Leo's top 5 backcountry beginner must reads
So you’ve bought a splitboard, AT, or teleskis. Now what?
Equipment is just the ticket to entry and perhaps the easiest to acquire. Now there are a wide range of skills to learn to have a lifetime of enjoyment. With knowledge, we can learn to mitigate risks and respond to emergencies.
First off, none of what we are proposing can replace a formal course, mentorship, and simply practical experience. The most important thing about getting into the backcountry is to take your time and invest in education as it will pay dividends with a lifetime of powder, adventure, friends, and high fives.
We are a little cautious to call anything backcountry related “entry level” or even “beginner” because backcountry riding requires that you have not only intermediate riding skills and can take on any terrain that is being thrown at you, but you also take the steps to acquire skills in avalanche awareness, avalanche rescue skills, first aid, emergency preparedness, and route finding. It is recommended that you are at least aware of this path as these are all risks that you need to mitigate on your own, as there is no ski patrol in the backcountry. You are your own ski patrol.
The following readings will hopefully give a quick primer on what you will expect to need to learn and start you off on your backcountry journey. I tried to focus on skills but there is a whole other aspect of the backcountry that is being a good steward and being welcoming to beginners. But this is whole other topic so while we’ll keep this to skills, be good to nature, help keep public lands public, and just be welcoming, inclusive, and just nice as nature is for all.
#5 How to read a forecast
The forecast and weather are probably the most important things to follow throughout the season. Nearly all avalanche terrain that is connected to roads and recreated on will have a government funded forecast center. Make sure you know what that center is and check the avalanche forecast frequently. This article from Backcountry Magazine gives a great outline of how to get the most out of the avalanche forecast.
read the article
extra credit: how to read the weather
While slightly more advanced, if you can predict the forecast by simply reading the weather, then you are on track to being a true backcountry rider. The forecast is regional and weather is always more local. Also, it is typically the first thing you pay attention to as you start your drive. You will oftentimes notice what's going on with the weather before you even touch the snow, so it's important to understand the relationship. While this reading, written by our very own Weston athlete and badass mountain guide, Izzy Lazarus, is admittedly is a bit more advanced and requires some terminology, it should provide a good overview of how the weather is evaluated.
#4 How to Pick out avalanche safety gear
Picking the right avalanche gear is taught in most free 101’s and avalanche awareness courses that are readily available online. This is often most overlooked and people should spend just as much time, if not more time, on their avalanche safety gear vs. their riding equipment. As a rule of thumb BSP (beacon, shovel, probe) are the bare minimum.
- Beacon: 3 antennae beacon that you know how to use.
- Probe: just go long and know how to use it.
- Shovel: shovel that has a metal blade and you know how to use.
Did I mention that you should know how to use em? Kind of useless if you aren't aware of how it all works so practice, practice, practice!
(Featured Photo:) Carly Finke and Corey Van Aken practicing avalanche rescue skills with the shovel and probe.
Photo: Jacob J McEachern.
As this article from Cripple Creek Backcountry points out, it is not just all about the rescue equipment. Communications within your group and with the outside world could mean the difference between life and death, so it's definitely worth some effort to understand the tools beyond your standard BSP.
read the article
#3 picking an avalanche course
The world of avalanche education can be a bit daunting as well. There are a whole range of courses available from free avalanche awareness classes at your local bar or ski shop, all the way to professional track, motorized travel courses. How do you know what to take? What is the track? There are a lot of options out there and hopefully this article from San Juan Expeditions will help you to understand the right options and tracks for you.
#2 first aid basics
This is one of the skills that seems to be lower on the totem pole but I personally have used my first aid skills more than my avalanche rescue skills (I emphasize rescue here because I use my avalanche awareness skills almost all winter, 24/7). An added bonus of knowing these basic first aid skills is the reduce of panic as at least you know a baseline of what to do if an accident or injury situation plays out. Not knowing what to do can definitely induce panic.
read the article
#1 staying alive in avalanche terrain
And lastly, this is what I would say is THE BIBLE and a must read to anyone who enters backcountry terrain. No, it is not a short read like everything else I’ve shared because this is not something you want to trust a youtube video or a blog to. It is very likely that navigating avalanche terrain is where you will have the least amount of pre-existing knowledge and this book will give you a great foundation to start learning from.
Unlike an avalanche course which you would have to sign up for, align schedules, and potentially travel a ways away to attend, this can be read at your own pace and as frequently as you desire. For me personally, I’ve taken my AIARE Level 1 and Level 2 (before they split off into Pro and Rec tracks) almost 15 years ago now, and starting in the fall, I read one to two chapters a week to reabsorb this info and I always learn something new.
read the book
Which leads me to a great final thought, education and learning is a constant journey. The backcountry is fraught with lurking dangers that present risk at every turn which can be exciting to some and daunting to others. I hope that you find solace and enjoyment in learning about and mitigating these risks.
There will be no such thing as a “safe” anything unless you stay in bed all day (which is a risk in itself) and the backcountry is not different. In many ways, we mitigate risk every day, when you turn on the stove to cook breakfast, when you get in your car, etc. We mitigate these risks methodically and we learn to handle emergencies (in most cases call 911). The backcountry presents a new set of risks and skills to practice so enjoy the journey and never stop learning!
Bonus Extra credit points: route finding!
I did not address this in depth because route finding is incredibly localized but try researching different reading materials on route finding! Be sure to look up guide books from your region or just look at a peak and climb it. This is by far the most fun aspect of backcountry travel as all public lands are your oyster and powder is your pearl. Just know how to read avalanche terrain and mitigate the risks!