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.
By Leo Tsuo - Weston Owner, Chief Executive Pow Slayer
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 also you 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 whole other aspect of the backcountry that to be a good steward and to be 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 check the avalanche forecast frequently.
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 the first thing you pay attention to as you start your drive as you will notice whats going on with the weather before you even touch the snow so its important to understand the relationship. While this reading 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 the often most overlooked and people should spend just as much time, if not more time on the avalanche safety gear than on 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? Kinda of useless if you’re not aware of how it all works so practice, practice, practice.
As this article from Cripple Creek Backcountry points out, it is not just rescue equipment. Communications within your group and with the outside world could mean the difference between life and death as well so its definitely worth some effort to understand the tools beyond your standard BSP.
3. Picking An Avalanche Course
The world of avalanche education can be a bit daunting as well and there are a whole range of courses from a free avalanche awareness class at your local bar / shop all the way to professional track, motorized travel course. 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 to understand the options and tracks.
2. First Aid Basics
This is one of the skills that seem 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, 247). An added bonus of knowing these skills is it reduces panic as at least you know a baseline of what to do. Not knowing what to do can definitely induce panic.
As the following article from REI points out and worth highlighting is that there is a stark difference between “Wilderness” first aid and “City" first aid. While this particular article is a bit dense, hopefully you’ll realize that there are a lot of scenarios that you want to be prepared to handle.
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 it is in navigating avalanche terrain where you will likely have the least amount of pre-existing knowledge and this book will give you a great knowledge base to start to learn from.
Unlike an avalanche course which you have to sign up for, align schedules, and potentially travel a ways away. This can be read at your own pace and as frequently as you desire. For me personally, I’ve took my AIARE Level 1 and Level 2 (before they split off into Pro and Rec tracks) almost 15 years ago now. An starting in the fall, I read one to two chapters a week to reabsorb this info and I always learn something new.
READ: Bruce Tremper : Staying Alive In Avalanche Terrain
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!
I did not address this but route finding because route finding is incredibly localized. 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 now all public lands are your oyster and powder is your pearl. Just know how to read avalanche terrain and mitigate the risks!