The brave pioneers of Cat Skiing in Europe: The Definitive Guide to Free Riding in North Macedonia

What do Cat Skiing, Pablo Escobar, and Tony Montana have in common? They all guarantee you vast amounts of white powder! However, Cat Skiing has the lowest likelihood of getting you shot. Yet, it will take you to the last snowy frontiers of the world. You will be able to ski on the edge of civilization and enjoy a real challenge. Far away from busy ski resorts with only the trees and your friends to keep you company. While Cat skiing is very well known in Canada and the US, it is still a novelty in Europe. The operators in North Macedonia can rightly boast as one of the pioneers of cat skiing in Europe. Keep reading to learn more about them.

IN THIS ARTICLE:

Cat Skiing 101

- Origins
- Pros & Cons of Cat vs. Heli vs. Piste skiing
- Preparing for your first cat skiing holiday

Cat Skiing in
North Macedonia

- Safety
- Snow Conditions
- Logistics

North Macedonia
as a holiday destination

- Geography
- History
- Culture

Bonus Tip:

Discovering Macedonia and the Balkans

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Cat skiing 101

What is cat skiing?

Cat skiing is a form of freeriding that uses a massive snowcat machine to drop you off in the middle of nowhere. From there it’s up to your guided group to choose your way back to civilization. You get to ride through untouched powder and enjoy pristine nature. Once you’re safely back you get to do it all again! No lift queues or crowds on the piste. 

The Origins of cat skiing

Back in 1965 Alan Drury first got the idea of cat skiing. He was working in a ski resort in Aspen, Colorado. The ski area was still under construction and the lifts weren’t running yet. Instead, snowcats were used to transport skiers up the slopes. The idea slowly grew in his mind. 

About ten years later Alan launched his Selkirk Wilderness Skiing. He would use snowcat machines to take groups of skiers to the wilderness of British Columbia. His efforts were a roaring success. Nowadays, there are more than 17 companies offering the same service in British Columbia. Cat Skiing has become the best way to enjoy backcountry skiing in Canada and the US. However, Europe has yet to catch up.

Piste vs. Heli vs. Cat skiing

Piste Skiing

Piste skiing is by far the most popular method of the three. Skiing has become an iconic winter recreational activity. Ski resorts have dotted the landscape of the Alps ever since the beginning of the 20th century. The piste is where beginners learn to ski, where intermediates practice, and where professionals compete. Resorts usually have different pistes to accommodate all skill levels. 

Yet, their catch-all purpose has become the pistes’ drawback. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a well-made ski piste. However, the reality of modern ski resorts is one of long lift queues, big traffic jams on the slopes, and frequently poor snow conditions. Moreover, many ski resorts have become overpriced tourist traps with poor customer service.

Helicopter Skiing

Heli-skiing is the opposite of mass piste skiing. It’s deep into the luxury skiing niche. A helicopter will take you up to a remote location in the mountain and you will have to find your way down. On its own, this can offer you a much more meaningful skiing experience than doing the same few pistes over and over again. Every time you can be taken to a different location with a huge variety to choose from.

The helicopter ride itself is often a breath-taking experience filled with unforgettable sights. Yet, helicopters rely on good flying conditions. Bad weather days will leave you stranded in your cabin. Moreover, helicopter flights have the largest carbon footprint of the three options. Their steep prices remain the biggest entry barrier for most people. Day rates are easily more than 1000$ per day per person.

Cat Skiing

Cat skiing is often dubbed as ‘poor man’s heli-skiing’. Yet, it offers nearly the same quality of experience for less than half the price! It’s not as dependent on the weather as helicopters are. You can be at the center of the action, right as the powder is falling from the sky. Moreover, snowcats are usually dedicated to a single group for the day. This means you can treat it as your portable supply room. 

Even though the snowcats are somewhat dependent on the terrain, they can still cover a lot of vertical elevation. It’s definitely going to take them a while to get to their destination, but that is part of the charm. You can kick back, have a drink and a bite, and enjoy the journey with your company. 

