So you’ve mastered the resort and you’re ready to break through the gates into the backcountry. Should you worry about the hazards of going off-piste?
Backcountry snowboarding can be dangerous due to the potential for avalanches, hidden obstacles, and extreme weather. Proper training and knowledge of the terrain is essential. you should be familiar with the area, have the right gear including a helmet, and know how to use an avalanche beacon.
Before heading out into uncharted territory, you must be educated. Being aware of the dangers and carrying the right equipment can save your life. In this post, I go over the biggest risks associated with off-piste riding, and how to prepare for it.
Risks of riding backcountry
The risk of avalanches in the backcountry can be high. An unstable snowpack, overhanging snowbanks, and steep slopes are all conditions susceptible to avalanches.
Most of the time, avalanches in these places are triggered by the rider, so being cautious and checking the terrain before you ride is important. The chances of outrunning an avalanche you triggered are slim to none, so always check the snowpack and examine the terrain before you drop in.
Falling into a tree well is every backcountry snowboarder’s nightmare. These are deep areas of loose snow around a tree that can be very deep.
It is recommended to avoid riding close to trees, as tree wells are hidden by a layer of snow. Falling into a well may result in some panic, which can lead to sinking further and possibly getting suffocated by snow.
Mountains have a lot of obstacles with a layer of snow on top hiding them. Rocks, stumps, cliffs, crevasses, moraines, snow holes, and other debris are all things to be wary of.
Suddenly hitting a covered obstacle you didn’t see can result in serious injury, or send you off track and get you lost. Being injured or lost on a mountain in the middle of nowhere is not a situation you want to find yourself in.
Being prepared for the weather is crucial when snowboarding anywhere, but especially so in the backcountry.
In a wide open environment, you are prone to experiencing more extreme weather conditions. Blizzards and extreme winds are not uncommon, so checking the weather beforehand is essential for safety.
Being at such high altitudes can result in nasty side effects. Swelling, respiratory problems, and lightheadedness are common signs that you’ve climbed too high for too long. Altitude sickness can creep up on you, and it can happen very easily due to the lower amounts of oxygen as you go higher.
Getting dehydrated is also a risk you can experience with the intense physical activity associated with backcountry riding. Hypoglycemia is also common since you burn a lot of calories when snowboarding out in the wild.
Being way out in the middle of nowhere, getting stranded can be fatal. If you break a part on your board, or even worse, a bone on your body, getting out of the backcountry will be very difficult. If stranded, hypothermia is a primary risk, which can onset very quickly out in the wilderness.
If you plan on riding the backcountry, make sure the spot you choose is safe, not just for you, and other riders, but with civilians and other property in mind.
If riding too close to property, you may trigger an avalanche which can damage housing, block roads, or hurt unexpecting people. It’s always important to talk to locals and guides to make sure you’re allowed to ride a location.
How to reduce the risks of going backcountry
Avoiding avalanches is something everyone strives for, but even the most experienced backcountry snowboarders can be unlucky. If you’re unsure or new to the backcountry, hiring a guide is highly recommended.
Regardless, taking an avalanche safety course is the first thing you should do before going backcountry. Knowledge gained from such a course can be life saving. These courses will teach you everything from how to avoid avalanches, what to do if one occurs, and proper first aid training. Outdoor education centers, professional guide services and universities commonly offer these courses.
Picking a line with no overhangs is important as these can easily fall off once disturbed. After that, the chase is on, and you will likely lose.
Testing the snowpack is another crucial precaution, using a collapsible probe, which you should have. See also “The Ideal conditions for snowboarding” for further details on checking a snowpack.
See also: The ideal conditions for snowboarding
Having the proper equipment for the backcountry is mandatory for everyone. This includes avalanche safety gear, proper riding gear, and provisions.
A backpack with an inflatable airbag is crucial in case of an avalanche. It will help you float on top of the snow and reduce risk of being burried.
If you are caught in an avalanche, a proper rated helmet is important as debris may be thrown everywhere. An unrated helmet can a lot less effective in these situations.
An avalanche beacon or avalanche transceiver, a probe, and a shovel, are essential for rescue actions. In case of emergency, being able to communicate with others can mean life or death. A cell phone may not always work due to limited coverage so a CB walkie is recommended, along with back up batteries.
Snowshoes are a lifesaver when it comes to boot packing up steep slopes. They save you from sinking in the snow, and preserve your energy for riding. If you’re going up steep slopes, an ice axe will also help you maintain stability. Having these two items will make traversing much easier.
In addition to gear, water and easy to eat snacks are important things to bring along. Days out in the backcountry are long and physically taxing. Making sure you’re well hydrated and fed will keep you sharp. One wrong move out there can result in disaster, so you want to be in top condition.
Choosing a safe line
Picking a run as open as possible is the key to avoiding all obstacles (as well as avalanches and tree wells). The fewer trees and rocks that are visible, the less hidden ones you are likely to encounter. Generally, the more visible obstacles there are, the more hidden ones there will be.
Not only does having a clearer run minimize the risk of hidden obstacles, but it is also safer during avalanches. If you’re taken by an avalanche, the risk of getting thrown into a tree or other objects will be lower.
Riding with a group
Whether you’re experienced or new to the backcountry, riding with a group is always recommended.
Your group should be properly trained and equipped with all the necessary gear. A tracking beacon to locate each other, a radio to communicate with authorities, a probe for searching beneath the snow, and a shovel for digging.
Again, these are vital pieces of equipment that every rider should have and know how to use. Before heading out, practice hiding your beacon and seeing if your group can find it. This will ensure everyone’s equipment is working, and give you some practice with it.
Going out alone in the backcountry can have severe consequences. Your group is your safety patrol out there.
Side country: a safer alternative?
The side country is still out of the bounds of the normal resort, but generally much closer than the deep backcountry. You’ll often find side country runs that intertwine within the resort.
These runs are unpatrolled but in case of an emergency, you will be a lot closer to safety. For those of you wanting to dip your toes into the backcountry but aren’t quite ready yet, the side country can be a good option.
While side country has some of the risks of the backcountry, they are to a much lesser degree.
Backcountry riding is without a doubt dangerous, but it can help you take your snowboarding to the next level and feel the adrenaline of riding untouched snow. While greater rewards often come from greater risks, you should be ready and prepared for what mother nature will throw your way.