Safety 101: A Beginner’s Guide to the Backcountry

The snow is flying, it’s starting to accumulate, and you’re ready to get into the backcountry. Don’t forget to take your backcountry knowledge and education with you. One of our friends,  Sarah Carpenter, works with the American Avalanche Institute, recently we tapped her on the shoulder and asked for a few pointers about skiing in the backcountry. Check out her “Beginners Guide to the Backcountry” tips below. Get educated, stay smart and have fun. 

Words by Sarah Carpenter:

Backcountry skiing is an adventure. You can explore new places, find good snow, and escape the crowds. But in order to go backcountry skiing successfully, you have to be prepared. There is gear, knowledge and a mindset that you have to obtain before you leave the safety net of the ski area.

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Here’s where to start:

Get the gear.

Backcountry skiing involves different equipment than resort skiing. The more prepared you are to travel in the backcountry, the more fun you’re going to have out there. Investing in a comfortable pair of touring boots should be a priority. Backcountry skiing involves quite a bit of walking or “touring.” Your boots and your boot fit should reflect this. Get a pair of boots with a walk mode and fit them a little looser than your old race boots.  In addition to alpine touring boots, a ski touring set up should be high on the list. Backcountry skis are lighter than skis specifically built for skiing at the area. They are built to balance weight and performance, keeping in mind that you are carrying the skis uphill as well as using them on the downhill. Touring bindings allow you to free your heel for the climbs, and lock the heel down for the descents.

Other essentials for backcountry skiing include a transceiver, shovel and probe. These are the fundamental pieces of safety gear to carry. These are the pieces of gear that you always have with you and you hope you never have to use.

An airbag pack is another piece of gear that many people use when traveling in the backcountry. Airbag packs are deployed if someone is caught in an avalanche. The concept behind these packs is that it increases the surface area of the skier, thus allowing them to travel higher up in the debris, near the surface. It’s a concept known as inverse particle segregation.

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Not everything goes as planned when traveling in the backcountry. It’s important to add a few more things to your pack such as a repair kit and a first aid kit, as well as extra clothing to stay warm in case the weather changes or something happens while touring.

Get the training.

Having the gear is the first step to getting ready to travel in the backcountry. Getting the training and knowledge to use the gear in the backcountry is the next step. There are numerous resources for avalanche training. Each year, local avalanche forecast centers and their partners host avalanche awareness talks. Go to avalanche.org to find your local forecast center, and then navigate that site for educational events.

Take a Level 1 course. This is a 24-hour course where you learn the foundational skills of backcountry travel, rescue, avalanche terrain recognition, trip planning, and decision-making in the backcountry. If you’ve already taken a level 1 course, continue your education. You can take a level 2 course, or you can take a level 1 refresher, a rescue course, a weather forecasting course, etc.. There are endless opportunities to further your education in the realm of snow and avalanches.

Get the forecast

There are avalanche forecast centers throughout the country. These centers are in place to gather weather and snowpack information and put out hazard ratings and forecasts throughout the winter season.

The first thing on an avalanche center’s site is the current avalanche danger—low, moderate, considerable, high, extreme. Read the rating, but don’t stop there.

Along with each rating is travel advice, as well as information on the likelihood of avalanches and where they may be found.

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In addition, forecast centers help identify the current avalanche problems. These problems include storm slab, wind slab, persistent slab and deep slab. Different problems require different management techniques and different terrain choices.

Take the time to identify the avalanche problem(s) for the day, as this should help guide your route for the day. If it’s a year where the problem is persistent or deep slabs, use extra caution. These problems are hard to predict and can fool everyone, even the most seasoned veteran

Reading the avalanche forecast should be the start of your day. Once you’ve read it, you can choose terrain that is appropriate for the hazard, as well as appropriate for your group.

Keep in mind that the forecast is just that…a forecast. It is not the law of the land. Avalanche forecasters are issuing a danger rating for large areas in the mountains. Terrain features, terrain positioning relative to storm tracks, local weather patterns, and many other variables can influence slope-scale hazard. The forecast that the avalanche center issues should be used as a hypothesis for your travel day. Test is while you are in the field. Prove or disprove the hazard rating through snow and weather observations. If it’s not adding up, adjust your route. Report your finding back to the center. And if you’re ever in doubt, choose simpler terrain.

Get the picture

Recognizing obvious signs of instability is important in the backcountry. If you observe recent avalanche activity, it’s mother nature screaming in your ear, letting you know that the hazard exists. It’s the warning system. Obvious signs of instability or “bulls eye clues” include recent avalanche activity, shooting cracks, and collapsing or whoompfing. If these are present on a tour, choose terrain that isn’t avalanche terrain – less than 25° in steepness and not attached to any steeper terrain above.

Getting the picture also means making a plan before you leave the house. After reading the avalanche forecast, studying the weather for the past 24 hours, and looking to see if there was any recent avalanche activity, decide what your objective for the day might be. Ask yourself the following questions:

-Is the terrain appropriate for the conditions?

-Is the terrain appropriate for the group?

And as you tour with your friends, don’t be afraid to adjust your plan if conditions are different than you anticipated. Nothing is set in stone. If you are confused or observing conditions that don’t match your forecast and day’s hypothesis, back off. Choose simpler terrain.

Get out of harms way

The ability to recognize avalanche terrain is an essential skill of any backcountry traveler. Many of the variables in backcountry travel are hard to control – you can’t control the weather, you can’t control the snowpack – how deep it is, how strong or weak it is, or how sensitive it is. One thing that you can control is the terrain that you travel in. Recognizing avalanche terrain and knowing how to route-find with a focus of minimizing or, depending on the day, avoiding exposure to avalanche terrain, is important for any backcountry traveler. When you understand terrain and how to move through the mountains, you can travel in the mountains in almost any condition.

You can stay out of harms way by taking the time to review your tour at end of day. Be critical of your decisions. Did you make good decisions?   Did you get away with something? This reflection improves the next day’s hypothesis and drives learning. This reflection makes you a better backcountry traveler.