Staying Safe in the Backcountry this Winter

Updated: Nov 19, 2020

The boys at outdoorpals spent the weekend getting their first backcountry tours. It was great to get out and enjoy the feet of new snow in the mountains, but it was also a good time to be reminded of how to do so safely in the backcountry. Today's blog will touch on some basics for backcountry safety. This is in no way an exhaustive list and should be a springboard for your safety preparation, not the endpoint.

Don't go alone!

Backcountry travel in the winter is inherently dangerous and the consequences of mistakes are often more severe than other times of the years. One of the best ways to mitigate danger is to go with other people. Not only can they dig you out of an avalanche, they can assist with route finding and decision making as well. Having some experienced friends to go out with will help your adventures be safer and more enjoyable. Make sure everyone going knows and is comfortable with the plan, knows each other's risk levels, and is prepared for the activity. Talk through your decision making while you're in the backcountry. This is not only good to make sure everyone is on the same page, but its also a great way for more experienced people to teach others. There isn't a substitute for experience in the backcountry. One of our goals here at outdoorpals is to help connect experienced and newer folks so that more people can learn how to be safe.

Understand and Respect the Risks

All winter activities carry elevated risk and should be approached thoughtfully. There is risk whether you are snowmobiling, backcountry skiing, mountaineering, or even snowshoeing. I've done all of the above activities and the only one where I triggered a small wind slab avalanche was snowshoeing in what I thought was a low risk activity. I did not check the avalanche report and wasn't as observant as I should have been because I didn't see snowshoeing as risky. It was a good wakeup call for me and was a valuable learning experience in the years since. Know the weather forecast, know your route, have backup navigation options, bring food and water, and know the avalanche report. Things can change quickly and one mistake can easily compound into bigger mistakes if you aren't prepared. Getting lost during the summertime on a hike carries plenty of risk, but that risk is elevated in the winter when daylight is shorter, temperatures are dropping, and travel is more exhausting. Always let someone know where you are going and when you will be back and remember to check in with them. Remember, a little bit of planning and preparation can go a long way in keeping you safe.

Take an Avalanche Rescue Course or AIARE 1 Course

Experience is great, but knowledge is just as important. The best way you can improve your knowledge of how to stay safe is to learn about the snow you are travelling on. Avalanches are one of the most obvious dangers for travelling in the backcountry. Luckily there are plenty of options to get into an avy course. Avy level 1 is recommended for every backcountry traveller. The courses aren't just time spent in a classroom, but time actually experiencing the backcountry and learning the skills that will keep you safe. Everything from snow pits to snow types to route finding are covered. These courses are well worth the cost. If you're planning to do one this winter, sign up early because with the expanding popularity of backcountry recreation the spots fill up quickly in many of these courses. There are also many great online resources that you can use to learn or refresh your knowledge, but don't view these as a substitute for the actual class. Check out this link for more information:

Stay within Your Limits

We all want to live out the dreams we see in our favorite ski movie or sledding film, but lets remember that those are professionals with professional support. Start small, stay in your safety comfort zone, and slowly develop your skills and experience. Understand that you may be comfortable skiing 40-50 degree slopes in the resort but that those skills don't directly correlate to the backcountry. Everyone who goes in the backcountry has a tolerance for risk though we all also want to make it home at the end of the day. Build your foundational skills, knowledge, and experience before jumping in the deep end.

If you're looking for friends to get into the backcountry, check out to stay updated with the progress of the outdoorpals app. Stay safe this season and have some well deserved fun!