Expert skills from the backcountry instructors, guides, and avalanche professionals of Bluebird Backcountry, Colorado’s only human-powered ski area.

Where to Find Summer Backcountry Turns in North America

If skinning in a t-shirt, and wearing running shoes for half of the approach to your objective sounds like an ideal day in the mountains, then plan a summer backcountry ski/snowboard tour immediately. For the diehard snow lovers, and those who prefer warm weather turns, the on-snow season never ends in North America — put in a little extra effort and you can find yourself exploring the mountains on your skis or snowboard in the middle of summer. Here are six lines to consider for your next backcountry skiing/snowboarding tour:

1. Saint Mary’s Glacier, Colorado

Looking for a proper summer ski adventure? Look no further than Saint Mary’s Glacier. This area conveniently sits north of I-70 in Colorado and requires a long approach and steep hike to earn your turns. Saint Mary’s ‘Glacier’ is not a true glacier, but rather a semi-permanent snowfield that, on a good year, holds snow well into the summer season.

2. Skyscraper Glacier, Colorado

One of the best things about Colorado is how easy it is to access high elevation lines. The Skyscraper Glacier is one of those lines. Located in the Front Range of Colorado, west of Nederland, this 700-foot line usually holds snow all year. While you’ll need to time the descent correctly (it’s South-South East facing with lots of sun exposure), you can get in multiple laps if you plan the day wisely.

Skyscraper Glacier is steep, spicy and well worth the uphill work. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

3. Grizzly Peak’s North Couloir, Colorado

If you’re in search of a less crowded backcountry adventure in Colorado that includes sliding downhill on whatever board you fancy, Grizzly Peak is the right choice. Colorado’s highest 13er provides less people than the 14,000 foot peaks, and still gives you the feeling of being on top of the world. This couloir typically holds snow into the summer, and offers around 1,300 vertical feet of steep riding for your descent.

4. Lamb’s Slide, Colorado

Located on the flanks of what some may call the crown jewel of Colorado, Longs Peak, sits Lamb’s Slide: a couloir arm that runs off the Mills Glacier with 1,200 vertical feet of rideable snow (depending on conditions). The 9-mile excursion offers some of the best views of Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, plus a steep and fun ascent of the Lamb’s Slide line that you’ll descend back down.

Even in the summer, Mount Shasta typically has wide open, snow-filled bowls. Photo: Jimmy Howe on Mount Shasta in 2017.

5. Mount Shasta, California

The snowfield between the Hotlum and Wintun Glaciers on Mount Shasta’s east face typically holds snow well into the summer and provides a sustained, steep ride back down. If it’s been a good winter and the weather cooperates, you can have some of the best turns of the whole season with three to four thousand vertical feet of corn snow. Shasta’s summit is 14,162 feet – and while that easily compares to many Colorado peaks, you start at a significantly lower elevation; so it’s a great place to prepare for bigger mountain objectives.

6. Mount Rainier, Washington

Washington state’s highest peak, whose summit sits at 14,411 feet, Mount Rainier requires good navigation skills to select the best route and avoid the numerous cravasses on Paradise Glacier. Consider finding a guide service for this climb if you don’t have experience with ski mountaineering. Once you summit, there’s multiple options for riding down, all of which will likely deliver an awesome adventure and opportunity to explore the alpine and use your boards during the peak of summer.

All smiles and stoke as fellow Bluebird, Kat Chiamaichelo and her partner summit Torreys Peak in June. Photo: Kat Ciamaichelo

If your backcountry setup is packed away, or your boots are too worn out from a winter of human-powered turns, there’s a few great lift operations in North America that stay open into the summer season. Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon is open June – September, with a lift taking you up to the Palmer Glacier. Mammoth Mountain in California is another good option for a multi-sport adventure including summer snow shredding. They close June 5th for the regular season of on-snow operations, but plan to be open the weekend of July 4th for boarding/skiing and a general fun time on snow mid-summer. You can even explore some backcountry tours outside Mammoth before or after taking advantage of the ski lifts.

