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Tips Every Backcountry User Should Know

What to do Before, During and After a Day in the Backcountry

Whether you are a seasoned vet or new to the sport, the backcountry is going to look a little different this year. Since March, the sales of backcountry gear have skyrocketed. This summer there were more people enjoying our public lands than ever before and this trend is expected to continue into the winter. Avalanche educators are seeing the highest demand they have ever had for classes and classes are selling out as fast as providers can list them. Backcountry has partnered with the Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) to provide you with a few tips to help keep you safe this winter and happy this winter in the backcountry.

It’s About More Than Rescue Gear

Hopefully, we all have our essential rescue gear (transceiver, probe, and shovel), but what else should you be carrying in your pack? Here is a list of recommended gear from the UAC.

  • Airbag Pack: Larger objects tend to rise to the surface of avalanche debris. By pulling a ripcord, the avalanche airbag in your pack adds 150 liters or more to your volume. Used for over ten years in Europe, the statistics are impressive, roughly doubling your chances of surviving an avalanche.
  • Helmet: A good helmet should be warm, comfortable, and will give your brain some protection from trauma. For best protection, look for EN 1077 Class B (Alpine Ski) certification. The ideal solution is a helmet meeting both EN 1077 Class B and UIAA 106 or EN 12492 (Mountaineering) certification to provide lightweight protection and comfort
  • Warm Clothes: Staying warm while you wait for help, care for an injured partner, or make your way back to the trailhead after losing key gear can be hard. If help is more than a few minutes away, a spare puffy jacket, beanie, and mittens belong in your pack.
  • First Aid: It’s common to get injured, sometimes seriously, or killed by the violence of the avalanche even if you don’t get buried. A first aid kit and knowing how to use it can save a life. The first aid kit you carry will depend on your level of training, how far you are from help, and your group. At a minimum, you should be able to perform CPR and control simple trauma like bleeding and broken bones.
  • Communication: Having this communication gear in the backcountry can rapidly make a bad situation better. If you are not in an area with cell coverage, consider a satellite communication device such as a satellite phone, Spot, or InReach.
  • Shelter: If your partner is injured and can’t move, you’ll need to get them warm and keep them that way. And you need to keep yourself warm. Consider a small, lightweight Emergency Bivy such as the Sol Emergency Bivy. These weigh almost nothing, take up very little space in your pack, and could be a lifesaver.
  • Fire Starter: If you have an injury, break a piece of gear, or get lost, do you have the ability to spend the night out? If you need to spend the night out, being able to start a fire can be crucial to staying warm.
  • Repair Kit: An often overlooked, but critical piece of backcountry safety equipment is your repair kit. Whether skiing, split boarding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, or fat biking, try post-holing chest-deep several miles back to your car in the dark if you break a piece of gear and can’t fix it.
  • Food and Water: Your day will be much more fun if you are properly hydrated and fed. No need to get a case of the “hangry’s” on the skin track.

If you have all your gear, make sure you know how to use it. Practice deploying your probe and shovel. Confirm your transceiver batteries are greater than 50%. Don’t forget when you get home from your tour to take your gear out of your pack and dry it out. Your gear is your lifeline, treat it like your life depends on it.

Know Before You Go

 

Before you even step onto the skin track, take a few simple steps to help keep you safe.

  • Get educated. Take a class. Start with the free Know Before You Go Program which includes 6 hours of free avalanche awareness training. If you have completed this program, continue your education with one of these great books. Once you have done this, it is time for an on-snow class. Start with a 12-hour Introduction to Avalanches (Backcountry 101) and then continue your life-long path of avalanche education.
  • Read the Forecast. Read your local avalanche forecast EVERY SINGLE DAY, not just the days you intend to ride. By reading the forecast every day, you are building a mental map of what is happening in the mountains even when you are not out there. Having this historical snowpack map in your head allows you to make better decisions and better understand the nature of the avalanche problems you are dealing with. A bonus to this is that by reading the forecast every day, you are continuing your life-long education. To find your local forecast, visit avalanche.org.
  • Make a Travel Plan. Have a plan as well as a backup plan for your day. Your plan should include your intended route, decision points along the way, backout plans if your intended route turns out to be unsafe. Your backup plan should include all of this same information and be used if your primary plan doesn’t work. What happens if the road to your primary destination is closed or the trailhead parking lot is full? This is where your backup plan comes into play.

 

On the Drive Up

Hopefully, we will be able to carpool this winter. Once you meet up with your ski partners and head to the trailhead, don’t just crank up the tunes and talk about last night’s escapades. Take the time in the car to consider the following aspects of the day.

