Backcountry skiing is the winter sports industry’s fastest-growing segment. This growth in backcountry skiing has left many in the industry concerned. More people are leaving mountain boundaries in search of untracked turns. About 1 in every 5 skiers and snowboarders explored some sort of backcountry terrain last year (about 3.2 million people).
Unfortunately, not all skiers heading further off-piste are properly equipped or trained. And all the gear in the world can’t replace preparedness, knowledge and cautious decision-making. In 2013-2014 skiers spent $40 million on touring equipment – an 8% annual increase in units sold and dollars, and backcountry accessories sales – beacons, probes, shovels, etc. – are (thankfully) increasing at an even more rapid clip, up 12% in 2013-14
Before reading any further, this is re-education and re-reading for anyone that has already completed an avalanche snow safety course or is planning to in the new feature. We recommend starting with the book: Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper
What to Expect in Avalanche Class
The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) offers Avalanche Awareness and Avalanche Safety courses appropriate for riders “frequenting avalanche terrain via lift access or easily accessible backcountry” or heading to “near country.” If you’re doing anything beyond that, you need the AIARE 1 Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain.
An introduction to avalanche hazard management course will run you about $350-$400. You’re worth it. It’s 3-days with a combined total of 24 hours in the classroom and field. Get the friends you often tour with and make a weekend out of it. You’ll walk away knowing how to: Plan and prepare for travel in avalanche terrain; Recognize avalanche terrain; Describe a basic framework for making decisions in avalanche terrain; Learn and apply effective companion rescue. It’s hands on. You’ll learn in the classroom and implement in the field. You’ll work as a team to make the right decisions depending on the conditions. It includes access to an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe, although you really should have these items if you are serious about getting into the backcountry. And if you’ve got a thirst for knowledge, you can continue your avalanche education with levels 2 and 3 (professional).
To attend a Level 1 class, you will need basic gear, which you can rent most likely from the same organization offering your class. But if you want to be serious about venturing into the backcountry, you should be ready to buy at least the basics.
Now what is considered basic gear? It used to be at least three items: beacon, shovel, and probe. However, recent advancements in technology have some arguing that an avalanche airbag should be added to this list. It’s hard to argue against the effectiveness of airbags, and the bottom line is, if you can afford one there’s no reason not to have one. There are several offerings for avalanche gear, with more coming out each season, which means that gear is not only getting better but cheaper.
Beacons: They started as clunky devices, with limited frequency and were so hard to use only French guides knew the esoteric nuisances of handling them appropriately. Today on the other hand, digital beacons are as easy to use as your smart phone; all you need to do is practice using it very often.
Shovel and probes: The workhorse of avalanche gear, they’re offered by dozens of companies, most are solid offerings, but something to keep in mind is this: make sure your shovel has a metal scoop, its easy and fast to assemble, and lets you move a lot of snow in little time. For probes, experts prefer them at least 200cm tall, and with measuring marks alongside, that way they’ll also be useful to measure snow depth.
Avalanche Training is probably the most important for understanding snow conditions but regardless of an avalanche, you should also know CPR, how to stop wounds from bleeding, how to treat breaks, strains, and fractures, and how to prevent hypothermia. These skills can be learned in Wilderness First Aid.
“What If Gear”
What if an emergency does occur? You need to be prepared. If you know the feeling of “Holy Sh*#, we’re out here,” then you know that in an event of an emergency you would want to be prepared.
–Basic First Aid Kit– make sure it contains aspirin.
–SAM Splint– for treating sprains, breaks, and fractures.
–Food –Clif bars, or anything that is light and high in calories
–Water– a good thermos will stop your water from freezing
–Space blanket– light and incredibly ward
–Layers– fleece, wool, synthetic blends, but NO COTTON
–Tarp– If you need to carry out an injured person, tarps make dragging and carrying much easier than trying to grip a victim’s jacket and pants. A 6×8 should be more than enough.
–Rope or Parachute cord– for building shelters, securing broken limbs, and being MacGyver.
-Pocket Knife, whistle, reflective mirror, matches
Know who you’re going with and what their experience levels are. Trust them with your life.
In conclusion, remember that you are the judge of every situation in the backcountry. Be confident in your training and never fail to speak your opinion and understanding of the situation. If you ever need to call for help, the number is 911! If you can’t call, try texting; seriously it is sometimes better if you’re in a choppy service zone.
Talk over your rescue plan in the event of an emergency, stay calm, and call for help immediately! Have an amazing season, and stay safe!