Backcountry skiing is one of the most exciting and nature immersing of all winter pursuits. As with many sports of its kind it is accompanied by risk, but fortunately for us some well directed preparation can go a long way in minimising those risks. Here are 5 ways to be prepared for a day of backcountry skiing.
1. Don’t skip breakfast
First and foremost, eating a good breakfast and drinking enough fluids is key. Backcountry skiing can be both physically and mentally demanding, and we need a rested and well fuelled body in order to put our `best foot forward`. Not only are we much less likely to injure ourselves when are energised, but being well fed and watered will also have great value if our day becomes waylaid and we end up spending much longer in the mountains than anticipated.
2. Plan your route
Another must for due consideration is our route; or at least our intended route as well as potential alternatives. It could easily be that the day evolves enough to change our plan A, so it is very important that know the area and what our options are. Having a topography map relevant to the area is always very useful in route finding even to those that know an area intimately. Once a plan – along with some alternatives – has been decided, communicating that information to someone who is not joining the excursion is really important. You would also want to include your contact details as well as your expected return time to them. In the event that encounter incident it gives potential rescuers a lot to go on when it comes to locating you. Resorts in some areas of the world will have route plans at the mountains that they ask you to fill out before going into the backcountry; be sure to fill these out as accurately as possible.
3. Check the forecast
Knowing the weather conditions is paramount and as anyone who spends extensive time in the mountains will know – are subject to change very quickly. It is therefore necessary to know the expected conditions for the day; cross referencing multiple forecasts can provide a good overview. It is important to ask yourself if the forecast is suitable for the intended route, or if you foresee it posing problems. Speaking to locals about the weather in the region is also time well spent.
4. Know the avalanche conditions
Alongside the weather are the avalanche conditions. These change by the minute so be sure to have the most current information possible; daily avalanche bulletins are usually easily available online for their respective areas. If you can, speaking to locals about the snowpack and current conditions is of huge value. Industry professionals in particular will have a close eye on any concerning weak layers in the snowpack, as well as the anticipated risk level relative to specific areas. It is so important to have a comprehensive understanding of the avalanche risks before starting a day in the backcountry; even if the weather is cooperating beautifully, it is by no means an indicator that the snowpack is.
5. Pack effectively
Lastly, make sure that you bring the right equipment with you. A beacon, shovel and probe are non-negotiable for anyone skiing anything other than what is within the resort boundaries. From 10 meters of lift-accessed side-country to deep into the back-county, everyone off-piste needs to wear this life-saving equipment; used to locate a person, pinpoint their exact position and then dig them out, you should also be very familiar and well-practised in their use. That is the same for anyone you choose to enter the backcountry with. Alongside that, water, food, a first aid kit, a flashlight or headlamp, a map of your intended route and an extra layer for insulation or padding are also great items to bring.
While enjoying immeasurable fun and adventure in the backcountry is a wonderful thing, our safety and that of others needs to always be at the forefront of our thinking. If you ever doubt your ability, knowledge, experience or skills for skiing outside of the resort – hire a professional guide as your life is worth every penny.
Nadine Robb is Owner and Instructor at Hakuba Ski Concierge. Hakuba Ski Concierge is a boutique ski school in Hakuba, Japan.