Helpful Hints

6 Key Ingredients to Staying Safe While Skiing in the Backcountry

6 Key Ingredients to Stay Safe While Skiing in the Backcountry // Helpful Hints

More and more skiers are spending time outside of ski resort boundaries. With advancements in equipment, the backcountry is more accessible than ever before. Of course, when you're skiing outside the ropes, your safety is in your own hands. If you are looking to head into the backcountry or want to start exploring the resort side-country, we made a list of 6 rules to help you stay safe. When there is no supervision, the stakes go up, which means it is even more important to be careful. These rules are intended to be an introduction to staying safe and staying smart when you're out there exploring. We encourage anyone interested in the backcountry to look for local backcountry or avalanche safety courses. Backcountry skiing is a lifelong learning experience; you can never know too much.

6 Key Ingredients to Stay Safe While Skiing in the Backcountry: Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance

Having a plan and venturing with friends, two key ingredients to any successful backcountry expedition.

1. Never Ski Alone:

It is important to always head into the backcountry with others. This is the first and most important rule of side/backcountry skiing. Having a partner in the backcountry helps create a check and balance system. Many areas off-piste can be hard to navigate and quite technical. Because of the human tendency to be irrational, it is best to be with someone else who might remind you of the possible dangers. Skiing with someone also gives you security surrounding getting out of the woods. Some injuries may allow you to get off the mountain with the assistance of a partner. However, more serious injuries, let's say an injury involving the head, may require your partner to contact professional rescue teams. Don't get stranded in the woods by yourself, especially in the freezing temperatures!

2. Make a Plan:

Before heading into the backcountry with your partner, plan. Once the plan is solidified let another party know what you are attempting to accomplish. Letting others know what your plan is will allow them to know where to look if you don't return at a reasonable time. If something happens while skiing that prevents both you and your partner from contacting help, you can at least be sure that others know where you are. It is important to remember many places in the mountains lack the same amount of service you have at home. Some suggest leaving a note on the dashboard of your car about your plans.

3. Be Prepared for The Worst (Conditions)

As much as you want to trust the weather channel, you shouldn't. Mother nature can quickly change her mind. When this happens, you don't want to be on top of a mountain ill-equipped. Bringing extra layers never hurts. In the backcountry, people tend to be working a bit harder than when skiing on-piste. Whether skinning uphill or trudging through deep snow, you are most likely going to be sweating. Wet clothes tend to make humans cold in pretty much all temperatures, but especially in colder conditions. Swapping a layer might be uncomfortable for a second but you will be warmer immediately. Always keep a hat in your bag for as much as 45% of body heat is lost from the head. For added warmth, hand warmers and toe warmers are small and don't weigh much, so you might as well always have a set in your bag.

Accessories like voile straps can save the day. It is a good idea to bring one or more voile straps. Put one in your bag and one wrapped around your pole. There are tons of ways to be creative with voile straps! Bringing a shovel is also a good idea. If the snow is deep sometimes it is necessary to remove snow when someone falls, either to get them up again or to find lost equipment. Shovel shafts can also be used as a splint, in conjunction with voile straps, in the case of an emergency.

4. Keep Your Extremities Warm:

Letting your toes and fingers get cold will result in the entire body becoming cold much faster. Your body can only use so many calories at a time to keep warm so it is important to keep the areas with less blood flow as warm as possible. It is always a good idea to bring an extra pair of gloves. Bringing extra socks does not always help for there is a good chance your boot liner is wet and cold which will immediately make your fresh socks the same. Heated socks are a great product if your feet get cold easily. When you becomes cold, parts of your body will start shutting down. This includes but is not limited to your brain. When your brain starts to shut down, more poor decisions are made which can be very unsafe.

In the backcountry, it's you vs. nature. Have extra layers, have extra food, have extra water, and be prepared.

5. Bring Food and Water:

Food and water are necessities on and off the mountain. Your body is burning tons of calories between keeping warm and constantly moving so it is vital you stay fueled. Not hydrating while exercising can greatly reduce your bodies performance. If you are experiencing muscle cramping, it is a sheer sign of dehydration and obviously reduces performance. Packing unprocessed sugary food is a good idea when heading into the backcountry for the day for the sugar will keep your glycogen levels high, the primary fuel source for muscles. Always keep an energy bar in your bag in addition to the food you bring for the day. This way if the unexpected happens or you forget food one day, you will have something.

6. Have Basic Avalanche Safety Knowledge:

We are not going to dive into the nitty-gritty details about skiing in avalanche prone areas but will point you in the right direction. If you find yourself skiing in dangerous snow areas or would like to in the future, please take a class an avalanche safety class. To find a class near you, check out AIARE. If you can't find a solution that will work for you there, you can also take the Utah Avalanche Center's new online course for free. Either way, these classes are super important as they will inform you about the specifics regarding topics on snowpack, beacons, etcetera. Avalanches can happen inbounds and out-of-bounds so it is important to be knowledgeable about different types of snow. While inbound avalanches tend to be more rare and small (in the relative magnitude of snow), they can still push you around and cause injury. Be sure to check the conditions the ski area's website to check for alerts. If you are unsure if a certain zone has a condition report, just try Googling it!

If you have considered purchasing avalanche gear before, you know it's quite expensive. But would you rather have cheap faulty equipment that would prevent you from saving someone's life, or from someone saving you? No way! Avalanche gear is tried and true to ensure as many people as possible survive avalanches.

There are three main tools that you need to buy in addition to taking an avalanche class: Beacon, Probe, and Shovel. Beacons are electronic devices that can connect to other beacons. When in 'search mode', the beacon will beep different tones as you approach the buried person's beacon. Everyone you are skiing with needs a beacon for a beacon only works if everyone has one on their person. Beacons only get you so close to the buried person which means you will also need a probe, which will help you determine exactly where the body is. A probe is a foldable aluminum shaft, similar in construction to a tarp pole, with a metal tip on the end. Using a probe, you can poke through the fallen snow until you feel the person. The final necessary tool is a shovel, which as you can probably guess, is used to dig the person out.

Avalanche air-bags are amazing tools that help mitigate being buried. They are either deployed by air canisters or fans. When an avalanche occurs, the user can deploy the bag at the right time (which will be taught at an avalanche class) which will help them float. If they become buried by the avalanche even with the bag deployed, the bag will create a large air pocket which will increase the amount of oxygen available for breathing, raising your chances of survival. Bags using fans are great for the bag can be deployed multiple times in a run. If a bag uses CO2, the cartridges must be replaced after the bag is deployed.

Feel free comment or message us about gear question you have. Ski safe and smart!

6 Key Ingredients to Stay Safe While Skiing in the Backcountry: Lead Image

Written by Jake Inger on 12/13/18

One thought on “6 Key Ingredients to Staying Safe While Skiing in the Backcountry

  1. Great article, consist and practical.
    Few parts that can stand to be corrected:
    Heat loss through your head, is NOT greater than through the rest of your body ( A dry hat isn't a bad idea, but for maximum warmth/weight, a ultralight down vest adds a lot more warmth than an similar weight wool hat.
    Reargding the hand warmers: again, they do not add much warmth for their relatively high weight, and it's limited to a few hours. They certainly are useful, but their purpose is to keep hands or feet warm, not to prevent hypothermia.
    All though you mention "preparing for the worst", you don't mention any kind of shelter. Anyone who has ever spent some time stationary outside in winter knows how cold you get once you stop moving. This could be due to an injury, mechanical or being lost. Having a bivy-sack, both-bag or tent, in addition to an ultra warm parka is essential.

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