Mountains, near Terrace, BC. Named World’s Best Heli Ski Operator in 2022 by the World Ski Awards, our premium ski experience, three boutique lodges, snowcat skiing backup and big mountain, deep powder terrain attracts riders from around the world. Our lodges are easily accessible from Vancouver via Terrace Airport.