A Beginner’s Guide to Backcountry Skiing (and Safety)

Whether you’re a first-timer catching a massive storm in Telluride, Colorado, or a seasoned locael in the Pacific Northwest, skiers and boarders are now more than ever pushing beyond resort boundaries and into the backcountry.

With increased backcountry skiing across the country, these off-piste slopes are becoming the winter playground for an ever increasing group of riders. Along with that overload of skiers exploring resort-accessed side-country or full blown ski touring adventures, comes an increased risk for avalanche danger.

Whether you’re exiting a resort boundary gate or hiking or skinning up from a trail-head, backcountry skiing requires a different mindset and whole new set of skills and tools than your typical resort day. If you’re planning on getting out to an off-piste powder stash, now is the time to start learning (or reviewing) some essential backcountry skills and putting together your out-of-bounds tool kit.

Know Your Gear

At a minimum, you need an avalanche beacon, collapsible snow shovel, and probe whenever you’re out for a run that is not actively avalanche controlled. Learn how to use your kit, and practice with it. We carry the Pieps DSP Pro Beacon when we’re out touring, because we’ve found it to be one of the most user friendly, and very easy to learn with.

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Although carbon fibre avalanche probes exists, the decision you have to weight the decision to use one carefully. A broken probe may mean the difference in finding a friend or not. The aluminum Quickdraw Tour 280 from Black Diamond is the perfect balance between weight and strength. It’s got updated ferrules at the end of each section to make it slide together quickly, non-slip grip for easy use even with wet gloves and big numbers for quickly measuring the snow.

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Another item where strength should be a high priority is your shovel. The Evac 7 shovel is heavy enough for chopping hard snow and ice all day for snow shelters or emergency rescues but light enough to not weigh you down on long tours. The handle mounts to the blade straight for regular shovelling or at 90 degrees like a hoe for moving a lot of snow quickly.

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BMT stands for Big Mountain Touring and it fits well for the V-Werks BMT 109 skis from Volkl. We think it should have been “Excellent At Up and Down, Powder, Crud and Carving Groomers,” but the acronym is a little too long. A little on the expensive side but you get many different competent skis in one with these planks.

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A favourite in the touring world, the Scarpa Maestrale boot was updated in 2017 to be even easier to use. Lots of flex in the ankle and and a simple walk to ski lever on the back saves you time touring. The regular Maestrale has plenty of stiffness to keep you in control but if you need a touch more, go with the RS version.

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Bindings are the goldilocks of the backcountry ski world. On the way up, they should be easy to configure and featherlight. On the way down they should be fast to transition and hold your boot like a vice. While not the stiffest binding out there, the G3 Ion 12 strikes a good balance of lightweight and easy to use while holding you to your ski when you need it. They also look pretty rad.

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When we’re out in the backcountry, we always carry a small first aid kit, a multitool that is equipped with the right bits and drivers for our ski gear, and back up food and water – enough for longer than we plan on being out.

Climbing skins keep you going uphill even when the terrain gets steep. Mohair skins tend to slide better downhill if you’re on a long tour. Nylon skins tend to grip better and keep you going in the right direction. G3 Alpinist skins will take a beating on any kind of snow. Don’t worry about the glue until -20 F. The removable non-stick RipStrip on the bottom and the snappy tail clip make transitions a breeze.

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A decent pack to carry all your gear in is also essential. Our favorite for short tours this season is Osprey’s Kamber 22. An avalanche safety kit pocket with J-zip access on the front panels holds your emergency equipment. An internal pocket holds your water bladder with an insulated tube sleeve. Keep your helmet in a stowable helmet pouch and carry skis diagonally or snowboards vertically when you need to bootpack it.

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Get Educated

Once you’ve started piecing your backcountry kit together, and gotten your self familiarized with some of the specialized safety tools, it’s time to really start training. The gold standard for learning about backcountry safety is the American Institute for Avalanche & Education’s (AIARE) Avalanche Level 1 Course. No matter where your home mountain is, there is likely an AIARE certified instructor nearby. If you’re not quite ready to to hit the backcountry hard, or just need to brush up on some skills, many mountain guide services offer beginner courses that introduce you to backcountry skiing skills and decision making processes.

Check The Forecast

Every morning our ritual consists of coffee, avocado toast, and a visit to Avalanche.org. This site is sponsored by the American Avalanche Association and Backcountry Access. It serves as a aggregator for all avalanche forecasting around the country. Whether we’re skiing at the resort, hitting up a secret pow stash, or stuck in the office, the forecast tools keep snow safety on our minds every day. More importantly, reviewing snow conditions helps you have a bigger picture of what the snow pack is looking like over the course of the season. Knowing there is a dangerous layer of snow from a few weeks ago that is still factoring in to danger ratings is essential knowledge when you step into your bindings.

Avalanche Danger Scale

Decision Making

In the backcountry we like to remember two acronyms to aid in the decision making process. Go-NoGo decisions can have life or death consequences when you step out on an exposed ridge line or chute, so having every aid in making the call is very important. The first acronym deals with technical details of the slope you’re about to ski, and is termed ALP TRUTh:

A: Avalanche. Has there been avalanche activity on you chosen slope or similar ones in the last 48-hours?
L: Loading. Has there been significant snow, rain, or wind that could have added extra weight to a weak layer recently?
P: Path. Is there a noticeable path that a potential avalanche could take?
T: Terrain Trap. Are there features on the terrain you’re skiing like cliffs, gullies, or trees that could make the consequences of getting caught more dangerous?
R: Rating. What was the danger rating of today’s avalanche forecast?
U: Unstable Snow. Have you seen or heard signs of instability? Cracks that propagate in the snow, collapsing snow, or a whoomphing sound (yes unstable makes a distinguishable Whoomph! when it shifts) can signal danger.
Th: Thaw. Have the temperatures recently let to a melting event?

The second acronym, F.A.C.E.T.S. (pronounced faa-sets), was coined by Ian McCammon to describe ways in which our judgement can be compromised:

F: Familiarity. Is this run or face something you’ve skied many times? Does that contribute to overconfidence?
A: Acceptance. How much danger is your group willing to risk in search of that perfect turn or a good day?
C: Consistency. Are you someone who always sticks to the plan? Faced with conditions that aren’t conducive to your summit plans, can you make changes to your route that are safer?
E: Expert Halo. Are you with a group that has a stand-out, more experienced member? Are you scared of speaking up if you don’t agree with their assessment?
T: Tracks/Scarcity. How long has it been since your last pow turn or deep backcountry mission. Is your “stoke” level affecting your judgment on what is safe?
S: Social Facillitation. Can you be egged on by your friends to hit the pow?  Peer pressure is a real danger in avalanche terrain when your group is excited.

While these two acronyms won’t in themselves keep you out of danger, knowing and applying them will help you make responsible decisions while you’re out backcountry skiing. Whether you’re just hitting the back side of the resort for a little side country lap, or heading out for an all day adventure, re-evaluating your objective frequently is paramount to staying safe.

Know Before You Go

Our friends at the Utah Avalanche Center put together this awesome video. If you take away nothing else from our guide, a little bit of awareness goes a long way.

Article originally published by Austin Parker on January 3, 0217. Last updated February 13, 2018 by Ross Collicutt. 

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