Moreover, there’s an added level of security with the snowcats. The snowcats have a smaller operation area than the helicopters. Yet, that makes their operators learn the landscape much better than their pilot counterparts. This is paramount for avalanche prevention.

Before the fun starts

How skilled
do you need to be?

Every cat skiing holiday carries an element of danger. Therefore it’s not suitable for ski beginners. You should be at least an intermediate skier. This involves consistently turning in off-piste terrain and riding through deep powder. As long as you don’t put yourself or your group in danger, you should be good to go. There will always be a lead and a tail guide to make sure you don’t accidentally go down a super steep slope with high avalanche risks.

Do you need
specialist equipment?

Skiing in the backcountry usually involves wider skis and snowboards. Apart from that there is a set of safety equipment which you need with you at all times. Avalanches are the biggest danger when cat skiing. Thus, you will be given a shovel and prove, an ABS avalanche bag, and a transceiver beacon. You will be able to rent everything necessary on location.

Do you need
preparation?

Skiing in the backcountry usually involves wider skis and snowboards. Apart from that there is a set of safety equipment which you need with you at all times. Avalanches are the biggest danger when cat skiing. Thus, you will be given a shovel and prove, an ABS avalanche bag, and a transceiver beacon. You will be able to rent everything necessary on location.

What to expect from your
cat skiing holiday?

A good ski day starts early. Especially if you’re exploring the backcountry. Sunlight and your physical strength will be the biggest limitations. You can expect to be in the snowcat by 8 am. The day usually lasts until 16:30 when it starts to get dark.

There’s something magical about getting into this wild beast of a machine. You and your buddies, next to each other. The engine revving and the fresh mountain air pinching your cheeks. You can feel the butterflies in your belly as the snowcat takes you into uncharted territory. 

As the snowcat drops you off you will finally appreciate silence, peace of mind, and nature’s tranquility all around. The fresh snow cracks under your steps, and you hear every breath you take. Now civilization is out of sight and it is up to you and your friends to find your way down. Once you’re down, the snowcat will take you back up to another location. In the meantime, you will be able to enjoy a company-made comprehensive lunch so the fun never stops.

As the sun sets, the snowcat will take you back to your hotel. Especially on your first day, you will feel exhausted and cold. You’ll probably be dying for a warm drink and a seat by the sauna and the mineral water pool. In good company, you can finally relax and recollect all the effort and fun moments you had throughout the day. Most likely you won’t be staying up late. The next day already awaits!

Snowcat skiing with Snomads
in North Macedonia

North Macedonia is home to the cat skiing pioneers of Europe. A faraway location in a faraway country. Deep into the Shar mountains, one of the last wild European frontiers welcomes adventurers. At 1780m above the sea, the Popova Shapka (Priest’s cap) ski resort is excellently situated to accommodate cat skiing enthusiasts.

This is precisely where our cat skiing operation is based. We’re surrounded by rolling hills and forests, as well as over 30 peaks that rise above 2500 meters. Our snowcat operations cover more than 15,000 hectares of prime skiing areas. Our operators are seasoned local veterans that know the land like the back of their hands. All in all, we’ve prepared everything you need to stay safe and have an unforgettable cat skiing holiday.

Avalanche Safety

As boring as it may sound, safety is our first priority. To ensure your safety we comply with all the official Canadian guidelines regarding avalanche safety. As they are the homeland of cat skiing, we opt to learn from the best. Moreover, there will be at least two seasoned guides per group. 

All of our guides have over 6 years of experience on the location. They are veteran free-riders and will help you choose the best places depending on your group’s skill. Naturally, they will help you avoid high-risk areas for avalanches. On the evening of your arrival, you will attend a safety presentation. You will be taught how to use the safety equipment and what conditions to expect on the ride.

Snow Conditions around
Popova Shapka

Macedonia boasts some unique skiing conditions. The geographical latitude of Popova Shapka is roughly that of Rome, yet there is consistent snow from January to April. Its proximity to the subtropical Mediterranean climate makes for some freaky weather and skiing conditions!

