The term “Know Before You Go” applies to a lot of things: Your first backpacking trip. The first time you travel with your significant other. But it might not ever be more appropriate than when applied to backcountry skiing / riding. Not knowing could be the difference between the best day of your life and your worst.
Touring the backcountry is nothing short of nirvana. It’s an awesome workout. You’re completely unplugged from the world of work, stress and social media, and surrounded by epic landscape. It’s a completely different way to approach skiing / riding, and some would even say it’s addicting. But it’s a lot of work, and the sobering reality can’t be overstated: Between 20-40 people die in avalanches every year in North America, 90% of avalanches are triggered by skiers and riders, and there is only a 30% chance of survival when buried by an avalanche.
But don’t get scared away. Knowing what to look for will drastically decrease your chances of encountering an avalanche. And regardless of why you’re interested in touring, we’re stoked that you’re starting your research. There are a lot of factors that contribute to a blissfully relaxing day in the backcountry, and here are some tips and tricks to get you trained up and ready to go:
The most important thing that you absolutely have to do is get some comprehensive avalanche safety classes under your belt. Most snowsport regions have local nonprofits that host certified training courses. These courses teach you all about the red flags to watch for, and how to suss out high-prone terrain and conditions like warming, wind loading and instability. Click here for the national list of AIARE Avalanche Course Providers. Most beginner-level hut trips and weekend excursions will only require a Level One class, but location, type of snow and time of year will all contribute to the level of training you need. Check with a local AIARE provider to make sure you’re all trained up, and obviously don’t sign up for a trip you’re not trained for.
If you’re able to, it’s a great idea to go ahead and get your own gear prior to your Level One AIARE course. People definitely make it work by renting and borrowing backcountry gear. We get it! It’s an expensive hobby. That said, knowing exactly how to react with your own gear if you are ever in an avalanche will make all the difference. It also provides some peace of mind when you do start getting after those perfect, powdery backcountry lines. Here’s a list of what you’ll need specific to avalanche safety:
You’ll also want to invest in a solid touring setup. Christy Sports carries some great touring bindings, and you’ll also want to check out some touring boots. Skis for mounting AT bindings vary by taste– but trust us when we say you won’t regret leaning towards the lighter-weight skis. The Salomon QST line, DPS’ Alchemist 106, Volkl 100Eight, and the Dynastar Legend skis are some of the Christy Sports’ staff favorites. Here’s a link to some of our favorite backcountry gear— from skis and splitboards to skins and RECCO tech gear. The gear keeps getting better, so have fun shopping!
A great way to get more and more comfortable with your gear and avalanche safety is to practice them as much as you can in a safe environment. A lot of resorts– and even some state parks– have Beacon Training Parks (BTPs), making it even easier to practice with transceivers while you’re in the resort. Click here to check out BTPs near you.
Aside from avalanche safety, the next big learning curve to overcome is the actual grunt work of uphilling. Regardless of how athletic you are, you’ll work muscles you didn’t know you had! And you’ll work them for hours at a time. Go ahead and practice on some good off-piste hikes. Some resorts have “off-piste” areas that are bombed, but require some hiking. You can even do this before you have skins and AT gear, though some will recommend or require a beacon, shovel and probe. You’ll still get a great workout booting to the run with your skis on your back, and you’ll start to get more and more comfortable skiing natural terrain.
Alpine touring opens up a world of awesome skiing and riding opportunities. From untouched powder to the thrill of finding the perfect line, it’s an unparalleled experience. Being prepared is a critical necessity, and we hope this blog has helped you navigate your first steps towards backcountry bliss!