The Bluebird crew enjoys aprés drinks and summer costumes post tour. Photo: Ti Eversole

Summer touring can be some of the most fun days of the whole season, and the hours you have to enjoy a beverage with friends post-tour typically get longer and sillier (as pictured above). It may feel like all fun and games, but don’t forget to stay aware if you venture onto the snow this summer. While snowpack conditions generally stabilize in the warmer months, timing is everything and avalanches still happen. Make sure your have avalanche training, an understanding of the current snowpack conditions, and are aware that the snow is ever-changing — particularly when exposed to sun and wind.

 

Check out the photos below of our team gettin’ after some mid-summer turns.

Photos courtesy of team members: Jimmy Howe, Cat Owensby, Karen Ranieri, Justin Wilhelm, and Jeff Woodward

The Best Spring Skiing Spots in Northern Colorado

Some say spring is when true skiing starts in Colorado. While chasing powder in the winter is great, as the weather warms the snow generally stabilizes, providing access to bigger lines and long days full of exciting backcountry turns. Whether you’re new to the touring world or wrapping up your 36th month in a row of skiing/riding, we’ve compiled seven Northern Colorado spots worthy of exploring this spring.

Torreys Peak looming over a few creek crossings and mostly dry ascent to the base of the mountain. Photo: Kyle Judson

Get Up High

Perhaps you’ve set a goal to ski your first 14,000 foot mountain, or are on track to ride all of Colorado’s 14ers – regardless of the long-term goal, spring is the time to start checking off high mountain descents.

Torreys Peak

This peak has multiple routes and is frequently skied, but all the ascents and descents are worthy of the time and effort. With relatively easy access off of I-70, this is a great spring tour.

Mt. Elbert

Colorado’s highest peak, Mount Elbert presents several fun couloirs to pick from. Plus you’ll gain bragging rights once you’ve stood on the summit then strapped boards to your feet and slid down, hopefully getting in good turns.

Quandary Peak

If steep ascents and tight shoots are not your jam, Quandary Peak is the right 14er for you. This is one of the easiest 14ers – there is almost always a set skin track up to help and a wide open ridge takes you back down.

Nokhu Crags is a hidden gem of fun couloirs and great views in the northern region of Colorado. Photo: Erika Lee

Explore More Complex Terrain

It’s important to still be aware of potential avalanches, and feel confident with route finding and advanced ski mountaineering skills before taking on bigger objects. That said, as the snowpack settles, spring generally delivers ideal conditions for heading into more complex backcountry terrain. Here are two great zones to put your ski mountaineering skills to the test.

Rocky Mountain National Park

With majestic views, steep couloirs, technical approaches, and options for wide open bowl riding, the park is a great spot to explore complex lines and practice ski mountaineering on some of the most iconic routes in the US.

Cameron Pass

Sitting between Fort Collins and Walden, Cameron Pass is an often overlooked Front Range zone. While a bit farther than Rocky Mountain National Park, there are fewer people and more fresh tracks to be had. The Nokhu Crags area has multiple versatile couloirs with an easy approach, and certain aspects off of Diamond Pass hold snow through May.

Riding laps next to friends on stable slopes is one of the best parts of spring backcountry touring. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Keep It Simple

One of the best parts of spring skiing is the long days in the backcountry complemented by riding with all your best buds. If you’re looking for simple terrain out of avalanche danger to party lap, here are some of the best locations.

Loveland Pass

Sitting at a higher elevation than Berthoud Pass, Loveland is an easily accessible zone to lap with friends and family in the spring. You can find mellow bowls and steeper options for all levels.

Indian & James Peak Wilderness Areas

Roosevelt National Forest encompasses these two wilderness areas that are about 1 hour north of Boulder. Often overlooked by backcountry enthusiasts, these zones offer hidden powder stashes in the trees and long ascents to alpine lakes. You’ll find less people and more space to explore with plenty of options for both simple terrain and bigger lines.

 

Looking for tools to start planning your next spring adventure? OnX Backcountry has awesome resources on how to start trip planning for touring along with a snow-specific GPS navigation application to help you complete your spring backcountry objectives.