  • Review the avalanche forecast with your group. What are each person’s concerns? 
  • Discuss how people are feeling. Do you have a big day planned and one of your partners isn’t feeling 100%? If so, you need to adjust your plan.
  • Discuss your travel plan, your decision points, and what factors you will use to make go/no-go decisions along the way. 
  • What are you seeing with the weather? Are there snow plumes coming off the peaks or ridges? Does there appear to be more or less snow than what you expected from the avalanche forecast?

At The Trailhead

Be respectful of trail/area closures. Trails and areas are closed for a reason, avalanche mitigation work is being performed and is hazardous to recreationists. 

 

Trailheads may be crowded this year. Be patient. Be kind. Greet fellow backcountry travelers. Ask others about their travel plans to see if your intended destination may be crowded. If people are coming down from their tours, speak with them about what they saw. Do the real snow and avalanche conditions match what you are expecting from the forecast?

  • Do a gear check. Make sure everyone has their essential and recommended gear. Do a physical check for each person’s shovel and probe, don’t rely on memory or habit that you probably packed something–make certain. 
  • Do a transceiver check. Ensure each person’s transceiver is transmitting and receiving. Do a range check to ensure you can pick up your partner at a distance. 

 

  • Any easy acronym for each trailhead check is DBEAST:
    • Display: Your transceiver is on and the display is working
    • Batteries: Are your batteries 50% or greater
    • Electrical interference: Ensure all electrical devices are at least 18” from your transceiver. This includes phones, action cameras, heated gloves, etc.
    • Airbag: If you have an airbag, confirm it is armed
    • Search Mode: Confirm and test the search mode of each person’s transceiver
    • Transmit: Confirm all transceivers are transmitting

On The Skintrack

Don’t just use the skin track for chit chat. What are you seeing on the snow, on the ridges, on other slopes? What are you hearing? Get off the skin track and break trail. Do you feel the snow collapsing? If so, this is a red flag as you just created an avalanche, but there wasn’t a slope for it to slide on. Do you observe any other red flags? Do you know the 5 red flags you should be watching out for?

 

Setting the skin track is important for you as well as parties that follow, skin-tracks can remain for weeks and sometimes months. Ensure your skin track is in a safe location. Think of a skin track as a hiking trail, a moderate angle track is easier to follow and takes less energy than a track that goes straight up.

 

  • When boot packing or snowshoeing, put your up route next to the skin-track, or in a different location. Post-holes in the skin track means less surface area for your skins to grab on too, which means lots of slipping around.
  • Let people know if you are going to pass them on the skin track. If a group wants to pass you, step off to the side.
  • When nature calls, urinate off the skin track, the bathroom is behind the tree, not on the trail. Consider using a WAG bag for solid waste. More users lead to more waste and when the snow melts, the waste will be sitting there. If you don’t use a WAG bag, dig down and bury your waste in a cathole.

On the Descent

  • Kindergarten rules apply: wait your turn. If someone reaches the top there before you, let them go first. First tracks, second tracks, or 52nd tracks are still the best tracks. 
  • Ski one at a time. This not only applies to your party, but also to the other parties around you. Make sure all other parties are down and in a safe zone before your party descends.
  • Within your party and with parties around you, it’s important to communicate when riders are dropping into zones and where you are planning to stop to regroup. Discuss your “islands of safety” and ensure that all people in your party agree to your descent plan.
  • Avoid dropping cornices or intentionally triggering an avalanche, even if you can see the runout.  This is dangerous for you and for others around you. You don’t know if someone is just out of sight or how far that slide could run.

At the End of the Day

An end of day debrief is your chance to look back at your day and learn from what you did well or poorly. On your drive home or during your apres, as a group, discuss these 4 questions.

  • Did your group make any bad decisions? 
    • Did you make good decisions or did you “get away with it?”
    • One of the best ways to improve your decision making is to look back at the decision you made that day and evaluate if they were good or bad. Discuss what made a decision good or bad and learn from that.
  • Did you manage the terrain well? 
    • Did you avoid dangerous terrain? Did you only expose 1 person at a time?
  • Did your terrain choices match the forecast for the day? 
    • Did you choose terrain to travel in that avoided the avalanche dangers for the day? If not, discuss why. Was this on purpose or accidentally?
  • Based on your day, do you have any concerns for the next day?
    • What did you see during your travels that would be a concern the following day? Was the wind blowing and certain slopes wind loading? Were there avalanches observed on some slopes?

By incorporating these few tips into your backcountry routine, you will improve your backcountry skills, increase your group’s level of safety, help ensure the safety of those around you, and overall, allow you and your partners to have fun in the mountains.

Chad Bracklesberg is the Executive Director of the Utah Avalanche Center. He is also a founding member of Utah Ski Mountaineering, a local nonprofit geared at growing the sport of ski mountaineering and organizing races. Chad has been on the board of the US Ski Mountaineering Association for the past 6 years and has acted as coach of the US National Ski Mountaineering Team at the Ski Mountaineering World Championships since 2013.