You can expect to find anything from concrete to untouched powder! There’s crusty snow, dusty snow, dust on crust, packed snow, frosty snow, sticky snow, wet snow, wet packed snow, and the list goes on. There are days with blizzards, blowing snow squalls, and flurries. Sometimes there are bluebird days and you can see all the way to the horizon. Other times there is a whiteout and you can barely see your nose!  

Weather in Macedonia can be unpredictable, but more often than not that just adds to the fun. When you’ve arrived on location, our guides will inform you what the snow conditions on the ground are and give you riding tips accordingly. 

Snomads Catski Rental Equipment

Sometimes trying to bring your skis or snowboard along for your Winter adventure can be a real drag. If you don’t want to fly with your own equipment then we have the perfect solution! We have some great freeride skis and snowboards freely available for hire during your stay from only 15 euro a day. Wide skis and powderboards which are perfect for the kind of riding you’ll encounter in the Shar mountains.

Elan skis work closely with our Cat ski operation here in Macedonia, some of their new models even get a test ride on our mountain before sale. If you’re lucky you might even be able to try out the new Elan Ripstick

Catski and Sustainabnility

A lot of people might roll their eyes when they see skiing and sustainability in one sentence but bear with us! The snowcat machine is big, noisy, and consumes an average of 200 liters of diesel per day! Yet, it carries 13 skiers, two guides, and a driver. Compare that to heli-skiing, where a helicopter must make at least two rounds up and down the mountain to get the same number of people. Every minute of air time for the heli amounts to 1.2 liters of fuel. In other words, the heli will burn more fuel than the snowcat in just three hours of operational time. Compare the snowcat to the busy piste lifts and the picture doesn’t get much better. An average ski lift will burn over 240 liters of fuel in just one hour, and they never stop during a busy day. 

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Accommodation

We offer a full board accommodation which includes breakfast, mountain lunch, and dinner. You will be staying in the cozy Scardus 4-star hotel, right in the middle of Popova Shapka. The hotel boasts a variety of amenities for weary skiers. There is a spa center with two saunas, a swimming pool, and even an on-site masseuse. There is a gym and table tennis to keep you active.

Naturally, you can rely on a well-stocked bar, as well as an excellent restaurant, and a reliable laundry service. There is also fast WiFi everywhere in the hotel. You can stay connected with the rest of the world with ease. Even more, you get to stay inspired by all the great views the hotel terrace reveals.

How to get to Popova Shapka?

The closest airport to Popova Shapka is the Macedonian capital, Skopje. It’s a modern airport with good transport connections. There is a variety of airlines to choose from. You should be able to reach Skopie from most major airports in Europe. The list includes most western capitals. If you’re traveling in a group of six and more, we’re offering free transfers from the airport to the hotel. 

Otherwise, you can consider grabbing the train from Skopie to Brvenica, and then grabbing a taxi to the hotel. There is also a bus from Skopie to Tetovo, and then again the last kilometers must be covered by taxi. All in all the distance from Skopie to Popova Shapka is about 64 kilometers. If you absolutely can’t be bothered with public transport you could grab a taxi all the way, and it would cost around 40$. 

Alternatively, we can also arrange an airport transfer directly to the site from Sofia airport, Bulgaria. The journey is about 310 km through beautiful mountain terrain on a renovated road. On the flip side, you’ll enjoy amazing views of the local Bulgarian and Macedonian mountains. 

You don’t need a travel visa if you’re from the EU, UK, Canada, US, Australia, and many more countries. See the full list of visa-free countries that can stay in Macedonia for up to 90 days.

North Macedonia
a crash course

There has been a lot of confusion about this beautiful country. From its turbulent post-communist transition to democracy to disputes about its name and its historical heritage. Macedonia has often been misunderstood by its neighbors and it remains unknown on the global map. For the skiing thrill-seekers of the unknown, it is an excellent combination of terrain, climate, and pristine nature. 

