Backcountry Skiing Safety Guide

backcountry skiing

You don’t need to have skied backcountry to know how dangerous it can get. Skiing off-piste can be extremely thrilling and at the same time be extremely dangerous. Typically, backcountry trails are not organized or supervised. They are also rarely maintained so taking every precaution to stay safe is not debatable. Skiing backcountry means maneuvering the rugged alpine region with no marked-out route while trying to find your way. You are faced with such hazards as

  • Avalanches
  • Impact from falling rocks, trees, or other objects
  • Storms or bad weather
  • Finding yourself in a trail, cliff, or slope that is way beyond your ability


Features of Backcountry terrain

  • Not maintained therefore snow is usually fresh
  • Not supervised
  • Rarely used
  • Not marked out
  • Fresh snow means a high likelihood of avalanches occurring
  • Challenging uphill task (mostly without the use of lifts) and much less downhill glides. For this reason, backcountry skis and bindings are specifically designed to accommodate uphill skiing on rugged terrain.


Different types of backcountry skiing

backcountry skiing

Overland Skiing

This type of skiing aims at covering a great distance more like cross-country and takes place anywhere from the rugged snowy mountain trails, sloppy terrain, in the Arctic, or deep in the forest.


Mountain Skiing

This basically involves climbing mountains to their peak and then gliding downhill. Downhill skiing can either be telemark skiing or alpine touring. Some advanced skiers climb very high mountains without the help of ski lifts, which exposes them to a greater risk of injury. If your skills are not advanced to this level, it is always advisable to keep off mountain skiing until you have mastered the skill through a lot of practice.


Things to pack when planning to ski backcountry

Things to pack when planning to ski backcountry


Now that we are aware of what a typical backcountry terrain would look like, here are some things you should consider packing for your trip. Most importantly, get a backpack that you can carry comfortably and conveniently, and one that will accommodate your items in an organized manner.


Avalanche safety equipment

Since the rugged, challenging, and ungroomed steeps are characteristic of backcountry trails, they have a higher likelihood of experiencing avalanches. Avalanche safety equipment include the right avalanche transceiver for your situation, a shovel, and a probe. An aluminum shovel is best suited for backcountry skiing because it can dig through hard and heavy snow and debris easily.

You may be required to attend training to equip yourself with the practical knowledge of using this equipment in the event of a snow slide. Otherwise, they may not be as useful.

Backcountry Skiing Safety

Backcountry apparel

Today, more manufacturers are combining toughness and comfort features in backcountry gear so that these gear will not only hold up through the rugged terrain but also be comfortable enough for the wearer to enjoy his venture.

  • Ski boots and bindings. As you shop for boots and bindings, first look for those that have been specifically designed for skiing. Secondly, you need to match your choice for your skiing style and ability.
  • Ski jackets, pants, and base layers. These should be warm enough, breathable, and waterproof to keep you comfortable and protected from all weather elements. Gore-Tex material makes a great option for ski pants because it is lightweight, waterproof, and breathable. Make it a habit to carry spare gear. You never know when you will need them.
  • Ski board and some spare parts. A wide ski board floats better on powder thereby keeping you from sinking or struggling to make your way through.
  • Sunglasses. Sunglasses are important for eye protection. Preferably, get polarized sunglasses as they will enhance your view while at the same time protecting your eyes from glare.
  • Tent and sleeping bag. While these two are the heaviest gear to carry around, they may be the most important especially if you will spend a day or more. You need a safe and warm place to spend your night so consider getting a tent and a sleeping bag that fit you well.


Fuel and stove

Carry a backpacking stove and enough fuel if cooked meals and some hot chocolate will make a difference in your adventure. Stoves also help to warm up your tent or environment in the freezing winter weather.


Enough food and water supplies

It is always advisable to carry food supply that will be enough for more days than the number of days you intend to spend outdoor.


First aid kit

A first aid kit is important in any situation. Your skiing kit should have the following items,

  • Bandaids
  • Sunscreen
  • Ace bandage and athletic tape
  • Coban wrap
  • Latex gloves
  • Irrigation syringe
  • Aspirin
  • Gauze
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Lighter
  • Tweezers
  • headlamp



An avalanche airbag is an almost indispensable piece of safety gear. In the event of a slide, quickly pull the handle of the backpack. This then triggers the fan to generate air which inflated the bag. This helps you to stay afloat for easy visibility while keeping you protected from impact.



Much as we all hope for the best, it is possible to get caught up in a slide and while in there, what causes death is suffocation more than cold or injury. This is where an avalung comes in handy. This device is made of tubes and valves connected to a mouthpiece which help one to breathe effectively when buried under snow. This device, it has been proved, can extend life by several hours.


Getting some training


Ideally, no one should venture into the highly risky backcountry trails without first undergoing some kind of safety training. Training familiarizes you with matters safety and safety equipment. The American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education website is a great place to start if you are looking for information on training. In addition, The American Avalanche Association in partnership with the US Forest Service National Avalanche Center has some valuable resource on skiing safety and training in their website


Avalanche rescue course

This course is designed for everyone in the space. It takes just one day and will equip you with rescue skills and tips. You also get to learn how to use rescue equipment like an avalanche transceiver.

