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The Importance of Backcountry Safety and Avalanche Education

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

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.

Avalanches can occur on a ski-tracked slope. Photo from Gear Junkie, Avalanche Safety Tips.

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 usersbackcountry 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.

Recognized Hazards

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.