The Importance of Backcountry Safety and Avalanche Education
Updated: Feb 9
With massive increases in backcountry usage expected this winter, evidenced by record sales of backcountry gear and equipment, the stakes for safe decision making have never been higher. Here, we discuss the importance of safety and education when backcountry skiing and riding, along with some of the common misconceptions new participants face. Our goal is to provide a deep appreciation for the risks inherent in this sport and to encourage you to be an advocate for responsible backcountry usage at a time when it is needed most.
Backcountry Skiing and Riding is Inherently Dangerous
All backcountry participants, regardless of experience level, must approach the winter with the appropriate mindset. Sierra Nevada University Professor of Outdoor Adventure Leadership, Daryl Teittinen, outlines this mindset to new backcountry users—“backcountry skiing is different from resort skiing. It is slower. It takes a higher level of fitness. You may ski the best line of your life, or you may slog for hours to the top of some of the worst snow out there. Having a mindset with the right objective for the day is important. Some days we are just stoked to go for a hike with skis on our feet. The down is an afterthought. Being patient about snowpack and terrain choices will help keep the activity fun, and avoid a ‘rip it or die’ mindset.”
Our goal is not to take an elitist approach to this sport, but rather to reinforce some of the most important elements to consider when deciding to recreate in the backcountry. Backcountry skiing and snowboarding is inherently dangerous and unfortunately is not appropriate for everyone. It is riddled with hazards and the effects of poor decision making can lead to severe consequences for you, those around you, and perhaps even total strangers. Recreating in the backcountry is NOT a casual substitute for resort skiing and must be approached with the utmost respect.
Avalanches are arguably the most dangerous hazard we face in the backcountry. The cascading rush of snow has cost hundreds of recreationists their lives and gravely injured many others. Avalanches are a sleeping dragon; although they are capable of striking on their own, most avalanche accidents are triggered by humans.
Fortunately, Avalanche Centers across the country have started publishing daily avalanche forecasts for many popular regional skiing destinations. View the directory of Avalanche Centers here. While experts do their best to alert skiers and riders to local avalanche problems, they cannot possibly determine where every avalanche in the region might occur on any given day. It is therefore the responsibility of every skier and rider entering the backcountry to know the daily avalanche hazard, and to make their most informed decision on what to ski.
Many of the dangers skiers face within the resort have heightened consequences in the backcountry. Why? The backcountry is not patrolled and help is often a long way away. Think about how much worse a broken ankle becomes when you are 5 miles into the backcountry with waist deep snow and dusk approaching! Rescue services can take hours in the backcountry, and typically require a large number of people and resources in their efforts. Increased backcountry activity could potentially stress our emergency services beyond their capacity. Do your part by avoiding unnecessary risk.
Unfortunately, the glamorization of backcountry recreation tends to downplay the real hazards. Backcountry access has never been easier and the sport is becoming increasingly popular on social media. People can be susceptible to falling under the spell of what is popular without appreciating the consequences. While backcountry skiing and riding will never be completely safe, there are more educational opportunities than ever before to aid backcountry users in their journey towards safer decision making.
Backcountry Education is a Journey not a Race
Backcountry expertise comes from time spent slowly applying the fundamentals from training in the field, not by rushing through all of the avalanche education courses. In the words of AAA certified avalanche educator and owner of American Avalanche Institute, Don Sharaf, “You can't teach judgement.” Judgment comes from accumulated time in the backcountry. Many avalanche educators stress that even after a lifetime of avalanche training and education, they can still be surprised.
Where to start? The American Avalanche Association (A3) is the parent organization that has formalized the curriculum for all recreational and professional avalanche education in the US. There are currently several great programs that offer A3 endorsed avalanche certification classes including courses offered by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) and the American Avalanche Institute (AAI). Click here for a directory of state by state avalanche courses endorsed by A3.
The Level 1 Course: Recognizing & Avoiding Avalanche Terrain: The Level 1 Course is the entry point for backcountry recreationists. This course teaches its students the fundamentals of hazard assessment, decision making, rescue skills and route planning. Recognizing avalanche terrain and skiing it are two totally different activities. You would be surprised to learn how many of your favorite runs within a ski resort are considered avalanche terrain in the backcountry. You’d probably be equally surprised to learn how often it is considered too dangerous to ski this type of terrain outside of the resort. Therefore, the primary tactic in the backcountry should be avoidance of avalanche terrain whenever possible. There is plenty of fun to be had without exposing yourself to the danger of avalanches.