  • Level 1 course. This is a standard course and a must take for beginners or anyone intending to venture backcountry. Check your local area listing for a certified AIARE instructor and take the three-day course in preparation for your trip. Afterward, you’ll be required to take a one-day refresher course every one year or to brush up on the latest in rescue practices, backcountry gear, or other matters related to backcountry skiing.
  • Level 2 Course. To take this course, you should have taken the rescue and level 1 courses in addition to having one-year backcountry experience. This three-day course is suitable for leaders and skiers who desire to expand their knowledge about avalanches and sharpen their decision-making skills with the aim of venturing into new terrains.

Finally, link up with experts, the patrol team, and the skiing community in your local area as this will help enhance your skiing ability and rescue skills.

Backcountry Skiing Safety


Determining whether to venture

Going skiing involves decision making. Many skiers use FAUCETS, an effective decision-making process developed by Ian McCammon to help skiers make a sober judgment in tough situations. Here is what it is all about.

  • F for Familiarity. When deciding to whether or not to ski on a specific run, ask yourself how familiar you are with it. If you have ever used it before you will be confident enough to use it again. Yet still don’t be overconfident because you still need to exercise caution.
  • A for Acceptance. This refers to the level of risk you are willing to be exposed to in the run you intend to ski on.
  • C for Consistency. How rigid can you be to the plan you have put in place for your venture and how easily can you alter this plan for your safety even when it is bound to change your goals or interfere with your adventure.
  • E for Expert Halo. There should be one or more members in your group with vast experience in regard to skiing in the location you have selected. But then again, will their word be final or can you disagree with them if need be.
  • T for Tracks/Scarcity. When was the last time you went on a dangerous trail? Could this be affecting your judgment?
  • S for social facilitation. Are you influenced by peer pressure? This could spell danger?


Information is power

Quite simply, not being informed makes you more at risk. Here is information you should have before your mission.

  • The snow condition in your skiing location. Assessing the snow condition helps you determine whether there is a likelihood of the occurrence of an avalanche. Check out resources like your local information center, National weather service website, open snow site,
  • Location-specific avalanche information. Some information you need to gather includes the angle of slope and if it is more than 25°, depth of snow and how and when it was deposited in the area, when was the last avalanche activity in the area, terrain features like trees and gullies e.t.c
  • It is always a good idea to be part of a skiing forum, especially in your area. The amount of information you can gather from such discussions is invaluable. Here, you can also connect with skiers and other parties in the space.


Are you fit for the trail?

Skiing, like any other sport, is an art that is mastered over time. But let’s get things straight, if you intend to ski off-piste you must first be well versed with blue and black runs and be comfortable skiing uphill since it involves more of uphill than downhill skiing. Otherwise, you will be risking too much. Secondly, skiing is muscle-intensive so you must be comfortable engaging in intense physical activity. If you checked all these, then here is what you need to bear in mind.

  • Before you can venture into the risky rugged backcountry terrain, try skiing in a ski resort near you. Here you will learn the maneuvers and turns while you acquire knowledge on the best gear. Once you have practiced and mastered confidence, you will be prepared to venture out, of course in a group of experts. Still, ski in places with a minimal risk of an avalanche before you can take a higher challenge.
  • While there do not go directly uphill. Start at the lower side country terrains and work your way up. This helps you to gauge your skill level and to decide how far you can go.
  • If you have not considered taking a backcountry safety training program, you are not fit for the trail, period.


Tips for skiing backcountry


Here are some valuable safety tips for skiing backcountry, which are also in line with the hikers’ responsibility code

  • Always follow your host. First, because they are well versed with the trails you are skiing on and second because it is safer to be around people particularly in areas prone to avalanches. If in a group, stick close to the group and observe the agreed upon group arrangements.
  • Make sure others are aware of your plans. This includes the trail you intend to ski on, how much time it will take you to get back to the base and any other relevant information.
  • Before setting out on a backcountry skiing venture, ensure that you are well equipped. Be well dressed and carry the necessary safety equipment. Remember that being armed is not only about safety equipment and wearing the appropriate gear, but also about being empowered with the knowledge of what to do in case of an emergency.
  • Never underestimate the importance of a trained skiing guide.
  • However much you will be equipped, be ready to turn back when the weather changes for the worst.
  • Learn how to read weather, snow, and avalanche reports and know before you go, the weather conditions that you are bound to encounter.
  • Have contacts of the local area rescue team. This will come in handy in the event of an emergency.


Backcountry Skiing checklist

  • To find your way around carry a map or a GPS device
  • To protect yourself from the sun’s rays carry sunscreen and sunglasses
  • To protect your body from weather elements have the right apparel
  • To light your way have a headlamp
  • To treat injuries carry a first aid kit
  • To start a fire have a lighter
  • To repair your ski and bindings have a toolbox with the necessary equipment
  • To address thirst and hunger have ample food and water supply
  • To have a safe place to stay have a tent and a sleeping bag



Is backcountry skiing safe? The answer is yes.

This, however, means that you will have done everything necessary to venture into the backcountry terrain including getting the required skills through training, acquiring the necessary information prior to your trip, being in close range with the patrol team and fellow skiers, choosing terrain based on your ability, as well as making the right decision. Ultimately, the best tools one can have outdoor are knowledge and experience.

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