Backcountry Planning : How Bluebird’s Education Team Uses onX

I track my routes and monitor the elevation gain, time, and mileage so I can guesstimate how a group might handle that route based on their experience. I also love the offline use feature. ” – Karen R. 

“The ability to easily plan routes on onX Backcountry and have all the tools I need for finding avalanche forecasts, weather, established trails, and access points makes my job as an avalanche educator far more simple.” – Erika L. 

“The elevation profile and tracking option for distance traveled while in the backcountry is great with onX.” – Aidan G.

“Even as a professional, it’s easy to get lost. onX is a reliable tool to help me figure out where I am in the backcountry.” – Jeff W.

These are just a few of the reasons why Bluebird’s education team loves using onX Backcountry for both work and personal days in the mountains. We’ve broken down how this team of professionals uses onX to gather information and prepare for backcountry tours, both small and large. Plus, we discuss the important skills and how to gain them. Let’s dive in!

A Bluebird staff member uses onX to spot good terrain to ride off the top of Bear Mountain. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Initial Planning Steps

One of the best parts of onX Backcountry’s snow mode is that all the resources needed to plan a backcountry tour are integrated into the digital map — this simplifies the planning process and cuts out the need to dig through multiple tabs to find the right resources.

1. Avalanche forecast

The first step of planning a tour is reading the avalanche forecast. Through onX Backcountry we simply pick a general touring zone and click the colored overlay on the map to see what the avalanche forecast is for the day. Bluebird’s education team always makes sure to read the full forecast — including the general summary and detailed summary — by clicking the external link to the avalanche forecasting center’s website.

2. Weather forecast

onX Backcountry has an integrated weather forecast for wherever we’re planning an adventure. When the application is open, there’s a green dot in the top right corner; this takes us to the specific weather for our current GPS location. We can also get point-specific weather by clicking any trail head or established route on the map. Gathering weather data helps determine what location is best for a tour and the general conditions we’ll be managing when in the backcountry.

The ease of finding both the avalanche and weather forecasts through onX snow mode makes this step of planning much easier. Photo: Erika Lee

3. Choosing an area

There are many tools on this mapping software that help us decide the best backcountry touring location based on the avalanche danger, avalanche problem, and weather for the day. Here’s what Bluebird’s team likes to use.

Slope angle shading overlay — Perhaps our group decided that due to considerable avalanche danger, we’re avoiding all terrain above 30º in slope steepness — this is where the slope angle shading tool comes in handy. We can find areas that are below 30º or out of avalanche terrain and set an uphill and downhill route options based on the slope-angle shading. This tool is not a substitute for the observations made while in the field. It’s still critical to pay attention to surrounding terrain when following a set skin track or route. Bonus, there’s now a slope aspect overlay that helps us establish which aspects are facing what direction and what we’d like to ride based on the slopes aspect. 

3D map mode – We’re always looking for terrain traps and subtle topographic features that should be avoided when traveling in and around avalanche terrain. The 3D map mode is super helpful for spotting creeks, gullies, or benches, and identifying what type of terrain we may be traveling through — trees, open bowls, or a complex mixture of both.

Combining slope angle and 3D map mode allows us to investigate terrain and understand what our route options may be. Photo: Erika Lee

Pre-established trails – With information from Beacon Guide Routes and Powder Project pre-loaded onto the snow mode, onX Backcountry offers beta and pictures including where to start a tour, parking lots, established trails and common lines to ski or ride. Bluebird’s team loves this tool when exploring a new zone.

4. Mapping route options

Now it’s time to actually set a plan A, B, and C for the day. It’s always good to have multiple uptrack and downtrack options on a tour in case the snow or weather is different than expected. Using the route planning tool allows us to actually lay out a route on the map and add in waypoints as markers for locations to assess the snowpack, discuss options, and transition. We can calculate total distance and elevation profiles by creating a route, then average out travel time based on the elevation and distance profile. Using the slope angle shading and 3D modes are critical when planning our descent routes, as this helps us see what is skiable, what is within the acceptable slope angle, and what areas to avoid. Some experts like to mark the areas to avoid by using the shape drawing tool — this way we can visually see zones to stay out of when in the backcountry.

Easily build a route on a computer, while in service, or when offline in the backcountry. Photo: Erika Lee

Final Planning Steps

Once we’ve established a plan, it’s time to double check the weather, avalanche conditions, and snowpack in that zone. onX Backcountry enables us to do all of that directly from the phone or computer.

1. Check past & present conditions

With built-in SnoTel data points, we can find the snow depth, windspeed, and new snow totals, temperature, and other information by clicking the black and white snowflake icon in a location close to the zone we’re planning to visit. By gathering these details, we build a history of the snowpack and correlate the avalanche forecast to the specific zone we’re planning to visit.

2. Add notes & waypoints for reference

It’s a good idea to highlight specific spots that we’ll stop at, gather information, or check in with the group. Bluebird’s team likes to add waypoints and name the point based on location and purpose — for example “transition point” or “option A descent”. onX provides pre-loaded titles for waypoints, like “camp spot” or “pit location”, making it quick and simple to add these waypoints when we’re scouting for future courses, winter camp locations, or good snow data collection points.

Don’t forget to label waypoints. onX makes this simple with built-in types of waypoints and the option to name each point. Photo: Erika Lee

3. Download maps

Once we’ve established a plan and built route options, we can easily download the routes, waypoints, and full map (including slope overlay and 3D mode) for offline use. If you’re interested in learning more about how to use digital maps for navigation, check out Bluebird’s Backcountry 3 lesson where you’ll learn all things maps and navigation.

4. Share routes

It is easy to share routes, waypoints, and any notes with a touring group through onX. We quickly send a shareable link from a computer or phone via a text or email, and our friends can open it on their onX Backcountry application. When a file is shared, it automatically saves on their account (but the user must still download the map for offline use). Don’t forget to always share your route and general tour plan with someone outside of your touring group in case of an emergency.

Continuing to assess the terrain and snowpack when in the backcountry is critical to having a successful and fun day in the mountains. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Important Skills to Aquire

While GPS navigation tools and online resources make it relatively easy to plan a backcountry tour, there are critical skills that must be acquired before entering the backcountry. Here are the important things for you to know, and opportunities to learn these skills. 

1. Know how to recognize avalanche terrain

Take an AIARE avalanche course, then practice with a Backcountry 3 lesson to build an understanding for navigation and identifying avalanche terrain. In these courses, you’ll start to learn how to know what’s underneath the surface of the snow — developing a history of the snowpack helps you recognize the potential avalanche danger.

2. Practice with avalanche rescue techniques and gear

While avoiding avalanche terrain all together is a solid plan for backcountry travel, accidents happen. It’s necessary for any form of backcountry travel in the winter to both carry avalanche rescue gear and know how to use it. Taking an Avalanche Rescue course every season is a critical part of responsible backcountry travel.

3. Obtain basic emergency skills

Preparing for the unexpected is a critical step in responsible backcountry travel. Understanding what to do in case of a winter emergency and carrying the proper equipment are two more steps in building your backcountry tool kit. Check out Bluebird’s Winter Emergency Skills blog to learn all about these skills.

4. Know how to move through backcountry terrain

If you’re new to the sport of touring, consider taking an introduction to backcountry touring course, and building upon those skills with other lessons to understand how to use your gear and move through winter environments.

5. Learn group management and decision making skills

Touring alone is never a good idea. And when traveling with multiple people, group dynamics always pop up. Develop group management skills and understand how to move a group and yourself through terrain by taking an AIARE 1 or 2 avalanche course.

Prepare for the Unexpected: Winter Emergency Skills

Inclement weather, snow-covered terrain, and cold temperatures can add extra spice to any winter backcountry outing. With good gear and knowledge, you can be prepared for an unexpected situation, regardless of the temps or your location. We may be biased, but we think there’s no better place to learn these skills than in person at Bluebird Backcountry. This season, we’ve launched a new course, Winter Emergency Skills — a full-day, interactive course covering the basics of cold-weather survival skills in the best classroom around. 

Here’s a taste of their Winter Emergency Skills course, along with gear recommendations from Bluebird’s team for staying warm when exploring in winter environments.

Students practice the Burrito Wrap technique in Bluebird’s Winter Emergency Skills Course. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Skills to Acquire

When learning to backcountry ski or splitboard, there are some basic skills you need to know that can be acquired through Bluebird’s education progression. These skills include the following; how to transition from uphill to downhill mode, what to carry in your pack and how to use your gear.

Once you’ve mastered the basics, it’s time to move on to more advanced skills and take your riding to the next level. Winter Emergency Skills teaches the critical competencies you need to feel confident traveling in the backcountry. Here’s a brief overview:

1. Making a Shelter

There’s many ways to build an emergency shelter, but deep snow and available resources may limit the options. Snow acts as an insulator — if it’s windy or frigid, consider digging into the snow for protection. If there’s enough snow, you can dig a trench into the side of a hill. Make sure it’s deep enough to fit your whole party then over the trench with your emergency tarp or shelter. Another option is to build a lean-to shelter or makeshift wind-break with branches. You can spread your tarp on top to provide extra protection.

Students build a shelter in Bluebird Backcountry’s Winter Emergency Skills Course. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

2. Creating Heat

There are many ways to build heat in the backcountry — movement being number one — but once you stop moving it becomes a lot harder to stay warm. Start by putting on warm, dry layers. Insulating layers only retain heat, so it’s important to build up warmth before you stop moving… jumping jacks or burpees always do the trick. If you’re caring for an injured person, or stuck for an extended period of time, the best thing to do is build a fire. This provides heat and helps you melt snow if you need drinking water. 

Learn how to make a fire in cold environments and put together fire starters for your backcountry kit in Bluebird’s Winter Emergency Skills course!

3. Signaling for Help

Depending on your location in the backcountry, you may or may not have cell service. A satellite phone or SOS communication device (Garmin InReach, etc) is an essential item to carry for all winter recreationists. Finding a high point, like a ridge or summit, will sometimes provide better service. Even when you don’t have service, always try calling 911. When 911 is dialed on cell phones the signal is boosted to include all carriers in the region, so you may be able to get a call through. 

If none of the above work, it’s time to start using old-school tactics. If you have a fire, add green debris to make a smoke signal. Hang a bright piece of clothing in an open field for helicopters to see, and carry a whistle to call for help.

Students discuss what to do in an emergency situation at Bluebird Backcountry. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

What to Carry

Whether you’re planning a simple half-day outing or long ski traverse, it’s important to have the essentials in case of injury or an emergency situation that requires staying overnight in the backcountry. Always pack extra food and water, warm layers, a first aid kit, fire starters, knife, SOS device, and some form of tarp. Here are the best items for staying warm and dry in the snow:

  • Hers and his ultralight yet incredibly cozy down jackets.
  • Breathable mid-layer jacket – Bluebird employees basically live in this jacket all winter.
  • Sleeping bag for extra warmth – Aim for a zero degree temperature rating.
  • Foam pad to sit/lay on – This can double as a splint or emergency sled if needed.
  • Inflatable Pad — For added comfort, if you’ve got the extra space.
  • Tarp – To be used as a shelter, makeshift sled, or to protect an injured person from the elements.

Bluebird employees gather at the base area after a day on the mountain, clad in Big Agnes to stay warm. Photo: Erik Lambert

If you’re interested in diving deeper into these topics, check out Bluebird’s Winter Emergency Skills Advanced Course. You’ll get hands-on practice with building shelters and making fires, discuss how to care for injured persons when in remote locations, and breakout Big Agnes’s gear to practice all of the above.

Backcountry Tips & Tricks, Part 3: Personal Care

Let’s Get Personal

Self-care is group care — you are no good to the group if you’re too cold, hungry, or tired to travel safely, make group decisions, or assist in a potential rescue situation. Here are some tips for how to care for your personal needs while touring.

Properly layer before hitting the skin track, it will help make your ascent more efficient. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Dressing the Part

  1. Layers are your best friend – Multiple versatile layers are more beneficial than a few thick layers. This way, you have more options for the unpredictable mountain weather. Carry various layers including a waterproof jacket, insulated layers, and wind protection. It takes time to find the perfect combo so test out different options before settling on your go-to layering system.
  2. Stay warm, but not too warm – Be bold and start cold on the skin track. You’ll quickly warm up when going uphill. Try to prevent excessive sweating, as this leads to wet layers, and be cautious of long periods with no movement. Most people lose heat very quickly when they stop moving in cold conditions. About 200 feet from the summit or your stopping point, put an extra layer on, then continue uphill to build heat before stopping. Check out more tips on staying warm in the backcountry here.
  3. Keep your skin covered – Exposure to the sun and cold can be lead to serious ramifications. Make an effort to keep as much of your skin covered as possible, and put sunscreen on whatever is exposed to the skin. Buffs are the best neck protection for both spring sunshine and winter cold. And don’t forget the brimmed hat, even when it’s negative temps!

Never forget the brimmed hat on a sunny day. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Fueling for Success

  1. Eat more than you think you’ll need — You may not know how many calories you’ll burn on any given backcountry tour, but we can assure you that on cold days your body will use more energy (in the form of calories) working to keep itself warm. Make sure to fuel up before touring, and have carbohydrate and fat-rich foods for snacks throughout the day.
  2. Always carry snacks in accessible pockets — If you start to bonk on the skin track, digging through your pack to find snacks is even more frustrating than usual. Keep some snacks in your pockets for breaks or transition periods. Bonus: putting energy bars in your chest pocket helps keep them warm … because no one likes biting into a frozen energy bar.
  3. Stay hydrated — It’s easy to forget to drink water when it’s cold out and you’ve got powder fever. No matter the air temps, being at elevation and in windy conditions more quickly leads to dehydration. Carry warm water in a thermos; it’s easier to drink when it’s cold out and helps keep you warm & hydrated.

Take the time to prepare a good breakfast before hitting the skin track, your stomach will thank you later. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Treating Aches and Pains

  1. Prevention is key — It’s worth a bit of pre-work to prevent any injuries or pain while in the backcountry. Make sure your boots fit well, you have the right layers for the weather, you’re physically able to accomplish your goals, and there’s no underlying injuries you’re ignoring to search out fresh powder. It’s easier to treat any aches and pains while at home than when you’re in a cold, wet, exposed environment.
  2. Carry what works for you — The basic first aid kits are great as a starting point, but if  you know that Aleve works better than Ibuprofen for you when your back seizes up, add that to your bag! Personalize your first aid kit in a way that works for you, while still carrying the essentials.
  3. Duct tape those blisters — It may sound strange, but it does the trick. The minute you feel a blister coming on, pull out your repair kit or first aid kit, dry off the area around your hotspot, and apply some tape on top of the blister or hot spot. Duct tape sticks better than Moleskin, removes relatively easily, and prevents friction between your skin and boots.
  4. Worship your feet — You’ll spend most of the day (or week) on your feet when touring, so treat them kindly! Make sure to pre-apply duct tape (as mentioned above) or blister dressings to areas you know you easily get blisters. Give your feet some breathing room by not buckling your boots too tight, and follow these tips on how to keep your feet warm.

Loosely buckle your boots for the uptrack to prevent loss of circulation or blisters. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Mentally Prepare

  1. Pay attention to where your head’s at – Backcountry touring can be mentally taxing. After all, you’re dealing with many variables and potentially life-threatening terrain. If you’re having a mentally off day, or not feeling great, share this with your group before leaving the trailhead, or give yourself permission to take a rest day. Being mentally aware is important for backcountry travel.
  2. Listen to your body — The human brain can be astonishingly strong — even when our bodies are telling us to take a break. Physical exhaustion can lead to potentially life-threatening situations if you’re far from help. Make sure you’re both physically and mentally prepared and feeling good before embarking on a backcountry tour.

Checking in with your group makes for more fun throughout the day! Photo: Erik Lambert

Take personal care seriously in the backcountry — this habit helps keep the excitement alive for more adventures. It also shows your ski buddies you care about being a good backcountry partner and ultimately this benefits all parts of your backcountry touring experience. Check out Part 1 of this series focused on education and Part 2, all things gear to complete your backcountry tool kit. We hope this 3 part Tips & Tricks blog helps you feel more confident when exploring winter environments.

Backcountry Tips & Tricks, Part 2: Gear

All Things Gear

There are many new skills to learn when stepping into the rewarding uptrack of backcountry touring — last week’s focus of education was just the beginning. The next major topic to cover is all this backcountry gear. From purchasing equipment to what to carry, we’ve put together a list of tips and tricks to help you dial in your gear and backcountry travel.

A rider learns how to use their equipment while transitioning to downhill mode in the aspen glades of Bluebird Backcountry. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Getting Started

  1. Try before you buy – Backcountry gear can be a big investment! Find a way to demo or rent gear before purchasing. This will help you decide what you like and don’t like. Bluebird Backcountry is a great place to try gear and see if you like the backcountry touring scene before getting your own ski or splitboard set up. Bluebird’s rental fleet consists of various top brands, including Black Diamond, Dynafit, Ortovox, Elan and Weston.
  2. Know your gear – Do some research so you understand how to fix your skis/splitboard and boots if something breaks when you’re far away from a repair shop. It’s better to know before you really need to know. Bluebird offers an Equipment Maintenance & Repairs course to address any questions you can’t find answers to on the internet and provide a hands-on learning experience with field repairs and maintenance.
  3. Put your beacon on at the house – When you put your bibs or ski pants on at home, don your beacon harness or put your beacon in its designated pocket. This way you’re guaranteed to have it when you show up to the trailhead. Plus, you won’t have to de-layer in the parking lot to put your beacon harness on top of your base layer (that’s the proper place to wear a beacon harness).
  4. Keep extra batteries in your carFor the inevitable day when you show up to the trailhead and realize you forgot to turn your beacon off last weekend, store extra batteries in both your car and repair kit.

 

A group practices avalanche rescue techniques at Bluebird Backcountry, familiarizing themselves with their gear. Photo: Doug McLennan

What to Pack

  1. Carry the right tools – Depending on the season, carry ski wax (cold temps), skin wax (warm, wet temps) and a scraper. Having a multi-tool with the heads to adjust specific screws on your equipment is important as well.
  2. Take two headlamps – It’s a real bummer when one of your headlamps simply stops working. Carry an extra headlamp in your repair kit for longer tours, hut trips, or emergency situations.
  3. Two pairs of gloves are better than oneNo matter the weather, always have a spare set of gloves at the bottom of your pack for those wet or extra cold days.
  4. The more ski straps the betterRubber ski straps (Voile or other similar styles) are one of the greatest tools in the backcountry. Acting as a multi-tool of sorts — use them to repair a lost or broken skin clip, help secure old skins that aren’t sticking to your skis/board any more, fix a broken binding in a pinch, and so much more! Keep one wrapped around your ski pole or in a pocket for easy access and two or three more stowed in your pack.
  5. Always have the essentialsCarry a first aid kit, emergency communication device, navigation tools, light of sorts, fire starter kit, extra layers, food, water, and a shelter of sorts. There’s many resources to learn about what the essentials are for winter backcountry travel including Bluebird’s Winter Emergency Skills course, where you will learn about building shelters, the best gear to carry, and how to manage emergency situations in cold environments.

The contents of a basic repair kit. Photo: Lucas Mouttet

When Touring

    1. Keep the goggles in your pack – Unless it’s snowing hard and very cold, store your goggles in a dry place in your pack and wear sunglasses while skinning, then transition to the goggles for the downhill. This tactic will prevent your goggles from fogging on the uptrack. Make sure to always wear some form of eye protection when in the mountains — snow blindness is real and not something you want to experience.
    2. Take good care of your skins – Forgetting to properly care for your skins, even just once, can ruin a high-quality set. Follow these rules during and after every tour and your skins will last you many seasons:
      1. Store them (in the field and at home) glue to glue, or roll them if the manufacturer recommends. 
      2. Keep the glue side off the snow as much as possible
      3. Remove ice/snow from the top or bottom sides when you first notice buildup. 
      4. Properly dry them out after every single tour by hanging them to dry by a heat source or in a warm place. 
      5. Keep skins away from animal hair/fur and dirt as much as possible.

A guest at Bluebird checks his skins to make sure the tail clip is properly attached before heading uphill. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

It takes time to find the right gear and understand how to use it. Consider taking an intro to touring course with your local guiding service, or check out Bluebird Backcountry near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It’s a great place to take a lesson, go out on your own, and explore more advanced terrain in an avalanche-managed environment. Check back next week for part 3 of this series — tips and tricks for personal care while backcountry touring. 

If you’re interested in learning more basics, like how to build a repair kit, and tips on skinning technique, check out Bluebird Backcountry Community’s Premium Membership — an virtual hang-out space with courses, gear exchange groups, partner finders, and forums.

How to Stay Warm While Backcountry Touring

When temps drop, it takes a lot more energy to stay warm while out in the backcountry. If frigid temperatures cause you to opt for the hot tub instead of the skin track, consider using these tips to improve your next touring experience.

1. Strategically layer.

It’s all about the layers! Start with a thermo-regulating base layer then add multiple thin layers on top. Carrying multiple lightweight layers instead of a few heavy layers allows for more adaptability to conditions. Most importantly, avoid cotton at all costs — it doesn’t breathe well and takes a long time to dry.

2. Arrive ready.

Show up at the trailhead ready to hit the skin track — pants, skins, and beacon on, backpack packed, and ready to go. Standing around in the cold for too long is hard to recover from on chilly mornings. That said, you’ll likely spend some time discussing a tour plan and doing a beacon check before leaving the parking lot, so put an extra puffy jacket on during your morning check in.

Start off with less layers than you’d usually wear for the skin up. Photo: Doug McLennan

3. Start Cold.

You’ll warm up the second you start moving. Knowing this, start a little colder than comfortable to avoid getting sweaty right away. It’s important to not let sweat lead to damp clothes as these items will take a longer to dry in cold temps and wearing damp layers will inevitably make you colder.

4. Prewarm Gear.

During the drive to the trailhead, put your gloves on the dashboard and boots near a heating vent in the car. Beginning a cold morning with toasty gloves and boots will help keep your hands and feet warm for the remainder of the day.

5. Pace Wisely. 

Moving is the number one way to build heat, but moving too quickly will lead to excess perspiration and exhaustion. Try to set a maintainable pace that allows you to keep warm without sweating and limit the stop-and-go breaks to a minimum.

Setting a mellow pace for the whole group leads to less breaks and more time for shredding. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

6. Don’t ignore extremities. 

Often, cold hands or feet are a sign of a lowered core temperature and prolonged exposure to cold temperatures can lead to long-term nerve damage. Focus on keeping your core warm and check out these tricks for keeping your hands and feet warm.

7. Fuel Up.

You don’t always realize how many more calories you burn in cold weather until you’re bonking on the skin track. Start the day with a good breakfast and focus on a regular intake of liquids and food during breaks or when moving slowly; this helps keep the furnace burning.

Don’t underestimate the power of carbohydrates for keeping you warm. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

8. Pack liquid heat.

Bring along an insulated bottle or thermos of hot tea or warm water — you won’t regret the added weight. Better yet, bring along a mug of soup for lunch! Warmth in cold environments helps keep morale high and gives you the energy for one more lap.

9. Warm up before transitioning.

Insulated jackets don’t generate heat, they just hold it. If you know the designated transition point or you’re about to stop for a longer break, put on an extra layer 20 yards before that stopping point then carry on. You’ll build up heat for your layers to retain once you stop moving.

10. Stay off the snow.

While it’s fun to play in, sitting down on wet snow for even a minute will likely lead to some of your layers getting saturated with water. Carry a small thermarest or insulated layer to sit on, or flip your skis skin-side up and use them as a bench.

Take lots of food and hydration breaks throughout the day to maintain your energy. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Staying warm, well fed and happy is the key to enjoying your backcountry experience. If you’re intimidated by a full-on backcountry experience, check out Bluebird Backcountry — it’s the perfect place to try out touring with added amenities to keep you warm, well-fed, and stoked to come back for more.

Backcountry Tips & Tricks, Part 1: Education

Snow covered peaks and smooth descents down untouched slopes in the backcountry is a practically irresistible pull for anyone skier or snowboarder, especially those looking to avoid resort traffic and exceedingly long lift lines. Yet the switch from resort to backcountry can be intimidating — there’s new gear, extreme elements, avalanche danger, and an added challenge of finding backcountry partners — that said, the feeling of earning your turns and riding untracked powder is worth any initial hurdles.

To help with the leap from lift to human-powered access, Bluebird’s education team compiled a 3-part series of backcountry tips for beginners. Starting with education, this blog focuses on advice about all things avalanche education and making the most of your first avalanche course. Report back for part 2 and 3 of the series where we dive into gear and personal care in the backcountry.


All Things Education

Every outdoor activity carries inherent risks. While we all hope we’ll never encounter an avalanche, hope is not enough preparation when traveling in areas with possibility of avalanches. It is imperative that you can identify avalanche terrain, get educated on how avalanches work, and understand what to do if you encounter or are caught in an avalanche. Here’s advice from experienced backcountry skiers and avalanche educators on how to get started with your avalanche education:

Before Your First Avalanche Course

  1. Start with the basics – Take an introduction to backcountry touring course before diving into your first avalanche course. There is a ton of information included in an avalanche course — becoming familiar with your gear and knowing how to travel in the snow will help you be more comfortable and thus able to absorb more information in your first avalanche course.
  2. Know your options – there are many avalanche course providers that use curriculum from the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) or other curriculum developers, approved by the American Avalanche Association (A3). While A3 oversees all avalanche education taught in the US, AIARE is regarded as the gold-star by many. They offer courses across the world with various providers, such as Bluebird Backcountry — one of the nation’s leading AIARE providers, and the only ski area in the world designed for backcountry education.
  3. Prepare for your course – follow these steps to get the most out of your avalanche course:
    • Do the pre-course reading and work – it will help you better understand the in-person content and not be too overwhelmed with new vocabulary.
    • Pack a warm beverage – Bring a thermos with coffee, tea, or warm water for the field portion of your class. This will keep you warm and motivated to learn!
    • Bring snacks to share – Pack enough snacks for yourself, plus some to share. It’s always nice when someone offers you gummy bears while on the skin track. 
    • Pack an extra layer – you’ll likely be standing around a fair amount and talking, so bring an extra down jacket to keep warm.

A group of students from Bluebird’s Backcountry 1 lesson practice their skinning technique. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

During Your Course

  1. Connect with your fellow students – avalanche courses are a great place to find future touring partners. Get your peers numbers and stay connected, it’s a bonus to already know that new touring partners have avalanche education equivalent to your knowledge/experience. 
  2. Ask questions – no question is a dumb question. It’s likely that if you are confused about something, there’s another person in your class confused as well. Speak up and get clarity on the information you need in order to get the most out of your lesson.
  3. Use the field book – the AIARE field book is an incredible resource. Make sure to use it during your course, then return to it on future personal tours as a tool for planning, managing terrain, and riding safely.

 

Students plan their route for the day at the before heading out in an AIARE Level 2 course at Bluebird Backcountry. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

After Your First Avalanche Course

    1. Keep practicing outside the classroom – these skills are perishable if not used. Continue to use the rescue, trip planning, and navigation tools you learn in avalanche courses by getting together with friends at a beacon park, having set times for tour planning conversations, and reading Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain.
    2. Start small – begin by planning simple tours in terrain you know and are comfortable in. Practice your skills by touring uphill at a resort, or better yet, come to Bluebird and explore avalanche-managed terrain and refine your tour planning, navigation, and decision-making skills in the perfect environment (that includes real fun terrain). 
    3. Refresh your skills each season – start with the AIARE course progression (Level 1, Avalanche Rescue, Level 2) by taking one course a season, then keep refining your skills at the beginning of each season by taking an avalanche refresher course.
    4. Track the season’s conditions – whether you tour 5 times per season or spend the whole winter in the backcountry, tracking the season’s snowpack and avalanche activity is critical for informed backcountry travel. Use your local avalanche forecasting center to read the forecast with your daily coffee, and reference the observations and forecast discussion to know what’s happening in your zone. You can also subscribe to many forecasting center’s bulletins — this ensures you get an email with the forecast each morning.  
    5. Find a good mentor – the backcountry touring community can be hard to enter, but there are many seasoned riders who are apt to mentor newbies and help you build a backcountry tool kit. There are forums and mentorship programs, and Bluebird has a Ski with a Mentor lesson that facilitates learning and relationship building.

Students watch as their AIARE Level 2 instructor digs into the season’s snowpack. Photo: Erik Lambert

Avalanche education is a life-long process. If you’re new to the backcountry world, start by signing up for a recreation level 1 course. Follow the steps outlined above to set yourself up for a great course, rewarding relationship with the ski track, and a fellow community of snow-lovers. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series discussing gear tips and tricks!

How to Prepare for a Season of Backcountry Touring

Get your gear and yourself ready for the Best. Season. Ever.

As the snow starts to accumulate at higher elevations, a spark is lit in the backcountry community—it is time to start preparing for the winter ahead. Just like transitions when touring, a planned process helps dust off the skis and bindings and get one thinking about avalanches, decision-making and winter conditions in the backcountry. Here’s are the areas we suggest adding to your preparation process:

Bluebird Backcountry guest checks to make sure the tail end of his skins is properly secured. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Check Your Gear

Pull out your skis, boots, and poles to check for any cracks, missing screws, or damaged pieces. Make sure the glue on your skins is not glopping up and the tip and tail pieces are in working order. Did you take a fall in your helmet last season or is it more than 5 years old? If so, it’s time to replace it. 

The final step in checking gear is inspecting your avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe. Start by putting fresh batteries in your beacon, then check to make sure all the lights work and the search and send functions are properly operating. An added step in preparation is to do a range test with your beacon to see if it’s reading off accurate distances. This task is not hard as it may sound—simply pace out 3 meters in a driveway, place a beacon at one end in the search mode, then test your beacon to make sure it reads around 3 meters. Move 1 meter closer and check the reading on your beacon. Do this until you are within 1 meter. The final step is to check your shovel and probe for any cracks, and make sure the locking mechanisms are in working order. Finally, check the cable/wire in your probe to see if it is ripped or fraying in any place.

Physically Prepare

Getting in physical shape for touring makes the experience far more enjoyable. Backcountry skiing and splitboarding requires a lot of physical strength in more than just your legs, so doing some well-rounded total-body workouts along with cardio is really beneficial to get the most out of the downhill after working hard on the uphill. The better shape you’re in, the more laps you can do!

Mentally Prepare

A significant focus of avalanche education is understanding our own heuristics—the mental shortcuts or patterns that allow us to make decisions and solve problems. These heuristics influence trip plans, decisions made prior to touring and while in the mountains, and how we deal with unexpected situations. Think about the inherent dangers of backcountry touring, dig into how you make decisions, know where your blind spots are—are you motivated by powder or easily succumb to what other people think is right without voicing your opinion? Taking the time to understand your mental processing and decision making leads you to being an aware and reliable backcountry rider and partner.

Bluebird AIARE instructor demonstrates how to take notes while digging a snow pit. Photo: Erik Lambert

Refresh Your Skills with Continued Education and Practice

Another major factor of mentally preparing is reviewing avalanche education materials and continuing to learn. This step is so critical in the mental preparation area that it gets its own category. Before the season begins, make sure to review your avalanche education materials, sign up for an Avy Refresher Course, and practice with your rescue gear. Then practice again and again! Revisiting avalanche education materials before the season begins is a great way to both mentally prepare and get stoked for backcountry adventures. Focus on reviewing the following areas: avalanche rescue, trip planning and touring in a group, how to do a proper debrief, weather/snow conditions leading to specific avalanche hazards, tracking the snowpack. If you’ve never taken an avalanche course and plan to recreate in the backcountry this winter, we highly recommend signing up for an AIARE 1. If you don’t feel experienced enough to do that yet, come take our Backcountry 1–3 lessons at Bluebird to get practice with touring equipment and basic backcountry skills.

Start to Track the Conditions

If you’ve taken your AIARE Rec 1 or 2, you know how important it is to understand what’s happened over the entire season in order to track the current avalanche danger. The day your local forecasting center starts writing forecasts for the winter (usually at the beginning to mid-November), start reading them! Sign up for daily forecast emails and make a habit of reading the forecast with your morning coffee. CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) is the forecasting center for all mountain ranges in Colorado, check out their website! Focus on the Avalanche Hazard Rating and the General Summary along with tracking the type of avalanche problem, then dive deeper into the Forecast Discussion and Observations if you’re more experienced. As you start to tour in the early season, make note of what you’re seeing happen with weather changes (crusts forming, fresh snow, rain on snow, etc.). This will assist you in understanding what’s happening on top of and within the snowpack. After all, in general the layers of highest concern lie buried below the surface.

Find Appropriate Partners

One of the most challenging parts of touring is finding backcountry ski/snowboard partners that have similar goals and the necessary education to travel responsibly in and around avalanche terrain. The first step is to get the education yourself—be the best backcountry partner you can—then be honest with what your education and experience levels are when looking for partners. Meeting partners in avalanche education courses is always a great option, or consider checking out our Partner Finder on Bluebird Backcountry Community. Come to Bluebird with someone who you’re interested in touring with as a low-consequence trial day before planning a bigger tour day.

Backcountry partners pause mid-tour to discuss their objectives and get a sense of their location. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

The 6 steps outlined above are a great starting point to prepare for a winter and spring of backcountry touring. The process outlined above is time-tested by avalanche professionals and guides, encompassing the most critical preparation steps in order to keep returning for more powder turns, and winters, in the backcountry!

What’s Next After Backcountry Basics and Your AIARE 1?

Last year you completed Bluebird’s Backcountry 1–3 lessons, then ended the season with an AIARE 1. Or maybe you’ve taken AIARE 1 and 2 and are looking to take your touring to the next level… So what’s next? 

At Bluebird, we believe in the importance of instruction and mentorship before jumping into the deep end of backcountry touring and big-mountain objectives. That’s why we’ve added Advanced Courses to our education program this season. These courses are designed for more experienced backcountry travelers. These courses offer hands-on instruction of technical skills, along with time to practice what you learned in your backcountry training and AIARE courses. It’s a great way to round out your backcountry toolkit and build experience and confidence in a more controlled environment.

From the nitty gritty of gear maintenance to ski mountaineering skills, our Advanced Courses offer a wide variety of information. We recommend taking Backcountry 4 – Reading Terrain and Backcountry Leadership and Communication as a starting point, then exploring other courses that interest you.

Take a look at Bluebird’s Advanced Courses for the 21/22 season!

START HERE

 

Backcountry 4 – Reading Terrain

In order to be aware and travel wisely in the backcountry, you must be able to read terrain, interpret avalanche hazards and danger ratings, and build a solid plan for the day. Reading Terrain offers a chance to practice these skills and is a great step for those who have taken AIARE 1. Come practice with navigation tools, route planning, and build a strong understanding of how to efficiently travel in and around avalanche terrain. 

Backcountry Leadership and Communication

Days in the backcountry quickly become frustrating when leadership and communication is not executed well. That’s why we believe this is a crucial course for everyone, no matter your backcountry experience! This course covers risk tolerance, how to set up the tour day for success, decision making in groups, the importance of debriefs and learning from experience, and why strategic communication, leadership, and planning are so important. Plus, this is all done while touring and riding!

EXPLORE MORE ADVANCED TOPICS

 

Winter Emergency Skills

Last season we did a short clinic on winter emergency skills, and this year we are diving in way deeper! We’ll learn what to do in a backcountry winter emergency, what it takes to remove an injured person from the backcountry, and the fundamentals of communication during these situations. Come prepared to dig in the snow, build rescue sleds, and learn critical skills to help build your confidence as you step farther into the backcountry.

A group of students builds an emergency overnight shelter in a clinic at Bluebird Backcountry. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Equipment Maintenance and Repair

Many of us have felt the sting of purchasing expensive backcountry touring equipment. This course teaches you how to maintain your equipment so it lasts longer and how to repair unexpected breaks in the field. Plus, get some pointers on what to put in your repair kit. 

Ski Mountaineering 1

Ever wondered what ski mountaineering really is? This course is the perfect introduction for anyone interested in taking their backcountry touring to the next level in bigger mountains. Your instructor will break out their ski-mountaineering equipment, teach the basic skills of ascending and descending in steep terrain, and explore our expert terrain at Bluebird to get a feel for what ski mountaineering is all about. It’s recommended that anyone taking this course is an experienced backcountry rider, is very comfortable with their equipment and transitions, and is able to ride 35º+ terrain.

Ski mountaineer on Three Fingered Jack. Photo: Ben Kitching via Unsplash

Women In The Backcountry : Next Level Skills

Come spend the day learning in a fun and welcoming environment with the incredible Brittany Konsella—highly accomplished ski mountaineer, all around shredder, and second woman to ski all the 14’ers in Colorado. This course is designed for female-identifying and non-binary individuals looking to bolster their backcountry skills and take their riding to even farther into the backcountry. It is recommended that participants have taken their AIARE 1 or have at least 2+ years of backcountry experience. This six-hour course will discuss all the details of backcountry touring for gear for female-bodied individuals, dive into group communication and varied travel styles, and discuss how to set goals. You’ll walk away with tips and tricks from experts on steep skiing/riding and all this backcountry touring. 

REFRESH YOUR AVALANCHE KNOWLEDGE AT THE BEGINNING OF THE SEASON

 

Avy Refresher Course

Designed for anyone who’s taken an AIARE 1 or 2, Avalanche Rescue Course, or those with many years of backcountry experience. This one-day course (with a digital component as well) is meant to be taken near the beginning of every season to brush up on your rescue skills, practice reading and navigating terrain, and re-engage your avalanche awareness after a summer away from snow.

Still looking for more? We’ll be offering 4 specialty clinics throughout the season with experienced guest instructors. 

The old-school way of learning how to backcountry ski involved throwing newbies into harsh environments with little instruction or fun baked in. We think there’s a better way. That’s why Bluebird has developed our educational progression that starts with the basics, prepares you for your avalanche education, then provides opportunities to practice these skills with a bit more instruction in a less risky environment. Take the next step and continue to progress in your backcountry pursuits with Bluebird! And please let us know if there’s something else you’d love to learn about backcountry skiing or avalanche safety that you don’t see here. We’re always evolving our curriculum and pay special attention to our guests.

Are you an Advanced+ Member? You get access to two advanced courses (or an Avalanche Refresher course) as part of your membership! 

Sign up for an advanced course today and get ready for the Best. Winter. Ever.

5 Reasons to Refresh Your Avalanche Knowledge Every Season

Whether you took your last avalanche course this season or last decade, you’re probably due for a refresher. Avalanche knowledge is a lot like learning a language or practicing calculus—if you don’t do it for a while, you start to get pretty rusty pretty fast. And we don’t mean to be dramatic, but in avalanche terrain, knowing your stuff can literally be the difference between life and death.

If reminding you how little calculus you remember didn’t do the trick, here are five more reasons to consider signing up for an avalanche refresher course at the start of the coming season.

Two backcountry skiers look at snow crystals during an avalanche safety course.

Avalanche refresher courses give you an opportunity to ask deeper questions and learn the latest science. Photo: Erik Lambert

1. Your brain is your most essential piece of safety equipment.

You wouldn’t go a season without tuning up your skis, right? Likewise, it pays to polish up your avalanche awareness knowledge ahead of a new season. We know plenty of skiers who are diligent about inventorying their first aid gear and perfecting their repair kit but go years between clinics or courses. Remember: Your equipment can only take you so far when it comes to avalanche terrain. It’s smart decision making and sharp know-how that really keep you safe out there.

2. The science is constantly changing.

Every year, papers come out with new findings about what triggers avalanches and what the most effective rescue methods are. Snow science is still a growing field of study. The best way to make sure you know the latest? Take a refresher course with an avalanche professional on an annual basis.   

Two backcountry skiers with avalanche shovels practice avalanche rescue digging techniques

When seconds matter, having your rescue techniques dialed can make the difference between life and death. Photo: Owen Richards

3. Life-saving rescue depends on muscle memory.

When an avalanche strikes, you only have about 15 minutes to get to buried victims before they run out of oxygen. In high-pressure scenarios—like having to save a friend’s life—stress hormones and racing thoughts impair your critical thinking. Your brain just can’t problem-solve on the fly. Instead, you rely heavily on whatever is committed to rote memory. That means that avalanche rescue techniques only work if everyone in your party is sharp on their skills and can perform a search without thinking twice.

4. There are tons of different techniques for different scenarios.

What if you’re rescuing someone by yourself? What about a multiple-burial situation? The more you know about backcountry skiing or riding, the more specific questions you’ll begin to have. If you took your AIARE 1 course as a novice skier, you may not have known the right questions to ask. Even if you did, you likely didn’t know enough to absorb all the different nuances. Taking an avalanche refresher course every year gives you the opportunity to fill in the gaps as you become more in-tune with your own needs and concerns.

Two backcountry skiers in a snowy landscape look at the slopes in the distance.

Staying up-to-date on your avalanche skills makes you a better mentor. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

5. It makes you a better mentor.

Maybe you have friends who are curious about splitboarding. Maybe you want to backcountry-ski with your son or daughter someday. Part of the beauty of backcountry skiing and riding is that they’re community-based sports with legacies of mentorship and lifelong learning. Hang around long enough, and you’ll find yourself with an opportunity to mentor someone you care about.

The best way to make sure you’re ready when that time comes is to keep your avalanche knowledge fresh and up to date. After all, when you pass on the best information you can, you’re doing your part to keep the next generation of skiers and riders safer than the last.

 

Book your AIARE 1, AIARE 2, or AIARE Avalanche Rescue, or avalanche refresher course today.

Backcountry Skiing with Kids: How to Get Started

Between the safety considerations, fitness requirements, and sheer scarcity of small-enough gear, backcountry skiing with kids can feel like a daunting task. But once you’ve fallen in love with the wide-open landscapes and winter solitude, it’s natural to want to share it with your child. We can say from experience that there’s nothing more rewarding.

One of the founding goals of Bluebird Backcountry was to create a ski area that was safe and accessible for new skiers and riders to learn their craft—and kiddos definitely fall into that category. After seasons of working with guides, parents, and experienced instructors, a few common themes have emerged. 