Find a Mentor. In the early days of backcountry recreation, most education was done via a mentor and pupil. There are many certified guide services who can help to build your skills beyond what is covered in a level one class. Hiring a guide often allows you to ski more in a day than you could on your own. It is also beneficial to see how a professional approaches skills like route planning and risk management. If you are interested in hiring a guide, check for one certified by the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) here.
Safely getting into backcountry skiing and riding REQUIRES you put forth a LIFETIME worth of effort into your training. Heed the warnings and follow the advice of your instructors. In the words of Bruce Tremper, Utah Avalanche Center Director and author of Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, “No one becomes an accomplished snowmobiler, climber, skier, or snowboarder by reading a book or taking one lesson; avalanche survival is no different.” At the end of the day, investing in your education is investing in your life. Please take it seriously.
Prepare for Each Backcountry Adventure
This advice may sound daunting, especially for the beginning backcountry traveler. Unfortunately, this mentality can lead some new participants to forgo planning their trips into the backcountry. Having a solid plan is a critical component to staying safe.
Trip plans must be guided by information and data, rather than wants and desires. Plans should include information such as the daily avalanche forecast, hazard warnings, recent observations, and an understanding of your group’s ability level.
Have the discipline to stick to your plan. One of the most important decisions you can make before heading into the backcountry is what terrain you are NOT going to ski. Once you’ve ruled something out, it is imperative that you stick to this decision. This type of discipline will prevent you from falling under the allure of untouched powder sitting on a slope that you have already identified as unsafe. Have one or two backup plans ready too. This will help avoid last minute poor decisions on the fly, should you find your primary route to be unsuitable.
Be Aware of Human Cognitive Errors
Humans are inherently fallible and subject to cognitive biases. Unfortunately, these mental traps and judgment errors are some of the most common causes of avalanche accidents. A statistic from Bruce Tremper’s Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain highlights the fact that 93% of avalanche accidents are triggered by the skier caught in the avalanche, or by someone in the victim's party. This is good news because we can easily identify the enemy. The bad news is that the enemy is unfortunately us. Most avalanche accidents occur due to errors in our thinking. Becoming more aware of these judgement errors is a significant step towards reducing the likelihood of an accident in the mountains.
AIARE has grouped the major human decision making errors into five categories
Overconfidence and/or Low Self Confidence
While there are many subcategories to the list above, the following highlights some of the more common mental traps new and inexperienced backcountry recreationists might experience as they begin their journey into the sport.
Overconfidence: Overconfidence can plague the minds of seasoned resort skiers as they enter into the backcountry for the first time. However, “Skills in the resort are not skills in the backcountry”notes Dave Richards, Alta Snow Safety Director. Sadly, overconfidence has led to many accidents. We’ve all witnessed powder fever at the resorts. Fresh snow causes a mad rush to get the best tracks. Recognizing this desire, more commonly known as FOMO, and avoiding it in the backcountry is key to being safe.
Preconceived Notions. A large part of traveling in the backcountry deals with the observations we make once we are out there. It is hard for humans to deter from their decided plans, even when the environment shows signs that a plan may be hazardous. For example, a skier deciding to stick to their original route, despite clear signs of avalanche activity indicating this route is unsafe. Another common mistake is thinking that if something appeared safe yesterday it will also be safe today. Preconceived notions and ability to be closed minded in decision making have led to numerous backcountry accidents.
Positive Reinforcement: Bruce Tremper's book highlights that most avalanche slopes are stable 95% of the time. He points out that even with zero avalanche knowledge, 19 out of 20 times we could ski something unsafe without a negative consequence. Avalanche terrain is a data poor environment; one in which we do not always get feedback on the correctness of our decisions. We could therefore not even be aware that we are making a potentially life threatening decision when choosing to ski a slope. In our minds we are receiving positive reinforcement that our decisions were correct. Bruce’s book does an excellent job of pointing out that even when all of our decision making was wrong, we can still believe that we were right. It probably doesn't need to be stated that finding out you were wrong can come at a grave cost.