BACKCOUNTRY BASICS: HOW TO GET STARTED
The call of fresh untouched powder, pristine pillow lines, and majestic tree runs, is all the motivation you need to start exploring the backcountry but with the added risks and danger its important to have the right equipment, and know how to use it. This guide will take you through the backcountry basics, what it means, and what gear you need to get started. Our stores have a wide range of backcountry equipment, so if in doubt, visit us in store and get expert advice from our knowledgeable staff.
What is backcountry?
Backcountry has become a catch-all term to describe any skiing or snowboarding outside of controlled, maintained and pisted ski areas. This can include anything from true wilderness to within a few miles or even metres of controlled areas.
When backcountry involves a human-powered ascent; using a combination of climbing skins, crampons, or hiking to reach the most difficult terrain and powder, it is most often called alpine touring, or the French 'randonnée'. Riding backcountry is more dangerous as there are no ski patrols checking on snow stability and general mountain safety.
Other terms you may hear include sidecountry, slackcountry, or lift-accessed backcountry. This is used to describe backcountry areas that can be accessed from the usual ski lifts and pistes, but carry the same risks as true wilderness. Skiers and snowboarders seeking sidecountry will take a ski lift up the mountain, then use a combination of booting, skinning, and traversing to access their line.
Backcountry and sidecountry riding requires an acceptance and responsibility for the risks and dangers involved so it’s important to not only have the right equipment but know how to use it.
What about avalanches, how do you know when it's going to slide?
You don't. Riding outside the designated ski area boundaries means taking a risk and accepting the dangers you might face, whether it's avalanches, cliffs, tree wells, or simply getting lost. If you aren't comfortable making the decision of which route to take and where to go, don't take the risk.
Carrying the right gear and knowing how to use it does minimise some danger from avalanches so make sure you're educated on what to do if the snow slides. Most European and North American resorts have companies that offer avalanche safety training where you learn about the dangers of the backcountry, how to lessen them, as well as further understanding of snowpack and stability and avalanche rescue. You can also find these classes in most UK snow domes.
How to get started?
Backcountry riding needs specific tools and equipment that you wouldn't otherwise need on piste. Specialised skis or snowboards and safety equipment.
Once you've sorted your equipment, start by riding untracked terrain in lift-accessed backcountry such as back bowls or areas that require a little but not too much hiking. Starting out in these areas means if you're hurt, mountain rescue will be able to reach you sooner and you won't have so far to travel if you take a wrong turn.
Occasionally, lift-accessed backcountry terrain may have been assessed by the resort security for avalanche risks, even sending a charge to minimise danger but always check beforehand.
Always pay attention to closure or warning notices and accept that outside of the ski area, mountain rescue is not obligated to rescue you.
Essential equipment list
This is the most important question, and backcountry basics should never be skimped on. Skiing or snowboarding these options all have one thing in common; they have a binding that allows you to lift your heels while climbing while using a climbing skin for better grip on the uphill.
Skiers, for example, often use telemark skis to explore the wilderness as the permanently free heel makes for easier ascending but adds an extra challenge, making them a more expert piece of equipment. Alpine touring equipment can be an easier transition for alpine skiers as it allows you to use your regular, heels-locked bindings to descend or it can be as easy as mounting a pair of alpine touring bindings onto regular skis and equipping yourself with some climbing skins.
If yo͛u're looking to buy a new pair of skis for backcountry look for a pair of lightweight skis with a good performance in a range of snow conditions and terrain.
ALPINE TOURING SKI BOOTS
If you͛'re mostly riding on piste or venturing out into some lift-accessed backcountry then usual ski boots will be fine. If you͛'re doing more uphill ascends using skins, crampons, or scrambles along rock or ice then alpine touring ski boots with a specific walk mode and special sole are necessary.
For snowboarders, a splitboard is a great options. A splitboard is a snowboard that has been cut in two, vertically, to make two͚ skis͛. These skis can be used to hike uphill to reach the perfect powder out in the backcountry, using climbing skins, like a snowshoe. Once you've reached the top, you fit the skis back together to create a snowboard to ride down.
Read more about How to get Started with Spiltboarding
Aside from your splitboard itself, climbing skins are the most important part of your kit as they provide the necessary grip for you to ascend. Adhesive-backed pieces of fabric, climbing skins attach to your tips and tails to allow you an easier walk up the hill by using tiny hairs that point towards the tail of your board also preventing you from sliding backwards. Held on by glue and mechanical hardware it is essential your skins fit your skis or splitboard properly or you'll have a hard time.
BACKCOUNTRY SAFETY GEAR: TRASCEIVERS, SHOVELS, PROBES
Every rider should carry an avalanche transceiver, a shovel, and a probe to help you find, and be found, in the event of an avalanche. Even with proper rescue technique, the chance of survival in an avalanche is very low so it's important you can act quickly.
There are two types of avalanche safety packs designed to increase your chances of survival in an avalanche burial. The first is an airbag which can be activated and inflated within seconds to help keep you afloat of an avalanche by keeping you in a more horizontal position, preventing you from sinking, and allowing you to be carried along the surface of the snow mass. The second system is an AvaLung pack which allows you to maximise your available oxygen in the snow mass, while expelling CO2 away from your face. Many more experienced ridings carry both.
Find out more with our blog on Avalanche Airbag Innovation.
Your usual outerwear and layering system may not work for backcountry; you’re more than likely going to get hotter than normal walking uphill but feel the cold when you reach the higher peaks.
Experiment with your snow layering system and outerwear but waterproofing and breathability is essential and added zip ventilation is a must.
Riding backcountry is dangerous, regardless of how experienced you are, so make sure you understand the risks and go as prepared as possible.
Always carry your backcountry safety essentials; transceiver, shovel, and probe AND know how to use them.
Take an avalanche safety course to familiarise yourself with the gear and rescue techniques. Most European and North American resorts have companies that offer avalanche safety training where you learn about the dangers of the backcountry, how to lessen them, as well as further understanding of snowpack and stability and avalanche rescue. You can also find these classes in most UK snow domes.
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