It's not hard to understand the allure of the backcountry. Fresh tracks, pristine snow, the absence of long lift lines, and did we mention fresh tracks? While backcountry popularity has been growing, skiers and riders need to ensure that they are prepared when entering the back or even side country. Unlike in bounds areas, the backcountry is not typically patrolled. In fact, it may take hours before emergency crews get to you in the case of a mishap. Here are some ways to stay safe while still living on the edge:
It applied on field trips from grade school and it still applies now. The best way to be safe is to ski and ride with at least one other person so you can keep an eye on each other. When one descends, the other should be watching from above or below. Be sure to remain in visual contact of each other! A buddy will do you no good if he or she is waiting for you at the bottom while you are stuck somewhere.
Carry the proper gear
If you are skiing or riding in the backcountry, at a minimum, you should be carrying a beacon, probe, and a shovel, as should anyone you are with. A beacon will help you locate the vicinity of someone buried in snow, while a probe will help you pinpoint exactly where that person is, and a shovel, well, you know. Our affiliates, Backcountry.com and evo.com sell all three individually or as kits.
Understand the risks
It is highly recommended that you and your friend(s) complete, at least, an Avalanche-I course. These courses will help you understand the dangers of different types of snow and how to identify potential risky situations. Additionally, you will learn the proper technique for using your beacon, probe, and shovel. Additionally, consider reading Bruce Tremper's Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, it is considered the authoritative text on avalanche survival.
Check the weather
It is important to understand the conditions of where you will be. Snow that has accumulated, then melted from subsequent warm temps, and refrozen from freezing temps, is more likely to unexpectedly slide than a uniform layer of freshly fallen snow. For this reason, spring time can be especially risky because of the fluctuations in temperatures that the layers of snow have experienced throughout the season. Again, an Avalanche-I course will teach you this invaluable knowledge. You should also check Avalanche.org to see the risk of the area you are visiting.
While you would certainly hope to never have to use this gear, these items can help in the case you are caught in an avalanche or tree well (to be further explored in a separate article). An AvaLung, manufactured by Black Diamond, is a tube that you breathe through in the case of burial. The tube filters out the CO2 in your exhaled breath and routes it behind you, giving you more breathable, uncontaminated air around your face. This can increase your chance of being found before running out of air. However, it will only work if you are able to either put the tube in your mouth before the slide or (hopefully) have access to it once you have settled. There are numerous stories of avalanche and tree well survivals that are credited to the use of an AvaLung.
Furthermore, an ABS-equipped backpack, which as you might expect, is a backpack with an inflatable airbag that can be deployed with a ripcord when you are sliding and inflate to keep you on top of the snow. Read more about them on Backcountry Access' website.
Lastly, consider wearing a RECCO reflector, which is a radar device built into certain clothing, that sends out a signal that can be detected by an accompanying RECCO detector. These detectors are usually carried by mountain rescue teams.
While the above gear and methods may help you stay safe in the backcountry, there is absolutely no substitute for proper training and an understanding of the risks.
What are your methods for staying safe in the backcountry? Let us know in the comments!
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