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.

8 Perks of Visiting Bluebird in the Spring

Spring is on the horizon — days are longer, there’s a change in the air, and some people’s attention is drifting towards dirt trails and summer excursions. What those people don’t know is that spring is one of the best seasons for backcountry adventures and a great time to plan a trip to Bluebird Backcountry. Here are 8 perks of riding at Bluebird in the spring:

One of the best perks of avalanche-managed runs is that you can ride next to your buddies no matter where you are at Bluebird. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

1. More sun for extra laps.

Longer days and warming temperatures mean extra time on the skin track and mountain. While the bitter cold of January may have everyone but the ardent riders returning to their cars no later than 3 pm, in the spring things change. At Bluebird you’ve got from 8:30 to 4 pm to get in as many laps as possible, then return to the base area for beers, snacks and stories around the fire.

2. Avoid the spring break crowds with human-powered turns.

Bluebird has zero lifts, which means zero lift lines. If you’re planning a spring break trip, consider coming to Bluebird to avoid the craziness of resorts during one of the busiest weeks of the season. Bonus: there’s no increase in ticket prices during spring break, leaving you extra cash for aprés snacks.

 

Stashes of light and cold can be found on north and east-facing slopes at Bluebird. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

3. Stashes of cold snow.

Let’s face it, the snow at many resorts turns to slush in the spring, but this is not the case at Bluebird. There’s a lot of north through east-facing terrain that stays cooler longer — you can enjoy the sunshine while still skiing exciting tree runs in firm conditions or finding powder turns in March.

4. You can party on the mountain every day.

While some people love the frigid backcountry days, warmer weather typically brings high spirits to Bluebird. You’ll find groups party-lapping the mountain (a perk of avalanche-managed backcountry terrain), and sharing their post-shred stories around the campfire or at the parking lot. You can even rent the whole mountain for an epic spring gathering. The heightened energy brings a completely different vibe to Bluebird — you’ll have to visit to experience it.

You’re sure to have more fun while skinning and riding if clad in a costume. Photo: Amelia Altavena

5. The more creative layers the better.

Proper layering in spring conditions is critical for moisture management — ’tis the season to get creative! Hawaiian shirts are far more comfortable without 3 layers under them, and you’ll get major style points from employees at Bluebird if you show up in costume. Plus rocking the jorts and ski boots is far more bearable with more warming temps. Cowboy hats are common attire in northern Colorado, and tutus and bacon suits have also been spotted on the skin track at Bluebird.

6. An awesome event lineup.

Bluebird’s events for the month of March are extra exciting this year. Join us for an all-inclusive fun obstacle course-style race for skiers/riders of all abilities, a day on the mountain with ladies and Elevated Alpine, plus a handful of advanced courses new to Bluebird this season, including a Ski Mountaineering course where you’ll explore the steep couloirs and advanced terrain on the far side of Bear Mountain.

Even as spring rolls around, don’t underestimate the power of a warm breakfast as motivation to hit the skintrack. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

7. Après-friendly conditions.

We’re still holding out for spring powder days, and they are on the forecast! But as the weather starts to warm and longer days, there’s more light and favorable temps to gather around the campfire at the base of Bluebird and share a brew with friends. You can even rent a private, heated dome to use as a midday hut or post-riding gathering spot when the snow is falling because let’s be honest, we’re all still hoping for a miracle March of new snow.

8. Tailgate meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Ditch the skin track Cliff bars for better food in the comfort of your tailgate. Camp at Bluebird and enjoy the sunrise over Bear Mountain with your breakfast, then hit the skin track for a few laps. The parking lot is a 2 minute walk from the base area, so you can return for lunch mid-day then finish off with a scrumptious dinner prepared in your van or a campfire feast with friends.

Good views, cold beers, and sunshine make for a great après scene. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

There’s more to be experienced at Bluebird this spring than what’s listed above — including a full calendar of backcountry lessons and AIARE avalanche courses for the month and potential storm skiing in the forecast. We hope to see you on the mountain this month, making memories to carry you through the dry season.