However, you would be a fool if you didn’t show interest in the local culture, cuisine, history, and geography. It is an ancient land with proud and independent people. In the following sections, we will do our best to demystify Macedonia and bring it away from the image of the ‘oriental other’. 

Macedonian Culture
in Brief

Ethnicity & Religion

Macedonia boasts a very diverse population ethnically and religiously. Ethnic-wise about ⅔ identify as Macedonian, ¼ identify as Albanian, 4% as Turkish, and 3% as Roma. There are also Bulgarian, Serbian, Greek, Armenian, and Jewish minorities. The religious division roughly follows ethnic lines. The Macedonian population is officially Orthodox Christian, while the Turks and Albanians are Muslim.

Attitude

Take it with a grain of salt, whenever someone tries to describe a whole group of people. With that disclaimer out of the way, Macedonians are incredibly sincere and kind. They have a reputation for hospitality, music, songs, and cheer. However, they are fiery people with a hot temper. Best avoid mixing alcohol and politics. Be respectful and show kindness, and they will return the same. Be disrespectful and arrogant, and you might get your ass kicked.

Cuisine

The local cuisine is as diverse as the Macedonian people. Centuries under Ottoman rule have brought many recipes from the Middle East. Moreover, the seasonality of the weather ensures different fresh produce throughout the year. Without further ado, here are three of the most popular dishes in Macedonia. Their concept might not be unique, yet the devil is in the details, as always.

Moussaka

This dish comes in many variants all around the Eastern Mediterranean. There is eggplant and lentil moussaka too. Every nation you ask will claim to be the inventor. Yet, that is irrelevant, as great ideas belong to everyone. The classical moussaka recipe you can enjoy in Macedonia is the following: a mix of grounded pork and lamb, onions, potatoes, and tomatoes. A mix of yogurt and eggs is added as a cover. And, like any other Balkan dish, you can expect rich seasoning. 

The grounded meat, onions, and tomatoes are first fried. Then they are mixed with potatoes and slowly baked for around an hour. And just when it starts to feel like it can’t get any better, the stirred yogurt and eggs are added on top and the dish will be baked for 20 more minutes. When it comes out of the oven, moussaka will have you drooling. It would take great willpower to resist its charms. A local tip is to add white yogurt on top for extra succulence. 

Beans, Macedonian Style

If you’re looking for a vegetarian option, or you just want to play it safe, you can help yourself to Macedonian-style beans. The dish includes beans, carrots, onions, garlic, and peppers. Traditionally red pepper, salt, spearmint, and summer savory. This dish represents perfection through simplicity. It will fill you up and leave you asking for extras.

Veal Soup, Macedonian Style

The region is famous for its various soups. Few, however, can match the richness and complexity of the Macedonian veal soup. The ingredients include young veal meat, finely chopped peppers, tomatoes, celery, and parsley, as well as carrots, potatoes, and a whole pre-baked onion. 

The seasoning includes a bit of vinegar, oil, salt, red and black pepper, as well as a spoon of flour for extra thickness. The soup is served with crushed garlic and vinegar on the side, for those who won’t be kissing anyone for the first time. 

All in all, traditional Macedonian cuisine is highly nutritious and rich in flavors. There are great options for carnivores and vegetarians alike. The quality of ingredients is incredible, as everything is organically sourced and produced. Your belly will have fond memories long after you’ve departed Macedonia. 

Bonus: Discovering Macedonia
and the Balkans

If you’re looking for the Macedonian frontier cat skiing experience odds are you’ll have to travel a long way. So, if you’re coming all the way over to Macedonia, it makes sense to explore more of the region. As long as your calendar allows it, Macedonia and the Balkans are ready to reward all adventurers. “Seek and you will find…” 

01.Ohrid lake and city

This lake, coupled with the ancient Ohrid city on its shores, is perhaps the most beautiful location you can enjoy in Macedonia. The Ohrid lake is one of the deepest and oldest in Europe. It boasts a diverse migratory ecosystem. Its size is 358 square kilometers which is roughly half the size of New York. 

