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5 things every backcountry skier needs to do to have a safer winter.

whitewater-avalanche-01 Avalanche Whitewater Ski Resort, Nelson, BC

Every year more and more people are taking to heading to the backcountry in search of solitude, powder, and the ultimate backcountry experience. The great folks at Avalanche Canada have done an amazing job of promoting safe backcountry travel. There is an abundance of information and tools designed to help keep the general public safe. Despite all of this some people seem to miss the most basic advice of professionals. This post is intended to help educate the backcountry ski community on things they should be doing to make their experience in the backcountry a safer one

#1. Become educated by taking an Avalanche Skills Training course from the great folks at Avalanche Canada and Kootenay Backcountry Guides.

This seems like it should be mandatory for everyone who is willing to spend thousands of dollars on backcountry gear. Still, many people head to the backcountry with little to no skills or knowledge. It is great to see that many backcountry users are now signing up for the Avalanche Skills Training Courses offered throughout the province. The number of people taking these amazing programs are at an all time high. Learning the basics before heading out is the best thing you can to do to keep yourself and your friends safe. If you have already taken your AST 1, consider taking the AST 2.

#2. Choose who you travel with in the backcountry carefully!

Just because your friends are great people, excellent skiers or snowboarders, and super fun to be with, does not mean that they are safe to go backcountry skiing with. Every year I am surprised by the stories that come from students of who they go backcountry skiing with. Often people go out touring with friends who have no knowledge or training. Social pressure is one the most powerful forces in the backcountry and often people feel scared to ask friends if they have practiced companion rescue skills, taken a course or read the bulletin. Simply following a de facto leader is one of the leading causes of avalanche accidents. Read this excellent article on reasons why people get caught.

#3 Make sure your gear is up to date and you know how to use it!

The days of analogue beacons and plastic shovels are over. If you do not have a modern 3 antenna beacon then you are risking your and your friends lives. There is no excuse for going out in the backcountry with an outdated beacon. Beacons need to be updated or checked by the manufacturer every 5 years. I still have students and guests show up for courses with beacons that are a decade old. Go to your local gear show and get one of the many modern 3 antenna beacons. For folks in the Nelson area go to Roam Shop and let them hook you up. The other issue I see is super light randonnee racing gear being used as avalanche safety gear. This super light gear is meant for racing, not digging your friends out of an avalanche. If your shovel is plastic and light it will most likely be harder to use when you need it most. The next step is to learn how to use your gear. At Kootenay Backcountry Guides we teach people how to use their gear and stay safe in the backcountry.

#4 Follow the Avalanche Bulletin at avalanche.ca and ride within their recommendations.

This photo of a skier triggered avalanche was taken in the Whitewater Ski Resort backcountry last winter. The people who set this slide off could have injured or killed themselves or other people who were skinning up the bowl below. The folks at Avalanche Canada had posted a special avalanche warning for the area that day. Media outlets and the pros at the ski hill were warning people to stay away from terrain like this. Despite the warning this party decided to roll the dice and ride terrain that professionals had advised against. They were lucky not to get hurt. The professionals who come up with the bulletin are doing a great job. They know what they are doing and what they are talking about. Listen to them and follow the bulletin.

#5. Get a map and compass and learn how to use it!

Every year the folks at Nelson Search and Rescue spend valuable resources looking for lost people. Although there are many apps that help you with navigation, nothing will replace a good old map and compass and the knowledge of how to use it; I will write about why in a future article. I am always surprised by how many people do not travel with maps and compasses. When I first moved to B.C. I hiked up Grey Mountain near Red Resort. Fog blew in and my friend and I dropped into the wrong side of the mountain. We were lucky to make it out. That was the last time I went anywhere in the mountains without a map. Mighty Bighorn Maps has done a great job of making maps of Kootenay Pass and Whitewater Ski Resort backcountry. Getting a local backcountry guide book is also a great thing to have. Backcountry Skiing Canada has also done an amazing job putting together guide books for ski touring in Canada.

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