For Women by Women : Elevating Ladies in the Backcountry

In honor of International Women’s Day on Tuesday, March 8th, it’s time we highlight the reasons why taking a women-specific backcountry class or avalanche course may be the perfect stepping stone for women seeking knowledge, mentorship, and bigger lines in the backcountry.

All-women’s courses can be a place to build camaraderie and meet new touring partners. Photo: Kat Ciamaichelo

In the past few decades, the snowsports industry has seen an increase in women-owned and operated organizations, offering female-identifying and non-binary introductory and skills courses. In a male-dominated sports such as skiing and snowboarding, women can be met with different barriers than men, barriers that make breaking into this sport challenging. While ladies courses may not be everyone’s jam — and mixed gender courses offer important lessons — women-focused courses can provide something special for certain people, and it’s time we spread the word about such benefits and opportunities! 

Here’s a sneak peak to what you’ll learn in an all-women’s backcountry course, including tips and tricks for women while touring as well as upcoming events and courses for women by women.

Tips & Tricks for Ladies on the Skin Track

1. Don’t fear the extra layers.

While everyone’s bodies and thermoregulation is different, women typically tend to run colder than men. Don’t be ashamed to carry extra layers or wear one more jacket than your male touring partners. Pro tip: embrace the down skirt when taking winter courses outside or on extra frigid days; your bottom half will thank you for it.

2. Invest in a properly fitting pack.

Similar to how everyone has different thermoregulation, women’s bodies are shaped differently. While gender-specific gear is not always necessary, backpacks designed to be shorter and narrower are far more comfortable when touring for some ladies. If you have a shorter torso, consider trying a pack appropriate for your body proportions.

3. Embrace the drop seat bibs.

Let’s face it, peeing in the backcountry is inevitable and always more challenging as a female-bodied individual. Ski bibs make pee breaks in the backcountry, or in the resort bathroom for that matter, far less complicated because you don’t have to fiddle with all your layers. Make sure to get a pair of bibs that have the full drop seat incorporated — simply zip open the seat of your pants to easily pee, without exposing your whole bottom half to the cold. Bibs will dramatically improve bathroom breaks and provide more privacy when windy, exposed pee stops are your only option.

Laughs and connections are an indication of a good day in the backcountry. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

4. Don’t confine yourself to women’s specific gear.

The theme continues… Everyone has specific needs and preferences when it comes to gear, and not all bodies are alike. While women’s specific gear can be beneficial for some items, like backpacks or ski bibs, it’s not always right for everyone. For instance, men’s and women’s boots have very little differences besides a shorter cuff height and different flex options. An aggressive female skier with long legs can rock a 130 flex mens boot easily. Explore what works best for you and don’t be afraid to mix and match.

5. Nobody will ever know if you’re wearing a bra.

Social norms be damned, do what’s comfortable for you! Under ski clothes, no one can tell if you’re wearing a bra. On long tours, warm spring days, or when you’re clad in multiple layers, ditching the extra half layer of constriction can be a liberating act. Bonus, discarding the bra removes the highly annoying boob issue that happens on warm days.

6. Identify areas of growth.

There is always room for improvement when it comes to backcountry touring — be that building physical strength, learning new techniques, or gaining more knowledge. This fact is not gender-specific. Consider where you feel less confident when it comes to touring (i.e. steep skiing, decision-making in groups, interpreting the snowpack conditions and avalanche danger, etc) and seek out mentors who can help you improve upon these skills. If you’re experienced and confident when it comes to backcountry touring, be a mentor for someone else! It’s important for women to support one another in all areas and even more so in the androcentric snowsports arena.

Don’t believe the stereotypes you see on social media — some women like steep skin tracks and spicy lines. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Inclusive Opportunities

1. Women in the Backcountry : Next Level Skills Course

Bluebird Backcountry offers an advanced course for women who are looking to take their touring and mountain objectives to the next level. Taught by the highly experienced Brittany Konsella, there’s only one more course running this season on March 12th, 2022! This course is ideal for those with 2+ years of touring experience.

