Heli Skiing vs. Cat Skiing – Colorado

If you are in the position to debate going cat skiing vs. heli skiing you are one very fortunate person. Both of these option, by snow cat or heli, will get you fresh turns and hopefully spoil you rotten. You should consider yourself very lucky if you are in fact debating which one to pick.

In Steamboat Springs and Colorado, cat skiing rules. There are only two heli operations in Colorado as the folks at Telluride Heli-Trax and Silverton Mountain Heli have adequate permitted terrain to host heli drops.

Basically, in Colorado, heli skiing is difficult to operate. Reasons for this are:

  • fuel costs for to run heli skiing are incredibly expensive at high altitude which is where Colorado’s ski fields lay.
  • terrain is limited as noise from heli will impact local towns.
  • user conflicts arise because all mountains in Colorado are accessed by backcountry, non-motorized skiers, snowmobilers and other winter recreationalists.
  • permit boundaries are confined by Wilderness Areas in the alpine where motorized vehicles are not able to access.
  • National Forest permits are difficult to come by.

Due to these difficulties in operation, cat skiing has developed into a more reliable industry in Colorado when comparing cat vs. heli.  Though numbers do shift year to year, its been around 10-12 cat operations in Colorado which is the highest density of snowcat outfits this side of Canada.

When you book a cat skiing trip, you are more or less guaranteed to go (sans low snowpack, rain events or sun/heat crust on all aspects). Under most weather conditions cat operations can still operate. Most importantly, when it’s dumping, isn’t this the time when you want to ski and ride powder? Unlike a heli skiing trip, when it’s hammering snow outside you’ll be in the closest bar, drinking your sorrows away, wishing you’d booked a snowcat trip because with cat skiing you’ll be into the fresh under the even the most storming conditions.

Outside of Colorado, especially in Canada and Alaska, many of the heli operations will have back up cat skiing so that if in fact weather arrives, you’ll still be able to get after it. Also, check to see if the heli operation has options during weather, such as low altitude tree skiing or areas where they take you if and when it’s snowing.

Here are some other reasons for each, cat vs. heli skiing:

Why go cat skiing?

  • Weather will not impact your trip. Typically you have to book a tour months in advance and you’d hate to not ski when it’s dumping outside. Cat skiing is the best guarantee that you’ll be getting freshies the day of your trip.
  • Cat skiing is typically less expensive. Trips costs can be anywhere from $350 – $800 per day to go cat skiing. This doesn’t include lodging usually, but typically includes avy beacon and food. At Steamboat Powdercats, our operation is full service and all inclusive. Check out our rates here.
  • Day skiing options. Most heli companies (Canada mostly) require booking multi-day adventures. The cat skiing operations, in Colorado at least, don’t require this and cater to the day tripper.

Why go heli skiing?

  • Heli skiing is epic! The mountains, the snow and the machine you’ll be in are much more vast and amazing than that of a snowcat.
  • Heli skiing will put you onto 20-40,000 vertical feet per day where cat skiing will be lucky to get you 10-15,000 feet by the days end.
  • The permit areas are vast. You’ll probably never cross another track on your entire trip. Cat skiing permit zones are smaller and some operations deal with other users who can access the National Forest areas where they operate.