8 Common Mistakes Made While Backcountry Skiing

The allure of the Backcountry continues to draw an ever increasing group of people into a lifestyle that gets you into great shape, frees your mind of distractions, and grants access to an unbelievable experience that is far different from skiing in a busy resort.  While we welcome newcomers wholeheartedly (everybody’s gotta start somewhere), one thing that the mountains will not have patience for is ignorance.

Some people say, “there’s ony one way to learn”, and that’s by experience.  Not so, otherwise nobody would hire guides, and we’d be out of jobs!  Even so, a few times out with a guide will not be able to prepare you for that first time you venture out on your own.  If you are new to the lifestyle of backcountry skiing and snowboarding, and even if you have been in it a few years, make sure you avoid these top mistakes so that you and your group return home safely to enjoy the next time.

Mistake #1 – Forgetting to pack a headlamp
A lot of people plan for the best-case scenario.  Unfortunately though, on the mountain as well as life, things do not go exactly as planned.  Sometimes it takes much longer than anticipated to return home.  This can be a number of factors – weather, snow conditions, fatigue, or simply a misjudgment of how long your route was.

Everyone in the party should have a headlamp, so that you can at least head toward your destination, if you know your route and you have the energy and skill.  If not, it is best to make a camp for the night and continue during daylight hours.  But if the situation is safe, sometimes sometimes the best option is to continue in the dark.

Mistake #2  – Not Having a Plan B
Even the most carefully planned out routes will find hazards, weather problems, and variables beyond our control that cause you to not go the original route.  It is always important to have a Plan B in crucial spots – such as aspects, elevation, and routes through danger spots.

Having a backup plan (or two, or three), will save time in the backcountry if a hazard occurs, rather than scrambling to come up with an option on the spot.

Mistake #3 – Not paying attention to Weather Changes
A common saying in the mountains is, If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.  Different regions have different weather patterns – the Rockies are definitely more erratic than on the coast.  But sometimes the weather can change in an instant, and with disastrous results if the party has not been paying attention.

The best way to notice changes in the weather is to simply look at the sky.  If the weather is clear, look up and try to notice any new clouds forming.  Usually a big storm will start out with patchy, wave-like clouds, almost like a ripple from throwing a rock into a pond.  This indicates a change in pressure, and if you are in an open icefield, it would be wise to seek terrain that will be easy to create a shelter if the change continues.

Temperature is also an important change worth paying attention to, especially in avalanche prone areas.

A great tool to have with you is the Suunto CORE watch.   It has too many features to list here, but the main one for this scenario is the “Storm Alarm” feature.  It uses the internal barometer to send an alert when the pressure change indicates a storm.  But even with the great technology, nothing beats developing a sense for your surroundings.

Mistake #4 – Inadequate Medical Knowledge
You should have taken, at the very minimum, a standard first aid (with CPR) course.  Additionally, you should make sure that everyone in your group has the same knowledge.  You can save an incredible amount of time getting an injured skier/boarder out of trouble with a few simple manouvers, that you might not have thought of otherwise.

The further your education develops by taking more courses, the better you will be equipped to handle dangerous situations in the backcountry.  Hopefully you do not need to use the skills often, but when you do, you’ll be happy that you took the time to learn.

Mistake #5 – Not enough transceiver practice
So you got the gear - Awesome.  We won’t have to give you a telling off if we see you without gear in the backcountry.  But how much time have you actually devoted to learning the tools?  The transceiver is a tool that takes experience to get to the point where it feels like second nature to use.

The faster you can use your transceiver, the faster you will be able to uncover someone buried in an avalanche.  In a scenario where every second counts, it should be a top priority and personal goal to be as fast as possible.

Try to do a practice transceiver search at least once a week, and before every trip you take in the backcountry.  It doesn’t have to be all work – you can make it a game by throwing money (or beer, or whatever else) into a pot and the person with the lowest time takes the pot!   Whatever your method, make sure you practice the search for maximum performance.

Mistake #6 – Not carrying survival equipment in case of danger
A few key tools in your pack will make any downtime in the backcountry significantly more bearable.  So be sure to have these at a minimum -

  • Compass and map – Only useful if you know how to use them properly and effecively.  But will help you navigate routes and get out of danger.
  • Waterproof matches – Trust us, the waterproof part is essential.  There is nothing worse than packing matches but having snow/condensation make them ineffective
  • If Search and Rescue is dispatched, these tools can help them locate you effectively.
  • Candle – It is amazing how much heat a candle can put out in an insulated area, such as a snowcave.  Look for survival-grade, long-burning candles at your local outdoor equipment store.
  • Saw – If you are in a treed area, this will help you cut a few branches to start a fire (along with your waterproof matches!).  It can also be used to create a makeshift splint if there is an injury.

A GPS is a great tool, but you should only use it after developing the necessary skills without it.  As is all technology, you should not rely on it in case it fails.

Mistake # 7 – Not pacing yourself
We all are drawn to the backcountry for the peacefulness, incredible fun, and escapism.  But skinning up is much different than riding a chairlift.  As such, you need to take a pace that is reasonable to your ability.  Try to get into a rhythm that will allow you to keep moving, but not tire yourself out.  A good method to use is have a conversation with the people in your group.  If you can hold a conversation without huffing and puffing, then you are travelling at a sustainable pace.  If however you are running out of breath, you should slow down.

Over exerting yourself to a point of fatigue creates an increased likelihood of injury.  It will also slow you down to where you cannot continue, causing the trip to be longer than if you had simply paced yourself from the beginning.

Mistake #8 – Leaving your boots outside your sleeping bag
You’ll probably do it only once at most in your life, but hopefully after reading this you wont even get to that point.  When camping out, remember that you’ve got to put your feet in your boots in the morning.  If it’s -20 outside your bag, then your boots will cause you agony with a layer of frozen sweat surrounding your foot for the better part of the morning.  Please do not make this mistake, and if it’s cold out, pack your boots!  At the very minimum you should snuggle up to your liners.  Gloves as well!

Hopefully these tips will help your group avoid danger.  We hope to see you year after year in the mountains, so get started on the proper foot with the best knowlege and instinct for a lifetime of mountain enjoyment!

By Steve Andrews