2. SheJumps Backcountry Day

To celebrate International Women’s Day, join SheJumps at Bluebird on March 6th, 2022, for a day of touring, laughs and camaraderie with other women on the mountain. SheJumps offers opportunities to increase participation in outdoor activities for women and help build an inclusive community focused on getting everyone outside.

3. VENTURE OUT Backcountry Festival with VNTRbirds

Combine backcountry touring, backyard games & camping out next to a fire at VNTRbirds second annual Venture Out Backcountry Festival at Bluebird Backcountry. On March 13th-14th, 2022, VNTRbirds will be hosting two fun-filled days with backcountry beginner and intermediate tours, scavenger hunts, relay races and a bit of howling at the moon around the campfire. And don’t forget the s’mores!

4. Shred with Elevated Alpine

On March 18th, 2022, Elevated Alpine (EA) is hosting multiple womens-only clinics and a fun day at Bluebird Backcountry; splitboard-specific, intermediate and advanced courses, discounted tickets, BIPOC and LGBTQIA+, cis-female, non-binary and transgender shcolarhsips, connection with other lady shredders, and a barbecue and hang at the end of the day. EA is a non-profit organization focused on hosting inclusive events, clinics, gear exchanges, and more!

5. Wild Barn’s Boot-Tan Fest

A women and femme-leaning, non-binary shred fest at Bluebird Backcountry hosted by Wild Barn could be in your future on March 15th, 2022. Meet new touring partners, visit women-run vendor booths, demo Coalition Snow gear, explore Bear Mountain, and partake in the afternoon nude lap of West Bowl.

6. AIARE Women’s Mentorship Program

Looking for female mentors in the backcountry skiing and splitboarding community? This season, AIARE launched a women’s mentorship program — a three-pronged program aiming to break down barriers for women in avalanche education. This program includes mentorship opportunities, scholarships, and panel conversations featuring women in the avalanche education and guiding fields.

7. Backcountry Babes

Inspiring women through outdoor adventures, Backcountry Babes offers avalanche courses for ladies, by ladies, throughout the West. They also offer guide services, mountain biking clinics, and trekking adventures.

Instructor Brittany Konsella shares her insights on what ladies bring to the backcountry in a women’s clinic at Bluebird Backcountry. Photo: Kat Ciamaichelo

All-women’s classes provide an atmosphere for women to find camaraderie and feel more comfortable speaking up, asking questions and gaining confidence in themselves. The important message behind these courses is that we want everyone to feel good and be informed backcountry travelers — creating opportunities for women to further their passions and careers while feeling supported is incredibly valuable in male-dominated snow sports.

The queen of powder skiing, Dolores LaChappelle, stated “Everything I know, I have learned from powder skiing.” Regardless of if you’re interested in all-women’s courses or not, it’s time to provide access for women and gender-nonconforming folks, and share the wisdom of powder turns, to experience the sweet freedom and pure magic that backcountry skiing provides.

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.

onX Backcountry: The Digital Mapping Tool for Everyone

Whether you’re a seasoned expert or new to the world of trip planning and touring, onX Backcountry’s snow-focused mapping software is a great tool to start using today. It has a simple yet thorough platform, with accurate and effective tools. Here’s what you need to know:

Main Benefits

Perhaps you’re new to the task of tour planning and off-trail navigation, or maybe you’ve been using mapping software for a while but want an all-inclusive option… either way you’ve found what you’re looking for. With intuitive and user-friendly applications (both phone and desktop), it’s easy to start planning routes. More experienced backcountry travelers will find that this comprehensive option has everything you need in one place — 3D imaging, established routes, weather information, and so much more. 

onX Backcountry has preloaded trails and crowd-sourced maps for winter-specific sports — a super helpful asset when you’re exploring a new area and looking for the best parking lot or a trailhead. Bonus, there’s detailed descriptions and photos for popular routes to help you plan.

