Tag Archive for: backcountry safety

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.

How to Prepare for a Season of Backcountry Touring

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

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

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

Check Your Gear

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

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

Physically Prepare

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

Mentally Prepare

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

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

Refresh Your Skills with Continued Education and Practice

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

Start to Track the Conditions

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

Find Appropriate Partners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

START HERE

 

Backcountry 4 – Reading Terrain

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

Backcountry Leadership and Communication

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

EXPLORE MORE ADVANCED TOPICS

 

Winter Emergency Skills

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

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

Equipment Maintenance and Repair

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

Ski Mountaineering 1

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

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

Women In The Backcountry : Next Level Skills

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

REFRESH YOUR AVALANCHE KNOWLEDGE AT THE BEGINNING OF THE SEASON

 

Avy Refresher Course

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

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

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

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

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

5 Reasons to Refresh Your Avalanche Knowledge Every Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The science is constantly changing.

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

Two backcountry skiers with avalanche shovels practice avalanche rescue digging techniques

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

3. Life-saving rescue depends on muscle memory.

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

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

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

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

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

5. It makes you a better mentor.

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

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

 

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

Backcountry Skiing with Kids: How to Get Started

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

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

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

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

1. Go Hiking Together 


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

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

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

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

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

2. Get the Kids on Skis

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

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

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

3. Foster the Stoke

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

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

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

4. Get the Gear

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

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

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

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

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

5. Pick an Easy First Objective 

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

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

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

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

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

6. Focus on Safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Keep it Fun 

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

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

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

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

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. 

All Our Secret Tricks to Warm Up Cold Hands and Feet

When the mercury dips, keeping your fingers and toes warm can feel like a full-time job. If numb digits are usually the crux of your ski day, heed these tips.  

Tricks to Warm Up Cold Hands

1. Bring hand warmers.

Throw a pair in your pockets for warm-up breaks, or use them to pre-heat your spare gloves. (Make sure to open up the warming packets an hour or two before you expect to start skiing so they have time to activate.)

2. Heat up your core.

Often, cold hands are a symptom of a cold body. Add an insulated layer and/or start skinning. As soon as the blood starts flowing, your hands should warm up.

A thin touring glove with a tacky leather or synthetic palm can prevent overgripping. Photo: Justin Wilhelm 

3. Loosen your grip.

Fingers go numb while touring? You may be over-gripping your poles. The squeezing action can impair your circulation. Try using a thinner glove, or one with better grip so you can relax your hands.  

4. Do some arm circles.

Windmill your arms in circles as big and as fast as you can manage. The shoulder workout will warm you up, and the force of the swing will force warm blood into your fingers. 

5. Keep spare gloves in your jacket.

Bring a separate pair of downhill gloves (touring gloves tend to get sweaty). While you tour, keep your downhill gloves in your pockets, or between your baselayer and midlayer. By the time you transition to downhill, they’ll be warm. (Stash your touring gloves in the same spot to keep them toasty until the next transition.) 

Thick mittens with gauntlets are our go-to for warm fingers and wrists. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

6. Upgrade your handwear.

Cold hands? You may just need to level-up your gloves. A thicker or more wind-proof glove can make a huge difference. Mittens are also vastly warmer than fingered gloves. You can also try purchasing a glove with a long gauntlet—the skin on your wrists is thin, and you can lose a lot of heat if it’s exposed.

7. Put your hands in your armpits.

When your fingers start to get numb, the tried-and-true trick is to stop, put on your puffy jacket, take off your gloves, and put your hands against the warmest parts of your body (your armpits, neck, or groin). Keep them there until they feel fully warmed, even if it takes a few minutes.  

8. Do the penguin.

There are a lot of circulation-promoting dance moves that winter enthusiasts rely on to warm their hands. Or favorite: The penguin. With your arms against your sides, straighten your palms at a right angle to your sides. Shrug your shoulders up and down. You should be able to feel warm blood shunting down through your wrists. 

Take lots of breaks for hot tea. Photo: Jonas Jacobsson via Unsplash  

9. Stay Hydrated.

Hydration makes a big difference in your circulation. Stop regularly for tea or hot cocoa breaks. Also make sure you’re eating plenty of fats and carbohydrates throughout the day so your body has enough fuel to keep itself warm. 

Tricks to Warm Up Cold Feet

1. Loosen Your Boots.

Restoring circulation can do wonders for cold toes. If that doesn’t help, you may be wearing socks that are too thick, or you might have the wrong size boot. (Need to figure out your size? Take some of our Dynafit rentals for a spin.) 

Unbuckle your boots when you’re touring to improve circulation. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

2. Do the Hypothermia Dance.

It’s a time-honored classic, you look really cool doing it, and it actually works.

3. Squat it out.

First, loosen your boots. Then, do 10 air squats and 10 leg swings. Repeat until you feel the warm blood flowing to your extremities.

4. Add an extra pants layer.

You can have the warmest boots in the world, but if you’re losing heat through your legs, you’re still going to have cold feet. The secret is proper layering. Add thicker baselayers or zip on some shells to keep in the warmth.

Wear shell pants over warm baselayers to keep legs (and therefore feet) toasty. Photo: Doug McLennan 

5. Bring extra socks.

Nothing saps heat like damp clothing. When you transition, swap sweaty touring socks for a fresh pair of woolies. Your feet will thank you.

6. Go to extreme measures.

Got chronically cold feet? Heated socks are a thing now (and they work). What a time to be alive.

10 Backcountry Touring Tips for Happier Dogs

Done right, backcountry touring with your dog can be the best thing ever. Frolicking in the snow, exploring deep forests and rolling hills with your best friend—sounds pretty idyllic, right? But between cold weather, deep powder, and sharp ski edges, there’s some dangerous stuff out there. Here are our tips for keeping safe next time you go backcountry touring with your dog. 

Need a place to practice? Come to Bluebird Backcountry, Colorado’s first backcountry-only ski area. All you need is a well-behaved pup and a doggie day pass!

1. Make sure your dog can handle the cold. 

First things first: To go backcountry touring with you, your dog needs to be able to handle the chilly temps. Cold-weather breeds with thick coats are a good bet. Medium- to large-sized athletic breeds with a doggie jacket and/or booties can also do well in the snow. Just keep an eye out for shivers and frozen paws, and have extra layers on hand for your dog just in case. 

A doggie jacket is essential for keeping short-haired dogs cozy and warm. Photo: Jeff Woodward 

2. Get your pooch in shape. 

Because your pup won’t have the luxury of flotation, he or she will need to be in peak physical condition to post-hole all day and run down the slopes after you. Can your dog go on a five-mile run with you and still have energy for more? Perfect. 

3. Brush up on your commands. 

Before you head into the backcountry, make sure your pup sticks by your side and returns when called. Downhill skier coming in hot? To avoid an accident, you’ll need a fast response from your pup—even if that means abandoning a squirrel mid-stride. Take an obedience class if you need to, or devote some time to backcountry-specific dog training.  

Before backcountry touring, train your dog to come when called and stay by your side. Photo: Justin Wilhelm.

4. Ease into it. 

Your dog needs to build comfort and confidence around skis just as you do. Plus, it can take some time to teach your dog to keep some distance from your ski edges, which have been known to cut legs and paws. Cross-country skiing or backcountry touring on gently rolling terrain can be a good place to ease in.    

5. Pack a canine emergency kit. 

In addition to a doggie jacket and booties, we recommend carrying a water bowl, poop bags, and treats for your dog, as well as a leash for touring or navigating crowded trailheads. You should also bring a small veterinary first-aid kit, and make sure you know how to treat cold-related injuries, lacerations from ski edges, and other common canine injuries. Here’s what we have in our kit:

  • An ACE bandages
  • Kinesiology tape 
  • Gauze 
  • A syringe for flushing wounds
  • Tweezers 
  • Extra treats 

Put your pup on a leash if you know he’ll go nuts and tire himself out on his own. Photo: Kat Ciamaichelo

6. Strategize for safe skiing 

Even a well-behaved dog can wear himself out or accidentally run in front of other skiers. While skinning, put high-energy dogs on a leash to ensure they maintain a steady, sustainable pace. On the downhill, try this: Grab your dog at the top of a pitch. Have your partner ski or ride down. Then, let your dog run down to your partner. Once your partner has your dog, head down to meet them.

That way, you never have to worry about dodging your dog, and your dog doesn’t have to worry about unpredictable edges. 

7. Listen to your dog. 

OK, so your pooch might not be weighing in on snowpack stability or avalanche hazards, but she’ll still communicate her needs and comfort level. If your dog is slowing, shivering, or looking nervous, take a break. Administer water and treats as needed, and call it a day if your dog is too cold or exhausted to continue. 

8. Practice good backcountry touring etiquette. 

Before you go backcountry touring with your dog, make sure dogs are allowed in the area, and check local leash laws. On the skintrack, keep your dog by your side, and be mindful to pull him or her aside for passing skiers. And,  of course, always pick after your pup (and carry that bag with you rather than leaving it beside the trail.) 

Your dog needs to stay fueled just as much as you do. Photo: Grant Robbins at The Elevated Alpine

9. Stay fueled and hydrated.

On touring days, your pup will burn a lot of extra calories, just like you do. Take breaks to offer snacks and water every lap or two.  

10. Know when to leave your dog at home.

If you’ve ever been postholing after a storm, you know how exhausting fresh powder can be. Consider giving your dog a day off if there’s deep snow or avalanche danger, or if you’re skiing in unfamiliar terrain for the first time. And, of course, if your dog isn’t responsive enough to stay safe in the backcountry, the best thing for both your safety is to leave him or her at home. 

 

Cover photo by Grant Robbins at The Elevated Alpine.

7 Reasons Women Crush Harder with Other Women

Before this weekend, Kelly Gazarik had only ever skied with men.

“I’d only been out with my brother or other male partners,” she says. “Then I saw that Bluebird was hosting a women’s clinic, and I thought this would be the perfect time to get a different perspective.” So she signed up for the Women in the Backcountry clinic, the first ladies-only ski touring and splitboarding clinic of the season at Bluebird Backcountry, Colorado’s backcountry-only ski area. 

The clinic covered everything from layering systems to finding gear that actually fits to, yes, handling periods on the mountain. Gazarik learned that women need to fuel differently than men, and that women have a natural tendency to be more calculating of risks—a valuable asset in the mountains. 

Instructor Brittany Konsella shares her insight on the assets women bring to the backcountry. Photo: Kat Ciamaichelo 

Another thing that really stood out, says Kat Ciamaichelo, who also attended the clinic, is how different the dynamics were in a women-only group

“There was a lot of laughing, which is, at least for me, something that’s different about women’s only groups. It’s so much more fun and goofy—all while still being respectful of the backcountry,” Ciamaichelo says. 

Gazarik adds that she felt more relaxed and more in tune with her intuitions because she wasn’t spending so much energy trying to prove that she belonged.

“That was a feeling I was really dealing with before this, because I just didn’t see that many women out there in the backcountry,” she says.

The fact that the course was taught by Erika Lee, an experienced Bluebird instructor, and Brittany Konsella, a coach with over 10 years of experience and the second woman to ski all Colorado’s Fourteeners, definitely didn’t hurt.

“It was extremely empowering,” Gazarik says. “Having a female mentor who’s been there, done that—it just makes backcountry skiing feel so much more attainable. It helped with my confidence so much. By the end of it I was like, OK, I do belong here. I can do backcountry.” 

As for our other takeaways from ladies-only tours? Read on. 

Backcountry touring in an all-ladies group can help build confidence and camaraderie. Photo: Kat Ciamaichelo

Our 7 Favorite Things About Skiing with Women 

1. There’s amazing camaraderie. 

In a women-only group, there’s a ton of built-in shared experiences—everything from realizing you’re the only girl on the skin track, to discovering you have to pee just when there’s no more tree cover in sight. That translates to automatic camaraderie. “There’s this welcoming, fun, laughter-filled environment that you get with girls,” says Ciamaichelo. “You can just hoot and holler the whole way down, and there’s other people hooting and hollering with you.”   

2. Women have a different approach to risk assessment. 

One of the biggest cruxes of backcountry skiing is the constant risk assessment and communication it takes to stay safe. In this weekend’s clinic, Konsella explained that women tend to be more cautious than men—and that preference to take in more data and look at the whole picture is a good thing. When women ski together, they tend to avoid more of the heuristic traps of wilderness decision-making, and take a more calculated approach to avalanche terrain. The result: Less unnecessary risk. 

3. Communication feels easier.

With mostly male partners, a lot of women find it tough to disagree with the group, even when the terrain is setting off internal alarm bells. “I think it’s very easy to let myself think that a male knows more than me, even when I’m confident in my knowledge of the backcountry and my understanding of the snow science,” says Ciamaichelo. “It’s very easy for me to let a guy intimidate that confidence.” With women, on the other hand, decision-making often feels more collaborative.

Thoughtful discussions were a hallmark of this weekend’s clinic. Photo: Kat Ciamaichelo

4. Representation matters. 

When you never see anyone who looks like you in the backcountry, it’s easy to feel like you don’t belong there. Backcountry skiing or splitboarding in a group of people with shared backgrounds goes a long way toward building confidence—and showing other people like you that they’re welcome in the backcountry, too. (That same philosophy applies to another important topic: improving racial diversity in skiing and snowboarding.) 

