Ten things every backcountry skier or rider should know
You don’t have to have a PhD in snow science or be a snow safety professional to learn these important facts of safe and efficient backcountry travel.
All it takes is some common sense, mountain sense, good partners, a good attitude and an openness to learning. Here is a list of what you need to know.
1. Go beyond just having avalanche gear
The list of basic items you need, beacon, shovel, probe is obvious, but you shouldn’t stop there. You should also have a headlamp, sil tarp of bivy (or other type of emergency shelter), first aid kit, Spot device, radio or satellite phone (if there is no cell coverage in the area and you need to call for help). You should also pack spare gloves and some extra warm clothing. Check out our list of safety gear you should always bring to the backcountry in our list.
Preparedness means that you should be prepared for the unexpected. For example, a member of your party gets injured and you have to stay with them and wait for help, or what if you have to stay overnight? You should have extra warm clothing in case you get stuck. If you’re stuck in sweaty, wet clothing with nothing to change into it can be pretty dangerous, as hypothermia can set in pretty fast.
2. Invest in a course
When you’re starting out, a beginner avalanche course called Avalanche Safety Training 1 (AST 1) is key. The course will open your eyes to what you don’t know, and how to manage the unknown. Much of the art of backcountry skiing is learning how to read terrain. This takes time to build, but you need to start with an official course taught by an avalanche professional, and keep taking them as you get more advanced. Also, don’t stop at the avalanche courses, it’s not the only subject that’s crucial. Keep your first-aid skills up to date with a regular CPR upgrade and even consider a course in wilderness first aid.
3. Eat and drink regularly
Often, frigid temperatures cause us to loose our appetite and definitely our thirst, so it’s important to consciously eat and drink at regular intervals to prevent bonking, If you haven’t established good endurance yet you’ll need to be cautious as you probably won’t be able to recognize signs that you’re about to bonk. Being well fueled means we’ll have more energy for more laps and longer days, and still have enough energy to drive home at the end of the day. You’ll need to pack proper food and when to eat it.
Warm up your water
If you’re put off by cold water, add electrolytes to it and fill your bottle half-half with boiling water and tap water. The water will even out in temperature and be drinkable by the time you’re ready, and the temperature will be much more palatable than cold water. To keep the water in your bottle from getting cold, get an insulated sleeve or wrap it in a down jacket.
Anther great idea is to bring a thermos – we do it every time. Brew yourself a nice tea (non-caffeinated for the best hydration), add some sugar or honey and you’ll have a drink you’ll actually want to consume, keeping dehydration away.
For food, we recommend bringing high-calorie, easily digestible foods such as nuts, chocolate, hard boiled eggs, energy bars and cheese.
4. Partners are everything
It’s also important to have nerdy backcountry friends who get into the specifics of safe travel in the mountains. You should really get nerdy about avalanche safety and look into the specifics of how the snowpack is affected by different elements such as aspect, time of day and temperature. Technical know-how such as knowing how to properly use avalanche gear and how to read terrain is essential for safety. These skills are gained by committing hours and time to learning them. Don’t be complacent, ask questions, know where you’re going and why it’s safe to ski here, and not there, for example.
Know who to trust. Surround yourself with reliable people who focus on well thought through decision making and good communicators. When you’re starting out, it’s important to get out with people that are more experienced than yourself so you can learn from them. Observe their decision making, and if you don’t understand the reason behind a decision, ask them. The key to good decision-making is having open communication about a day’s objectives and hazards. Ski guides do it every time they take people out, and it’s a good habit to follow.
5. Scan your environment as you travel
Don’t just look down and follow a beaten skin track, you need to collect information constantly as you’re moving. Professional guides are always looking and constantly making decisions affecting safety. You should do the same. You need a big picture forecast, as well as data points on the specific area you’re planning to ski. What is the recent snowfall, wind and temperature? Sometimes, nothing beats true field observations and you just need to get out there and check conditions out for yourself. The important thing is to use all the tools available to you to make your decision. Consider things such as:
- The latest forecasts
- Past conditions, snowfall, wind, freezing level and so on
- Actual skier reports from the area
6. Understand the forecast
Really dig deep into what the forecasters are saying. Forecasts can be quite extensive and information dense, and all that data can be difficult to crunch. Instead of just accessing the forecast, really understand in how it will impact your day in the mountains. Given the hazard rating, you should develop an idea of what terrain you should avoid, and the signs of instability you should look for. While you’re in the field, test the rating you’ve read to prove or disprove it through snow and weather observation.
7. Take care of your skins
There is nothing worse then skins that don’t adhere to your skis, this can absolutely ruin your whole day. Starting the day with an ultra-sticky set of skins is a must. We’ll never forget a time when a friend was testing a new pair of skins that wasn’t working well – we were deep in a valley near Nelson, BC and the skins would not stick to his skis. He had to climb back up 700 meters (2300 feet) with skins whose adhesive surface completely gave up, making it impossible to skin up, taking him hours to get up the hill.
We’re big fans of the Black Diamond skins, they dry quickly and we’ve never had a situation where they didn’t adhere to the skis. The G3 skins are also very good, and there are many great-quality other brands on the market these days.
The key to this is to dry your gear as soon as you can. Hang your skins up in a dry, warm room, and not to close to a heater which can cause them to warp.
On the mountain, stick your skins together in one-quarter sections for easy application. Take care not to drop them in the snow. If you do, shake them off then scrape them against the edge of your ski, to get rid of any clumps or ice. Your skins will likely have some ice or snow buildup on the edges, tips or tails, but that is normal. Just keep the skins as dry as you can throughout the day.
8. Have a plan and be flexible with it
If everything looked solid in the forecast, don’t let signs of instability lull you into keeping on going when signs point to deteriorating conditions. This happens all the time. Examples include daytime warming and sun affecting south-facing slopes. You should be flexible and adjust your route plan as you go. Are there signs of “whoomphing” and cracks in the snow? consider moving to a different slope or just calling it a day.
Sometimes retreat is the safest option. Turing back can be tough, especially if it’s a hard-won objective, but don’t let the drive cause you to indications of bad or worsening conditions. But the mountain will always be there, and it’s much safer to come back in a safer day than putting yourself and your group at risk.
A good example of this is Mount Columbia in Alberta, which is a highly coveted ski mountaineering objective in the spring. The highest peak in Alberta and at the edge of a huge icefield, it’s subject to notoriously bad weather and sometimes sketchy conditions. It takes most people many attempts before they hit it right and reach the top, and we can relate, as we attempted it four times before we made it up on a clear, safe, chilly day in May.
In addition to having good communication with your own group, it’s also important to talk to groups that are skiing in the same area. Chat them up and ask them their plans. Will they be above or below you at any point? It’s important to know to keep everyone safe, to avoid skiing on top of others and bunching up in touchy zones. When you see people leaving an area, ask them for their observations and thoughts about the conditions. You’ll find most people are quite talkative and excited to share information.
10. Always celebrate!
Undoubtedly, friends are what make a great day on the snow awesome. Don’t forget to celebrate after a great day out by some tailgate beers (or pop, for those non-drinkers) and make sure there are some salty snacks, like chips, to share to replenish all that lost sodium!
Read more: how to look cool on the ski hill.
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