(Rider Chloe Lewis all smiles in that low angle pow. Photo: Jeff Kepler).
backcountry Basics: how do I get started?
- Wellsville, Pensylvannia
- Experienced Splitboard Mountaineer
- 3 years Guiding with Colorado Adventure Guides
Q: what is backcountry?
(Beauty out of bounds. Photo: Nico Moric).
Backcountry can be defined as an area that is remote, undeveloped, isolated, or difficult to access. Backcountry skiing or snowboarding would be utilizing this sort of area, whereas the ski resort is a developed area that is regularly patrolled with avalanche control, medical personnel, lift access, etc.
Sidecountry is still considered backcountry as they are undeveloped areas that do not see patrolling or avalanche mitigation from the ski resort. Once you leave the boundaries of the ski resort you are in the backcountry.
why do we go? This.
(Rider: Justin Ibarra. Photo: 1. Greg Hansen 2. Brennan Metzler)
Q: what skiing/riding ability should i have for the backcountry?
pro tip: get your skill up on the resort before entering the backcountry
*Splitboarder pro tip: Practice split skiing in resort.
Q: what fitness ability should i have for the backcountry?
It is important for you and your partners to have the widest bandwidth possible out there so your mind is free to make snowpack observations and pay attention to potential risks in your environment and group. Part of maximizing your bandwidth is making sure it is not occupied by the strenuity of walking uphill. Feeling comfortable using your equipment is another important piece of keeping your bandwidth clear.
pro tip: basic backcountry fitness recommendations
Q: what kind of ski or snowboard do i need for the backcountry?
While there are many different sports to get you into the winter backcountry scene, for skiing or snowboarding you will need specific equipment. For skiing you will need an AT (Alpine Touring) Setup which incorporates bindings that allow your heel to lift up for the ascent and then lock down for the descent), AT boots (boots that have a walk-mode), climbing skins, and poles. For snowboarding you can always snowshoe but your best bet is to get a splitboard, splitboard bindings, climbing skins, and breakdown poles. Your splitboard will break into a set of skis for the uphill and then locks back together as a snowboard for the descent.
SNOWBOARD VS. SPLITBOARD
APLINE VS. AT SKIS
pro tip: gear wisdom.
- Take advantage of demos to try new gear before you buy.
- Buy a factory made splitboard and don’t cut your own.
- Make sure to get 3 piece breakdown poles as a splitboarder.
- Take care of your skins!
Q: what safety equipment do i need in the backcountry?
There are many manufacturers and models of transceivers on the market. Make sure to get a digital 3 antenna transceiver that was made in the last 5 years. Whichever one you get, be sure to read the manual for details regarding your specific model. Purchasing a used transceiver is not recommended, as they are electronic devices that require care and maintenance. Know the history of your own device including how old it is, if anyone has borrowed it, and when the firmware was last updated.
pro tip: best to wear the beacon with the harness it came with.
An avalanche probe is a critical piece of rescue equipment and should be easy to deploy, have a reliable locking mechanism, and have highly visible depth markers. Similarly there are a variety of probe manufacturers and models on the market. You will find different materials (aluminum, carbon, steel), lengths (240cm to 320cm+), thicknesses, etc. I would personally recommend carbon or steel with good visual markings and longer length (260cm+).
pro tip: get a snowsport specific pack and ditch the probe bag.
The shovel may be what you spend most of your time with during an avalanche rescue. Three things to consider when looking for an avalanche shovel are material, blade size/shape, and handle configuration. Make sure your shovel is metal and not plastic. The longer the shaft and bigger the blade the better (as long as it can fit in your pack). The D shaped handle is the best in my experience.
pro tip: Some shovels have a special "hoe mode" which is very efficient at moving snow.
Get a snowsport specific pack that has a pocket dedicated for your probe and shovel. Ideally your daily touring pack size will need to be 30L or more. Airbags are a great idea as well just as long as you understand how they work and when they won’t.
pro tip: organization is crucial.
Q: where do i learn about avalanche safety and equipment?
pro tip: This is an evergoing process.
Q: what should i expect from my first backcountry tour?
typical touring timeline?
average number of runs/day?
what can i expect on tour #1
what does the backcountry season look like?
(The art of the tour brought to you by Jon Adgate. Photo: Jeff Kepler).
demos + Guided day
Intro to backcountry on-snow clinic
get out with likeminded partners or a backcountry mentor
reading materials: staying alive in avalanche terrain
Most would say this is THE BIBLE and a must read to anyone who enters backcountry terrain. Written by Bruce Tremper.
Other recommended reads: