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. 

I Tried Backcountry at Bluebird—What Now?

Congratulations! If you just finished up your first day at Bluebird, you’ve embarked on your journey to earning your turns. It’s a whole different world than riding the lift up, right? (Just ask your tired quads.) 

Now that you’ve gotten a taste for the backcountry, it’s time for some continuing development. Part of the backcountry’s allure is that it’s an unforgiving place, and being a mindful, informed, avalanche-aware skier is a lifelong practice. However, learning as much as you can and getting some experience under your belt early on is one of the best ways to keep enjoying those powder turns for many seasons to come. Here’s what’s next. 

Keep showing up

Practice makes perfect—and Bluebird’s ski patrol means you can focus on honing technique rather than on avalanche danger. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Like any skill worth having, backcountry skiing or splitboarding requires practice. The best way to hone your technique (and get fit enough to have fun at altitude) is to click into those bindings and skin uphill as often as possible. We may be biased, but we definitely recommend coming to Bluebird Backcountry a few times during your learning years. That’s because here you have a ski-patrolled zone to explore—a less risky option than heading out into the unpatrolled backcountry before you have those crucial avalanche awareness skills. (Bonus: Bluebird guests get a discount for themselves and a friend on their second visit (check your post-visit email for the discount code.)

Take your first (or second) lesson

If you’ve taken a downhill-skiing or  snowboarding lesson at a resort, you know it’s impossible to master all the skills in just one day. The same applies when you’re getting the hang of the uphill portion, too—it’s tough to retain all that information in a single dose Bluebird offers Backountry 1 lessons for first-timers, as well as Backcountry 2 and 3 lessons to move students all the way from never-ever to avalanche course-ready. Between lessons, keep your knowledge fresh by spending an hour at a specialty clinic, where you can pick up skills like navigation and pro skinning techniques. 

Seek out mentors

Heading out with more experienced friends is a great way to hone backcountry skills. Photo: Doug McLennan

There’s something really special about friendships forged in the backcountry, and one of the best ways to master a new skill is by pushing yourself with friends who are more knowledgeable. Lots of the best backcountry tips are earned through experience, so hitting the skin track with a friend who’s got some tours under their belt is a great way to add to your repertoire. (Looking for a mentor? Check out Bluebird’s Ski with a Mentor program.)

Sign up for an avalanche course

An AIARE avalanche course will give you a framework for backcountry decision-making. Photo: Erik Lambert

The bottom line is that there’s no way to responsibly recreate in the backcountry without some knowledge of avalanches and how to avoid them. You can start your avalanche education by attending a workshop at your local gear retailer or avalanche center, checking the forecast every day during the season, or picking up a book like Bruce Tremper’s Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. But there’s no substitute for experience—a few days in the field with a qualified AIARE instructor will teach you some of the most crucial wilderness skills in your toolbox. 

Already finished your AIARE 1? Time to start looking at partner rescue and AIARE 2 courses. Like we said—the pursuit of backcountry mastery means a commitment to lifelong learning. And all that time getting to know the mountains? That’s half the fun. 

Quiz: Which Backcountry Lesson Is Right For You?

At Bluebird Backcountry, our philosophy is that it’s easier to learn about avalanche safety—a crucial component of backcountry education—when you already know the basics. That theory is rooted in a core tenet of experiential education called the hierarchy of needs. This idea was developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow, and posits that our basic needs (food, shelter, water) must be met before humans can move onto more complex endeavors (in this case, snow science). 

That’s why Bluebird introduced the backcountry lesson during our first season in February 2020. After the huge success of that lesson, our education team decided to expand. Now, you can sign up for all kinds of Bluebird educational offerings, all of which are designed to help get you ready for an avalanche course by giving you a strong foundation of both technical skills and backcountry confidence.

Take this quiz to figure out which Bluebird Backcountry lesson is right for you.

First, tell us about yourself.

How many times have you been backcountry skiing or splitboarding? 

A – Zero! This will be my first time.

B – Just once. 

C – A handful of times.

D – I’ve been quite a few times, but never taken an avalanche course.

 

How familiar are you with your touring gear? 

A – Not at all. If something went wrong, I’m not sure I’d know!

B – A little. I can transition without help. 

C – Pretty familiar. I know what everything’s called and what it does, but I couldn’t fix anything if it broke.

D – Very. But I could probably be more efficient at using it. 

 

How long are you comfortable being outside in the winter backcountry? 

A – I have no idea! I’ve been snowshoeing or skiing at a resort, but I know this is different. I’m not sure what to expect. 

B – Most of a day, especially since I know there are warming huts on the mountain.

C – I know how to stay warm and hydrated, so I’m mostly confident for a full day outside.

D – I’m a seasoned winter athlete. I’ll stay out as long as it takes to get in a bunch of laps!

 

Quick: Moguls or groomers? 

A – I’m still working on tackling ungroomed terrain—my comfort zone is that sweet, sweet corduroy.

B – I’m ready for some medium-sized bumps, but I’m not sure about icy spots or obstacles. 

C – I’m comfortable on just about anything at the resort.

D – I’m ready for whatever conditions the backcountry can throw at me. 

 

Are you comfortable using maps to plan a route and follow it? 

A – Maybe, if I’ll be on trails the whole time.

B – I think I can identify avalanche terrain, but I’m not super confident yet.

C – Most of the time. I can even set a decent skin track! 

D – Oh yeah. I’m a pro at using my Gaia GPS app

If you got…

 

Mostly As

Backcountry 1: Intro to Backcountry

Our classic Intro to Backcountry lesson is geared toward brand-new backcountry skiers and riders and folks who have only clicked into their AT bindings a handful of times. You’ll get to know your touring and rescue gear and learn basic skinning techniques, backcountry etiquette, Leave No Trace best practices, and how to transition from uphill to downhill. 

You’ll leave this course acquainted with your gear and ready to hone your backcountry skills. At the end of the three-hour (half-day) lesson, your instructor will make a personalized recommendation for the next step in your backcountry journey. Then you can decide whether to take another lap or head back to the base area for a s’more.

Book Your Backcountry 1 Lesson

 

Mostly Bs

Backcountry 2: Backcountry Skills

This lesson is geared toward skiers and splitboarders who have spent several days on touring gear and are comfortable with their equipment and basic skinning techniques. In Backcountry 2,  you’ll learn best practices for staying comfortable in the remote backcountry (including basic equipment troubleshooting), develop more efficient skinning techniques for varying terrain, and improve your downhill technique in variable conditions, which requires very different movement skills  from typical in-bounds skiing or snowboarding. 

You’ll leave this course knowing how to prepare for a day in the backcountry, and with better uphill and downhill technique. At the end of this lesson, your instructor will make a personalized recommendation for the next step in your backcountry journey.

Book Your Backcountry 2 Lesson

 

Mostly Cs

Backcountry 3: Avalanche Prep

You’re so close! The final installment in our three-lesson Backcountry Progression is the bridge between the skills you’ve already learned and your avalanche education. This lesson is geared towards folks who are familiar with their touring gear, can skin uphill in terrain of varying steepness, and can comfortably ski or splitboard most of the terrain at Bluebird Backcountry. It covers trip planning basics and introduces how to make useful observations about current conditions, as well as more advanced skinning and downhill movement. 

You’ll leave this course feeling prepared to learn about avalanches and how to avoid them. Most importantly, you’ll know enough about backcountry travel that you’ll be able to focus on what matters in your AIARE course.

Book Your Backcountry 3 Lesson

 

Mostly Ds

Continuing Ed

Sounds like you’ve got some backcountry experience under your belt, and you’re ready to sign up for an AIARE avalanche course. If you’ve got some time before your AIARE 1 and want to brush up on any specifics, check out a two-hour Bluebird clinic. Bluebird offers several at our base each week on topics like Skin Like a Pro, Route Planning Basics, Equipment Repair 101, and Winter Emergency Skills. Or sign on for a Ski with a Mentor session, which is basically a short private lesson where you can pick your mentor’s brain on the skills you’re looking to improve. 

 

Use this handy flowchart to help you choose the best backcountry lesson for you.

Why You Should Take a Backcountry Lesson Before Your Avalanche Course

For years, newcomers to the backcountry have faced a chicken-or-egg conundrum: Should I take a backcountry lesson to learn to backcountry ski or splitboard, then take an avalanche course? Or do I need to have an avalanche course under my belt before I go off piste? 

They’re good questions—you’re certainly more equipped to make smart decisions in the backcountry once you’ve taken an avalanche course, but it’s a daunting proposition (and a big investment) to sign on for a three-day course when you’ve never been in the backcountry before. 

So Which Comes First: Avy Course or Backcountry Lesson?

At Bluebird Backcountry, our philosophy is that it’s easier to learn about avalanches when you’re not figuring out your gear for the first time or working hard to keep up with the group. That’s why our team of education experts has developed a progression of backcountry lessons geared toward folks who are new to the backcountry and preparing for their first avalanche courses.

The bottom line? You’ll get more out of your course once you get the basics down. 

Here’s what you should know before you take your avalanche course. 

How to Use Your Backcountry Gear

A backcountry skier performs a beacon check on a snowy hillside

Knowing some basics (like a beacon check) will go a long way when you’re trying to learn about avalanche safety.  Photo: Patrick Woods

Where do I carry my transceiver? How do these bindings work? Wait, my boots have a “walk mode”? 

You’ll want to make sure you know the answers by the first day of your AIARE course. That way you can focus on the curriculum—backcountry decision-making, identifying hazardous terrain, and snow science basics. 

Bluebird’s Backcountry 1 course covers all the basics of gear and backcountry transitions. At Bluebird, you can either rent gear or get to know your own on your backcountry lesson.  

How to Tour (and Ski or Ride) Efficiently

Two backcountry skiers move quickly along a frozen skin track during a lesson

Learning efficient skinning techniques before the first day of your AIARE course means you’ll have an easier time keeping up with your group.

Getting to the top is a little (okay, very) different when you’re getting there under your own power rather than on a lift. Once you’ve learned the basics, it’s a lot like hiking. But it takes some getting used to, and the technique is easier to learn when there’s a pro showing you the ropes.

The same goes for skiing or riding downhill. There’s no grooming in the backcountry, which means the terrain is a lot more variable. That, too, takes some getting used to—it’s not like skiing groomers or even moguls. You’ll have a much easier time keeping up with the rest of your AIARE cohort if you’re already familiar with good technique and backcountry snow conditions

How to Be Self-Sufficient in Winter Weather

A skier on a backcountry skiing lesson drinks water from a nalgene water bottle in winter

Self-care in the backcountry is a skill, too.  Photo: John LaGuardia

At a traditional ski area, you can head into the lodge to warm up, grab a snack, or hydrate. While there are warming huts (and delicious snacks) available at Bluebird Backcountry, you can think of Bluebird like a transition zone. None of those amenities will be available once you head into the backcountry proper.

You’ll want to know how to take care of yourself (and what snacks to pack) in the winter wilderness by the time you embark on your AIARE course. That’s why Bluebird instructors spend time covering self-care and backcountry tips and tricks in our backcountry lessons

This season, Bluebird Backcountry is offering Backcountry 1, 2, and 3 lessons to move students from never-ever to AIARE-ready (keep an eye out for a future post to help you determine which lesson is right for you). Ready to get started? Book your backcountry lesson here.

A group of backcountry skiers enjoy their backcountry skiing lesson

Backcountry 101 students hit the skintrack.  Photo: John LaGuardia

 

How to Use Free Gaia GPS Maps at Bluebird Backcountry

This year, all Bluebird Backcountry guests will receive a free six-month trial of Gaia GPS Premium, courtesy of our partners at Gaia GPS. That means free access to local topo maps, satellite imagery, slope-angle shading, National Geographic trail maps, and more. 

With the Gaia GPS app, you can download all of these maps to view your real-time location even when you’re offline and out of service. The app is also great for tracking stats like mileage and vertical gain.

To start your free trial, follow the steps provided in your booking confirmation email. Then, read on to learn about some of our favorite features. 

Gaia GPS map of routes and waypoints at Bluebird Backcountry

Bluebird Backcountry Routes and Skin Tracks  

We’ve created a folder containing all our ski runs, hut locations, skin tracks, closed areas, and other points of interest. Add all these features to your personal map by downloading the Bluebird Backcountry Folder. (Be sure to download these features to your phone before leaving cell service.) 

slope angle shading map for Bluebird Backcountry

Slope-Angle Shading Maps

The slope-angle shading overlay is one of the maps our backcountry experts rely on for tour planning in avalanche terrain. It’s especially useful when analyzing which slopes are more likely to slide. Darker shading indicates steeper slopes. 

Gaia GPS map of satellite imagery and vegetation for Bluebird Backcountry

Satellite Topo Maps 

The Satellite Topo map shows topo lines atop ESRI satellite imagery, giving you a clear picture of both elevation contours and any forested or rocky terrain ahead. This is one of our favorites for tour planning, as well as four-season navigation.

snow stations and snowfall forecast reports for Bluebird Backcountry in Gaia GPS

Snow Depth and Snow Forecast Overlays

See current base levels anywhere in the Lower 48 with the Snow Depth layer. Combine that with the Snow Stations (Daily), which provides daily snowfall reports throughout the Western US. (Looking ahead? Gaia GPS also offers several snowfall forecast layers.) 

How to Download Maps for Offline Use

Before you leave home, be sure to download the Gaia GPS mobile app. Then download all the maps you’ll need for the area you intend to explore. (Cell service at and around Bluebird Backcountry can be spotty.) 

For instructions on how to download maps, visit the directions link in your confirmation email, or go to Gaia GPS’s resource page.

Is it Safe to Snowboard or Ski in a Pandemic?

As ski areas open and COVID-19 cases continue to rise, even the most diehard snowsports fans among us are starting to ask: Is it responsible, or even safe, to snowboard or ski in a pandemic? What’s safer—ski resorts, or the backcountry? Or, for that matter, a backcountry ski area like Bluebird, which is a hybrid between the two? 

Competing Safety Concerns: Avalanches and COVID-19

From an avalanche perspective, it’s hard to beat the thorough mitigation and avalanche bombing that a traditional ski resort can provide. And crowding at popular backcountry trailheads is certainly a concern, says Anna DeBattiste with the Colorado Search and Rescue Association. That’s one reason that resorts—and their mandatory reservation systems—could look particularly appealing to skiers and snowboarders this year.

“We have last March as a barometer [for the way this ski season could look],” DeBattiste explains. “We saw a lot of crowding and lack of basic etiquette at trailheads.”

 

Backcountry skiers follow a popular skin track in Colorado's Rocky Mountains.

Colorado’s popular beginner areas in particular can see a number of parties all at once.

 

She also notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on a surge in interest in backcountry skiing and splitboarding this year. That could exacerbate crowding problems. It’s also possible that more users could result in more human-triggered avalanches. This is especially true in a state as notorious for its unstable snowpack as Colorado.

“The number of human-triggered avalanches we have is based on the avalanche conditions and the number of people out there,” explains Ethan Greene. Greene is the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, or CAIC. “If we have normal conditions [for Colorado], and we have more people in the backcountry, you’d logically expect that we’d have more human-triggered avalanches than we do in a typical year,” he says.

 

A backcountry skier hikes up a remote snow chute in the Rocky Mountains.

When expert skiers hike deeper into avalanche terrain to escape crowds, that can also lead to more accidents.

 

Why Resorts Might Not Be Safer in a Pandemic

Even the resort solution isn’t a COVID-19 failsafe, says Bob Tierney, a patroller with over 20 years of experience at resorts. He currently manages avalanche mitigation at Bluebird Backcountry.

“At the resort, people are used to restrooms and getting a hot meal,” he notes. Because of that, Tierney predicts that there won’t be much change in the way people congregate at traditional ski areas, even with resort reservation systems in place.  

“Even if you make the choice to avoid the lodge and ride the lifts only with members of your household, you can’t escape the lift lines,” DeBattiste adds. “We’ve been promoting uphilling at ski resorts [as an alternative], though some resorts have made their uphill policies more restrictive this year.” (You can find more information about specific resorts’ policies on their websites.) 

 

Skiers crowd around a ski lift at a ski resort.

“You can’t escape the lift line.”

 

How to Safely Backcountry Ski in a Pandemic

 The third option: heading to a controlled backcountry ski area. At these locations, avalanche professionals help mitigate natural hazards, and reservation systems and spaced-out bathrooms prevent crowding bottlenecks. Plus, no lifts means no waiting in lift lines. (As of writing, Bluebird Backcountry is the only backcountry-specific ski area in the US.) 

 “We have it set up so you just don’t have a lot of people breathing down your neck,” Tierney says of Bluebird’s base layout. “‘Space not speed’ is our mantra here.”

More experienced skiers and splitboarders can also escape the crowds in the unpatrolled backcountry by opting for weekday laps, driving to more remote trailheads, or skinning deeper into the wilderness.

Greene urges these users to keep in mind that, though it might be COVID-safer, the backcountry poses the same issues this year as it does every year.

“The people who are more experienced are just as susceptible, or in some cases more susceptible than beginners. because these are people who tend to go into avalanche terrain a lot,” Greene adds. “On top of that, they’re just as susceptible as other people when it comes to making decisions in high-stress environments. That could mean whiteout conditions, or getting into an argument with your significant other as you walked out the door that day.”

Pile on the stresses that come from living during the COVID-19 pandemic, and you’re dealing with a lot more human factors in your decision-making. 

 

Two backcountry skiers climb to the top of a remote mountain ridge.

The deep backcountry offers valuable solitude, but more objective hazards.

 

Backcountry skiers and splitboarders need to have their winter navigation skills, avalanche awareness, and outdoor self-sufficiency dialed before venturing out on their own.

“The first thing you need to do is get the education,” DeBattiste recommends, urging backcountry skiers and splitboarders to take an AIARE course (or at minimum an avalanche awareness course) and practice beacon drills until they’re rote memory.

Gaining Backcountry Experience

However, education alone isn’t enough to make you a backcountry expert. The other critical piece is getting out and accruing backcountry experience under the supervision of an experienced mentor, says DeBattiste. She adds that skiers and splitboarders should make sure their mentor understands the particular hazards of the local snowpack. (Snowpack hazards can vary widely between states and regions of the US.) 

You can hire a professional backcountry skiing guide through your local guide service, or, at Bluebird, sign up for a guided day or lesson with backcountry experts.

If any year is the year to invest in your education and play it safe, this is it, says DeBattiste.

“It’s great for people to get out into the backcountry as long as they’re doing it responsibly,” she says. “This year, be part of the solution.”