Safety is a big concern in the backcountry, as it should be, but there are plenty of ways to minimize risks, stay safe, and still have fun.
This post will go over what the risks are in the backcountry, how to mitigate them, and the classes to take to further your backcountry education (because, while I have a lot of experience, I’m not a professional and there’s a whole lot you can get from a being taught by an expert). Let’s get into it!
The four big risk factors are:
- Avalanche: Can be triggered by humans or naturally. 30 degrees is the magic number, if a slope is 30 degrees or more avalanches are possible.
- Weather: The weather the day of is important, but also pay attention to what the weather has been like in the days leading up.
- Difficult Terrain: Trees, rocks, cliffs, steep slopes, valleys, and gullies can all pose problems.
- Injury: Sprains, breaks, and pulled muscles, all have to be dealt with and it’s up to you and your group to get the injured person out.
I know this sounds like plot points to The Vertical Limit, but these are very real and serious risks that need to be taken into account when you are planning your backcountry adventure. That being said, there are ways to minimize these risks and make smart decisions for yourself and your group.
Process for Mitigating Risks
Check the Avy Report: Depending on where you are there should be an avalanche center website for your region. Here in Tahoe, we have the Sierra Avalanche Center. These sites will give you the avalanche danger on a scale of one to five with five being an extreme danger. They also report on the types of avalanche dangers, at what elevations these dangers could occur, and on which aspects the dangers exist.
Check the Weather: Knowing the weather forecast is important but also knowing what the weather has been doing in the days before your planned tour is also important. Has it snowed a bunch? Has it been really warm and melting the snow? All these factors are important.
Choosing Your Route: Now that you’ve got some knowledge of conditions you can select and plan a route. This also means you’ll need to do some research about routes in your area and look at topo maps. A great place to start are hiking trails – lots of hikes go up mountains. If you can hike it in the summer there’s a good chance you can ride it in the winter. Once you have some route options check them against the avy danger and weather conditions
When you are out in the backcountry you always want to be looking around, a) because it’s probably beautiful out, and b) because you want to be on the lookout for any potential issues or risk factors. Pay attention to the steepness of the mountain you are going up, to how the snow feels under your skis and poles, are there cracks in the snow, or rollerballs.
A great example of using observations to stay safe – I was on a tour with some friends and as we were heading up our route I noticed a huge cornice had formed on the ridge above where we planned to go. This meant that we stopped for a moment, decided on a slightly different route, and then kept on trucking. By observing what’s around you, you can make small adjustments to stay on the safe side of things.
You always want to have a buddy in the backcountry, it’s more fun to have someone or a group to hang out with and should something bad happen then you have a partner to help out, i.e. dig you out.
Size and skill level: How many people are in your group? There is no one perfect number but you should always go with at least one other person. On the other side, having a huge group can also be detrimental. The more people in the group the more opinions there are, more expectations to consider, and just more to keep track of. Personally, my sweet spot is 3-4 people.
You also want to consider the skill level of everyone in your group. If someone is a beginner they might be moving a little slower and need to be accommodated. Making sure everyone in your group is at a similar skill level is great, that way you’re all going about the same pace. If you do have wide gaps in your groups abilities make sure you are prepared to accommodate for those gaps so that no one gets left behind or left out.
Decision making: Group decision-making is really important because everyone needs to be on the same page and you want everyone to be comfortable with the situation. That being said it can be easy to fall into the group mentality where one person makes a decision and everyone goes along with it. Everyone needs to feel good speaking up if something doesn’t feel right and those concerns need to be taken seriously. Remember it’s a group project, everyone should be involved.
You can do a lot of research but nothing is better than getting some hands-on training with an AIARE class. AIARE stands for American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, they have been teaching people about avalanche and backcountry safety since 1998.
The AIARE 1 class is great for anyone getting into backcountry. You’ll get a base of knowledge in risk management, trip planning, avalanche terrain, and snow science. From there you can go on to AIARE 2 and Rescue courses. Wilderness First Aid classes are also a good idea if you are getting after it a lot.
Practice makes perfect, so practice with your avy gear. A fun thing to do is have a “Beers and Beacons” get together with the friends you go into the backcountry with. Basically, you attach a beacon to a beer, bury it in the snow, and then the rest of the group has to use their beacon and rescue skills to “rescue” the beer. You’ll get practice using your equipment and have some fun too!
If nothing else, I hope you take away that yes, the backcountry can be dangerous, but there are ways to be smart about it and minimize your risks. Also take an AIARE class!
Backcountry 101: Intro to Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding
Backcountry 101: Gear
Backcountry 101: Training
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