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Winter Backcountry Adventures: Avalanche Awareness and Where to Start

Intro

The backcountry can be a place to seek solitude and find the escape we need any time of the year. Winter is no exception, and it can often be magical with the untouched snow, lakes frozen over, and peaks that rise above with pockets of wind-swept areas to giant cornices. Winter also holds a different set of rules when you recreate, and it can be overwhelming. When I first started backcountry touring I didn’t realize that you needed an avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel or that you should take a class and learn about the snow and how to travel safely for that matter. I just went and I now look back on those days and realize my mistakes, or I guess I should say I just did not know any better. Training back then was minimal and not often available.

Take a Free One-Hour Avalanche Awareness talk Online

Today there really is no excuse to not get educated in how to travel safely through avalanche terrain, there are free one-hour awareness online talks to full weekend courses being offered. A big misconception is that avalanche training is only needed for backcountry snowmobiling and skiing. Today with technology snowshoes can go steeper and further, cross country skis can go off groomed trails and we are getting out further into the backcountry because of that. So, anyone that is looking to get out should start with the basics and go from there.

Winter Travel is Different, Learn the Basics

PLANNING & RESEARCH

Most trails you take in the summer are not going to be the best route to take in the winter. Summer routes are typically on steeper terrain that can often go right through avalanche terrain. This is something to keep in mind when picking a route.

PACK THE RIGHT GEAR

You will also want to make sure you have the right gear. It is easy to say you will never be in avalanche terrain, but I know from personal experience I get back somewhere and see a distant area and just start heading towards it. An avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe should always go with you in any backcountry situation. But having them is one thing, knowing how to use them is your first line of defense.

BE AWARE

Get the training first and foremost. Take a one-hour free avalanche awareness class and see if it is something you are ready to dive into. I can’t stress this enough though that it is a one-hour class and a good starting point but if you are heading out and positive this is what you want to do, you need to take a full course where you will learn how to use your equipment in the field.

Practice using your Avalanche Equipment

It does not stop there – you need to practice using it over and over. This is where it becomes overwhelming for most people. There is digging snow pits, looking at snowpack and the different types of snow, learning how to size up a slope and angle, traveling through the terrain. Classes that are hands-on will go through this all and hopefully get you comfortable with doing these tasks while out. In the avalanche courses I teach, I spend more time outside than in the classroom with participants, but we are not digging meticulous snow pits or analyzing snow patterns all day long. We are practicing using our beacon, shovel, and probe in scenarios over and over so when they leave at the end of the course, they feel confident they could perform a search and possibly save a life. I also stress in class the human factor and its role in being able to make the right decision in the backcountry. You can have all the training but if your partners are not in the same mindset it can lead to bad decisions being made.

Where do I start?

Start small with your backcountry adventures, it is easy to get super stoked and head out, get back in a few miles, and realize you may have overdone it. Start with an easy day trip, something not in any type of avalanche terrain, and practice using your gear. See what works and what does not, you will find what you like over time. Just have patience and learn at a good slow pace instead of full force out the gate. Lastly, always have a plan. Check the local forecast first and tell someone about your plans. Research the area you’re going into to try to get familiar with it, always check your gear before heading out to make sure it’s all working properly and is in your pack. Lastly, always have a backup plan. Doing all of this will pay off in the end, you will have an enjoyable day exploring and go home safely and happy.

Gear Checklist

So, say you have taken a course and are feeling confident you could search, probe, and shovel your partner out if you head into the backcountry. What should you bring on a backcountry tour? The most important part of the equation is going with people that you feel confident with. There is a long list of items I bring with me when I go out and people think I am crazy because my pack is heavy, but I always say it’s better to be prepared than sorry.

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Beacon, probe, shovel
(Full avalanche kit)

GPS with SOS
(Navigation and emergency)

Map of the area & compass
(In case GPS is unusable)

Jacket shell
(Protection against elements)

Puffy
(Keeps you warm)

Pants shell
(Protection against elements)

Lightweight jacket
(More layering options)

Baselayer leggings
(Keep warm, wicks away sweat)

Baselayer top
(Keep warm, wicks away sweat)

Thick Gloves
(Keep your hands warm)

Gaiters
(Keep snow out of your boots)

Hat
(Keep your noggin warm)

Neck buff
(For extra cold days)

Extra socks
(You’ll be thankful you did)

Nalgene’s of water & electrolytes
(Winter is dry)

Headlamp with spare batteries
(In case of emergency)

Small first aid kit
(In case of emergency)

Sunglasses
(Preferably with sides for snow glare)

Plenty of food and snacks
(A must!)

Sunscreen, lip balm, throat lozenges
(Good to have)

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