Gear, courses and the skills you will need
Backcountry skiing and snowboarding is hot topic right now. Escaping the ski resort crowds, getting amongst the beautiful mountains, slaying the line of your dreams … it’s no surprise the numbers in the backcountry are increasing. The more people enjoying the mountains the better I say! One thing that’s for sure out there, is that it’s remote. There are unknown hazards that will test even the most experienced rider or mountaineer. You gotta know what you’re doing and you gotta keep your head and witts about you.
All the gear no idea
If you are planning to go backcountry this winter, it is your responsibility to keep yourself safe and not let your over-enthusiasm to shred pow endanger those around you. Having all the backcountry safety gear is one thing, but knowing how to use it is a whole different ball game (the number of people I saw backcountry in Niseko, Japan last winter without any gear shocked me- unbelievable!). The most important kit you can have is your head.
Get clued up and increase your ability to make well-informed decisions out there. So if backcountry shredding is a dream of yours, take an avalanche course and load yourself with the information to make informed decisions, your own decisions, not just groupthink or follow the leader on a powder day.
First thing’s first – take an avalanche course!
The Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) runs a variety of professional operations courses (week long) as well as recreational courses known as the AST (Avalanche Skills Training, formerly RAC, Recreational Avalanche Course – 2 days). They also do snowmobile specific courses and weather specific training. Friends that are guides, ski patrol and avalanche risk managers all over the world tell me the CAA run the best courses out there. I took my first ever training with CAA back in 2002. It was the RAC course, now known as the AST and it was excellent.
New Zealand have their own certification at both the professional and recreational level. These are run by the New Zealand Avalanche Centre. The University of Otago based out of Wanaka run an Avalanche Safety Management – Stage 1 course that is en-par with the Canadian ops level 1 course. In Australia, the AST1 can be taken in Australia through Main Range Backcountry out of NSW and VIC. Australian does not have the snowpack to teach high levels of qualification above the AST1 (so recreational level, not a professionally recognised standard for employment in avalanche operations).
The U.S.A has two different avalanche associations that run a large variety of course across the country: The American Avalanche Association (AAA) and the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. The level 2 of both these courses is on-par with the CAA level 1 though check this when signing up for the course if you are taking either as pre-requisite for a professional qualification (always check these things!).
I’m not clued up on the European offering and qualifications, I presume each country will have their own.
Backcountry 101 – what’s in your bag?
Your backcountry backpack should be an extension of the kit you put on your feet! You should never be planning a backcountry trip without it. Take the time to pack it and think about what you are going to need, the various scenarios that could happen… This detailed pre-prep could save your life.
At the very minimum your backcountry safety kit should include:
- A shovel -metal not plastic as plastic can easily break)
- An extendable probe
- A digital transceiver – Analog transceivers are out-dated. I recommend getting a transceiver that you can mark and suppress a signal in the case of multiple burials (after the first victim has been found so multiple signals don’t get confused).
- Spare batteries – for your transceiver and radios
- 2-way radios
- A backcountry bag big enough to put everything in and be comfortable to ride with (hip and chest straps, in-built back protector etc). I ride with an airbag (Jetforce recently started to make battery powered ones that do not rely on air canisters, I recommend this if you travel a lot as in the US you can not fly with a full air-canaster, in Europe and the rest of the world you can but you have to clear it with the airline first – It’s a pain in the ass!).
This is a detailed break down of what I carry in my backcountry pack. I use this for guiding (I’m responsible for the safety of others and the assessment of snow conditions), but it gives you a solid breakdown and links of the tools of the trade.
Professional snowmobile athlete and good friend of Still Stoked, Julie-Anne Chapman wrote a great and very detailed article for us on what her bag includes and what specific items she recommends. Despite being specific to snowmobiling mentioning sled tracks etc. it is well worth a read: What to pack in your backcountry snowmobile backpack?
On my first day splitboarding in the backcountry I recalled all the things I packed and the things I didn’t have, that I needed… also worth a read: Learning to Splitboard: 8 things I wish I had in my pack
Backcountry 101 – knowing how to use your gear
Practice, practice, practice. This weekend on a super sunny day in Sydney, my cousin, a friend and I, went down the beach and buried our transceivers. We ran through various scenarios from single to multiple burials. I discovered I was a bit shady on how to use my transceiver for a multiple burials. My BCA Tracker 2 didn’t have the mark function I mentioned above. It was a light bulb moment that I’m glad hit me during a practice scenario on the beach, rather than when I was trying to find my buried, suffocating friend. Practice, practice, practice and practice some more. Know your kit inside out.
Though no substitute for an avalanche course or practicing different, real-life scenarios. I have found these videos from Backcountry Access a great resource for checking in and reminding myself of procedures.
BCA Companion Rescue Series: Beacon Searching 101
BCA Companion Rescue Series: Probing 101
BCA Companion Rescue Series: Shovelling 101
Searching in Parallel: Harnessing Manpower in Avalanche Transceiver Rescues
It goes without saying that none of the backcountry safety information in this article can replace hands-on experience out there. These are however the first steps you will need to take towards making good decisions… cos that’s all it comes down to in the end.
Ride with people you trust, that have the skills to get you out quickly, should you be buried. Practice with them and get your procedures down-packed.
Good luck, stay safe and have fun :-)
Recommended Reading: backcountry safety and avalanche books
by Jill Fredston & Doug Fesler
by Bruce Tremper
by Bruce Tremper
by David McClung