Here are some of the most important steps for staying safe, having fun, and fostering a lifelong love of backcountry skiing with kids.

Bluebird has provided a safe, beginner-friendly environment for the McLennan girls. Photo: Rob McLennan

1. Go Hiking Together 


According to dad and Bluebird regular Quentin Schappa, getting his son proficient on skis started a long time ago—and a long way from snow. 

“The first step is to get the kids interested in hiking. You can do that in the summer. My kids have been hiking since they could walk,” he says. By the time Schappa’s son Brody was seven years old, he’d summited four Fourteeners. But the climbs weren’t about building fitness, Schappa says.  

“When you go up to elevation in Colorado, every day in summer there’s a thunderstorm,” he explains. “So I had to teach them, ‘Is it safe to go up? What time is it? How high do we want to go?’ And of course when you have to turn around 200 feet from the summit, that teaches you an important lesson, too—that the victory is in the journey.” 

All those learnings became invaluable as the family ventured into snowshoeing and, later, backcountry skiing. 

Baby Rhea has become a regular at Bluebird even before her first days on skis. Photo: Molly Fales

2. Get the Kids on Skis

Little kids learn fast. Take advantage of the learning years and put them in ski school early if you can, says ski guide Kyle Judson, whose son first stood up on skis when he was two years old. (It’s OK if you don’t have that kind of access to ski resorts—even annual family ski trips can give kids a huge boost.) 

Getting a head start on ski skills will ease the transition to ungroomed snow later on. And there are other skills kids can have fun learning when they’re young, too, Judson says.

“I guess we’ve been preparing him for backcountry skiing his whole life, whether he knew it or not,” Judson says. “We would play hide-and-go-seek with beacons when he was four or five years old. He always thought that was pretty cool.” 

3. Foster the Stoke

When you introduce your kid to a new sport, it’s important to make sure the excitement is coming from the kid, not projected by the parent, says Schappa. For his family, watching Warren Miller and Teton Gravity Research ski movies has been a fun source of inspiration. He says his kids love having pro athletes to look up to. Plus, ski movies provide valuable insight behind the scenes.

“At the resort, the kids are doing 18 to 25 laps a day,” says Schappa. “When you have to hike a bunch and just do one or two runs, that’s a different mindset.” For Brody, now 11, watching his heroes hike up ridge lines definitely brought that message home. Schappa says it prepared Brody for switching gears when he learned to uphill ski. 

Finding gear that fits can be one of the biggest challenges of backcountry skiing with kids. Photo: Rob McLennan

4. Get the Gear

Finding the right gear can be one of the biggest limitations to backcountry skiing with kids.

“You just can’t find touring bindings small enough for really young kids,” Schappa says. That’s one of the main reasons his children had to wait until they were 9 years old to start touring.

Brody Schappa currently uses Marker F10 touring bindings, which come at a low enough DIN setting to accommodate a kid’s light weight. He also uses Hagan Z02 skis and skimo skins (which don’t have clips in the back) that Schappa cut to size himself.     

Kyle Judson’s son, who’s now 14, has had luck fitting into women’s gear, which comes in smaller sizes. Judson adds that consignment stores, used gear shops like the Wilderness Exchange and Confluence Kayaks, and even Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist have been invaluable for tracking down small gear at an affordable price. 

Bluebird Backcountry’s mellow, accessible terrain has made an ideal early stomping ground for the Judson family. Photo: Kyle Judson

5. Pick an Easy First Objective 

When picking a first backcountry ski objective for kids, the key is to start small.

One example: Bluebird staff member Rob McLennan first took his oldest daughter backcountry skiing when she was 14. “Our first uphill outing was literally out the back door of our condo, across the golf course, and along a bike trail,” he explains. “It gave us the ability to turn around at any point and be home in minutes.” Heading out without a set objective or turnaround point helps keep things relaxed. That way, your kid can choose to tour at his or her own comfort level. 

Similarly, Judson took his son out on a groomed road pretty close to the house. It was a zone with zero avalanche danger and just enough uphill to get used to touring gear. 

After that, the next step for both McLennan and Judson was coming to Bluebird. There, patrolled boundaries, avalanche mitigation, and base-area amenities all help provide a safe learning space that puts young minds at ease, they say.  

Whenever Judson and his son ski together, safety discussions are a constant. Photo: Kyle Judson

6. Focus on Safety

In 2018, despite extensive avalanche education and years of professional ski guiding experience, Kyle Judson was caught in an avalanche. He was carried 1,000 vertical feet and sustained serious injuries. For his son, the incident brought avalanche safety very close to home.

“Education became a big thing for us. So, teaching him why avalanches happen in certain terrain versus other terrain, and teaching him what can be done to prevent it,” Judson says. “I started trying to shed light on those big unknowns.”

Having fun is important, says Judson, but for his family, safety always comes first in the backcountry. It’s a frequent point of discussion whenever he and his son ski together.

As for kids venturing out on their own? Education is the first consideration, Judson says.

“I think 16 or 17 is probably an appropriate age to take an AIARE course,” he explains. “Eearlier than that, the seriousness of it might be lost a bit. But once they’re understanding the risks and responsibilities around driving a vehicle or watching a sibling, I feel like they’re able to absorb more of that information.” 

Both Schappa and Judson say they feel 18 is an appropriate age for beginning to think about letting their kids go backcountry touring without mom or dad. That is, as long as they have a demonstrated understanding of the terrain and a solid tour plan in place. 

Giant s’mores from the Bluebird Snack Yurt make a great post-tour reward. Photo: Quentin Schappa

7. Keep it Fun 

“You want to make sure your kids understand what’s happening and that they feel like part of the team,” Judson says. “And you also want to make sure it doesn’t feel like a burden or something they don’t want to do.” 

Judson tries to balance educational moments on the mountain with plenty of breaks, goofing off, and check-ins to make sure everyone is comfortable.

For McLennan, snacks are another key ingredient to keeping the stoke high. Gummies like watermelon Clif Bloks, gummy bears, sour gummy worms, and Swedish fish are among his daughters’ favorites. Whenever they stop to discuss snowpack, everyone gets a treat.

“The key is to focus on safety, fun, and learning—in that order,” McLennan says.