Find winter-specific ascent routes and the established ski descents all in one place on onX Backcountry. Photo: Erika Lee

If you’re not tech savvy, or have trouble grasping the difference between .kml and .gpx files, onX makes it simple to share routes, waypoints, and notes between friends. Send an onX specific link (via text or email) from the phone app or desktop website that your touring buddies can directly open the link on their computer or phone. Any notes you’ve made are also included with the routes and waypoints you share — making beta-sharing between friends and future trip planning much easier. Along with shared routes or waypoints comes any notes you’ve made — this makes sharing beta between friends and future trip planning much easier. Whether you like planning on your computer or phone, both options are similar and easy to use. Routes and waypoints added on a desktop will automatically download to your phone application, saving you time and skipping the hassle of exporting and importing files.

Mapping software not only helps you avoid avalanche terrain, but when combined with the weather and snowpack knowledge, it helps you find the best stashes of powder. Photo: Doug McLennan

Integration

The merging of various online resources and a mapping software is one of the best parts of onX Backcountry. No need to separately reference Powder Project or other guidebooks when looking for the best off-piste ski line, parking lot or campsite in a zone — all these resources are pre-loaded onto both the Snow and Trail modes. Plus, you can easily switch these modes depending on the season and travel plans, which will change the trails and assets shown. 3D satellite or topographic maps are accessible on both the phone and desktop — a helpful tool for visualizing terrain when pre-trip planning and orienting yourself to the terrain when you’re out there.

The Avalanche Forecast is a separate layer available on both the desktop and phone applications — turn this layer on, click the colored forecast zone you’re interested in and scroll down to see the avalanche hazard rating for the day and find a link to the full forecast. Make sure to read the full avalanche forecast page if you’re planning a winter backcountry tour. Other map overlays include the slope angle shading (helpful for avalanche awareness) plus satellite, topographic, and hybrid map modes. Toggle between map modes, turn on and off the avalanche forecast and slope angle, and switch between 2D and 3D on both a phone and desktop to find the perfect map mode for any adventure.

Weather information is integrated into onX Backcountry. Click an avalanche forecasting zone and scroll down on the information page — you’ll find a general weather forecast for the area on this page. Alternatively, get point-specific weather and snowpack information by clicking the black snowflakes marking specific Sno-tel sites. The green circle in the top right hand corner gives you weather data for your GPS location when you have cell service or wifi.

Use onX Backcountry to quickly access the avalanche forecast in the zone you’re planning to visit. Photo: Erika Lee

In the Field Use

When taking navigation from the comfort of your couch and into the field, you can easily download onX maps for offline use. This can be done on the computer or from your phone — all routes, waypoints, slope angle overlays, and avalanche hazard overlays will be automatically downloaded for use while out of cell service. The blue dot is your GPS location, illuminating the cardinal direction your phone is facing — this comes in handy when conditions quickly change or when navigating in complex terrain. Also, for navigation purposes you can set the map to always face north on your phone, similar to google maps. 

When you’re in the backcountry it’s easy to create new routes and see the total distance and elevation gain/loss of these routes. Add waypoints while you’re traveling and use preset labels to mark avalanche paths, good view points, or the perfect spot for camping on future trips. You can even include photos or detailed notes in each waypoint for future reference.

When visibility quickly decreases, it’s nice to have a navigation tool to get you safely back to the trailhead. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

The Confidence to Set Your Own Skin Track

As onX Backcountry continues to evolve their software, they’re quickly becoming the go-to application for on and off-trail navigation, all year long. For ski tourers in search of an easy to use, functional, and accurate mapping software, onX Backcountry is an excellent choice — the tools explained above help you navigate with more confidence in winter environments and return home safely for another day of touring. 

The Bluebird Backcountry team uses onX for all things navigation at Bear Mountain, as well as in Backcountry Lessons and AIARE courses. In partnership with onX Backcountry, Bluebird guests get a 1-month free trial of their Backcountry app, and AIARE student’s get 4 months for free! Put your onX skills to the test at Bluebird, or take a navigation–specific course such as Backcountry 3: Navigation and Avalanche Prep or Reading Terrain to learn advanced skills for winter travel and get in-person instructions on how to use onX Backcountry.

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.