Intro to Backcountry Skiing
Here's the real skinny on getting into the backcountryby Dena Foltz
Intro to Backcountry Skiing
Backcountry travel, whether skiing, snowboarding, climbing or snowshoeing, opens up a whole new world of adventure. There is nothing like exploring seemingly endless terrain filled with untracked powder, no lift lines, no crowds, peace and quiet, adventure and challenge, and did I mention the abundance of untracked powder. Venturing into the backcountry can be a transformational experience and thousands of people are figuring that out. Backcountry snow travel has become exponentially popular over the last few years especially as more ski areas open their boundaries to allow access to terrain that goes on as far as the skier is willing to travel.
What is Backcountry?
Backcountry begins where ski area boundaries end. From there you are on your own—no trail maps, ski patrol, or avalanche control, so it is wise to know what you are doing, where you are going and who you are going with. Backcountry travel, though invigorating, should not be taken lightly. There are a thousand ways to get yourself in trouble when it is just you and Mother Nature so give a little thought to what you are doing before you go.
Before you head out to play in the backcountry, be sure you have all the proper equipment and know how to use it.Essentials
Hypothermia and frostbite are common and easily avoidable injuries. Always be prepared with extra layers and dry clothes. Do not wear cotton. Don’t even carry it with you. Earning your turns means that you will probably sweat. Be sure to wear the proper wicking layers so you will stay warm when you are stopped.Specialized Backcountry Gear
A Telemark, Alpine Touring, or Voile Split Decision snowboard set up makes uphill travel much more pleasant than hiking. You will also need climbing skins that fit your skis, these handy little suckers attach to the bottom of your skis and provide grip. Skins are essentially like putting your skis in four-wheel drive low. Remove the skins before making turns and your back in high gear.Flotation
If you plan on strapping your skis or snowboard to your back, don’t forget snowshoes. You must have some sort of flotation. Slogging through the snow is a tiring and time-consuming proposition.
Avalanche Safety Equipment
Each person in your group should wear an avalanche beacon and know how to use it. There is an array of avalanche beacons available. The important thing is that you know how to use the one you are wearing and that you are confident in your partners’ abilities as well.
Probes, used in conjunction with beacons, can be extremely helpful in locating a buried skier.
A beacon will be of little help without a shovel. When you do locate an avalanche victim you must be able to dig them out. Your hands will not do the job—we are talking about snow that has formed into concrete. Always carry a shovel. Shovels also come in handy for digging snow pits, shelters and a seat for lunch.Emergency Supplies
Responsible backcountry travelers should be prepared for any emergency. Remember, ski patrol isn’t there to rescue you. This means carrying plenty of food and water and extra clothes. You should also carry a basic medical kit; blisters are more common than avalanches so be prepared to deal with pesky little medical annoyances.Avalanche Safety
The best way to survive an avalanche is to avoid one in the first place. Familiarize yourself with avalanche hazards and know how to avoid them. If you aren’t skilled in evaluating avalanche hazards, travel with someone who is.
Before Your Go Skiing
Before you venture out be sure to check your local avalanche conditions. Most areas have websites that provide information to you assess avalanche conditions and analyze the risk involved. The front page of Backcountrystore.com features avalanche links from all over the world. So check it out before you head out.Practice
Practice using your avalanche beacon. Time is of the essence in an avalanche rescue and beacon practice is the only way to ensure rapid recovery. The average victim has less than 30 minutes to be recovered alive. This means finding the victim a.s.a.p. so that you can dig through the layers of solid snow the victim is buried beneath. Play “hide and go peep” before each trip. One person hides a transceiver, “Whoops, I lost my transceiver in the snow somewhere over there”.Partners
As a beginner, your partner should be someone more experienced than yourself, preferably someone who is patient and willing to teach you a few things. I also recommend bringing along a high-energy friend to break trail or put in a boot pack. Know the skill level of everyone in your group and plan on catering the speed of your trip to the person with the least amount of experience. This is where the patience comes in. Never, ever, ditch your partners. Keep an eye on each other at all times, even during uphill travel.Route Finding
Avalanches aren’t the only hazards that backcountry skiers face. Many search and rescue missions are initiated when backcountry travelers become lost. Start your backcountry adventures in familiar territory close to home. Get route information from others who have recently visited the area you will be touring. Always carry and map and compass and know how to use it. Pay attention to your surroundings. Don’t get so excited about turns that you ski yourself into oblivion. Winter days are short and cold and getting lost is serious business.Don’t Forget Your Head
The most important things you can bring with you don’t weigh a thing and will save your life: good judgment and common sense. Everyone in the group should be comfortable with the decisions being made. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel unsafe. Just because you worked to get into slope doesn’t mean you have to ski it. The most skilled backcountry travelers know when to say “no”. It is a bummer to work so hard to get to the top of a big, open slope of fresh powder and not ski it. But it is a bigger bummer to be caught in an avalanche.
Backcountry.com has all the gear you need to get you set up for backcountry adventure, all you need to provide is the energy and the terrain.