Ohrid city can reveal an intimate look into Orthodox religion. Once dubbed the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’, it boasted 365 churches. It’s a picturesque city with a rich history. In the Middle Ages, the city was a center of literature and arts. It had a great impact on developing the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used in Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Mongolia, and many more countries. Based on the shores of the Ohrid lake, the city reveals numerous breathtaking views of the turquoise lake.

02.Galicia and Pelister natural parks

If you’re visiting Ohrid, it only makes sense to have a day trip around the Galicia and Pelister natural parks. Both parks are situated in mountainous areas that offer great opportunities for hiking. They are dotted with picturesque villages, around the hills, lakes, and valleys. 

Pelister is the oldest natural park in Macedonia, established in 1948. It boasts two beautiful glacial lakes, known as ‘Pelister’s Eyes’. The Galician limestone massif offers stunning views of the surrounding countryside. The local flora and fauna in both parks are brimming with life.

03.Skopje

If you’re in Macedonia, then you should definitely take the time to explore the capital. Situated only 60km away from where you’ll be staying, it’s definitely worth a visit. We also organize day trips to Skopie. We’ll take you there and back, as long as you give us a heads up a day in advance. 

Skopje is an attractive location due to its diverse architectural styles. There are gorgeous Ottoman-era mosques, neoclassical governmental buildings, and a huge array of modern statues. The oriental-style Old Bazaar will leave you wondering if you haven’t teleported away from Europe. Skopje boasts about 6,000 years of history and boasts the archeological sites to match it.

There are hundreds of restaurants, cafes, shops, and museums for you to explore. On a different note, Skopje is great to enjoy the Macedonian nightlife, especially in the city center. Experience the wild Balkan spirit and party like there’s no tomorrow!

04.Bansko and the Pirin Natural Park

If you’re hungry for more mountains and skiing, Bansko is the skiing capital of Bulgaria. It’s located only 240 km away from Skopie. It boasts magnificent pistes, with almost 50 km of slopes available. The longest of them is almost 10 kilometers. Neatly situated in the Pirin National Park, you are surrounded by 400 square kilometers of virgin nature. 

Besides the slopes, Bansko is a picturesque mountainous town. It is an odd mix of modernity and a city center that appears frozen in time since the 1800s. Bansko offers great potential for ski holidays on a smaller budget. Bansko is so great, it’s our winter HQ of operations. To be honest, this is a bit of self-promotion, but our Bansko ski holidays are definitely worth checking out! 

05.Any Balkan capital

Our short geography lesson revealed that Macedonia is at the heart of the Balkan peninsula. Thus, it is well-connected to all neighboring capitals. It’s definitely possible to mix a bit of skiing with a bit of cultural exploration. There are about 12 capital cities to choose from. The top three ones in our humble opinion are Istanbul, Athens, and Sofia. 

Every one of them is unique. It’s up to you. Do you want to explore Orthodox cathedrals, ancient archeological sites, or oriental mosques? If you’re a passionate foodie, Istanbul is basically heaven on earth for you. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Regardless of where you go in the Balkans, you will meet hospitable people who enjoy a good life and good food. Although they all think themselves wildly different from one another, there is a lot more that unites them, rather than what divides them. 

Our Verdict

If you want to cat ski in a faraway frontier, then Macedonia is definitely an interesting choice. It’s a complete break from anything you can experience in the Americas or Australia. However, cat skiing is still relatively new to the region. Being a pioneer is fun, but it also means there is room for improvement in some aspects. 

Yet, traveling to Macedonia brings a basket of opportunities for adventure and exploration. If you’re looking for a luxury holiday, then Macedonia might not be well suited for you. But with the right mindset, you can have an absolute blast!

If you’re looking to spice things up in the coming winter season, 

Macedonia can add the flavor you’ve been missing. 

Contact our friendly staff for any inquiries. We’re happy to help!

See you on the slopes!

We hope you’ve enjoyed the read