5. It can feel less competitive. 

“I like skiing with men, but in a women’s group, things can feel more chill,” says Bluebird’s social media manager Whitney Bradberry. “We skin at a conversation pace rather than trying to destroy ourselves to reach the top. We push each other, but there’s less ego—we’re just out there to have some fun and get some exercise.”

6. You often learn more. 

There are a lot of amazing male instructors, but many women say they learn better with other women. One example: “My first few backcountry skiing experiences were with a guy I was dating, and I think because he wanted me to have a good time, he did everything for me without really explaining what was going on,” says Emma Walker, Bluebird Backcountry’s brand guru. “But I want to be self-sufficient in the backcountry. I like skiing with other women because it pushes me to learn skills for myself.” 

7. It’s a great way to meet other lady crushers.

This weekend, Gazarik and one of the other attendees exchanged numbers and plan to go backcountry skiing together soon. It will be Gazarik’s first female backcountry skiing partner—and, she hopes, not her last. 

 

Looking to tap into some serious lady power on the skin track? Join in on Lady Laps every Sunday at Bluebird.  

How to Layer for Backcountry Skiing and Splitboarding

Smart clothing choices are important whenever you venture into the wilderness, but it’s especially important to layer for backcountry skiing and splitboarding. After all, it’s hard to focus on learning and having fun when you’re cold or damp. 

As a backcountry-only ski area (there are no lifts, but plenty of warming huts!), Bluebird Backcountry is a great place to dial in your layering system in a more controlled environment. Don’t know where to start? Here are our tips to layer for backcountry skiing and splitboarding. 

Two backcountry skiers carry their skis across a bridge in the snow

Layering is the secret to staying warm and dry while working hard to earn those turns. Photo: Big Agnes 

What is Layering?

At a ski resort, you dress for one goal: stay warm. Well, maybe two goals: stay warm, and keep the snow out of your pants. Layering for backcountry skiing and splitboarding is a little more complicated. 

In the backcountry, there’s a lot more variation in activity level. It’s easy to overheat and break a sweat when you’re skinning uphill. In the winter, sweating is a bad thing: Moisture saps heat like nothing else. Sweat too much, and you could become too chilled to finish out your day.

The secret to a comfortable backcountry tour is layering, or wearing lots of thin items of clothing instead of one thick winter coat. That way, you can add and subtract insulation to maintain the perfect temperature—not too hot, and not too cold. 

Three backcountry skiers gather around a person in a sleeping bag and discuss layering for backcountry skiing

Bluebird instructors teach the principles of layering to prevent (and treat) hypothermia in a recent clinic. Photo: Justin Wilhelm 

7 Fundamentals to Layer for Backcountry Skiing and Splitboarding

1. Avoid Cotton Clothing.

Cotton traps moisture, which pulls heat away from your skin. Wool and synthetic base layers, on the other hand, retain warmth even when wet.

2. Start Cold.

As soon as you start skinning, you heat up. It can be tough to stop soon enough to drop a layer before you break a sweat. Take off your jacket before you begin your tour—the goal is to feel just a little chilly when you start. 

3. Make Micro-adjustments.

Bring a warm hat (we like knit beanies that are easy to stuff into a pocket), a neck gaiter, and gloves. Add or subtract these items to adjust your temperature without stopping.

4. Master Venting.

For touring, we love jackets with full zippers, like the Big Agnes Smokin’ Axle Jacket, and ski-touring pants with full-side zips. Unzipping is another great way to make a micro-adjustment and dump heat on the go.

5. Keep it Breathable

Airflow keeps you from sweating, which is why we often leave our hardshell jackets in our packs when we’re moving uphill. Softshell fabrics and breathable layers, like a Primaloft vest, insulate without getting clammy or damp.

6. Bring a Crisis Puffy

Layering for backcountry skiing and splitboarding means being prepared for sunny tours and cold transitions alike. As soon as you stop, put on a big puffy jacket to keep warm while ripping skins above treeline. (Pro tip: Down insulation tends to be warmer and more packable than synthetic insulation. It doesn’t stay warm when wet, but it’s a great choice for an emergency layer.) 

7. Prepare for the Elements

Your insulated layers only do so much if the snow is dumping or there’s a hard wind blowing. Always bring goggles, windproof layers, and waterproof gloves just in case. 

A backcountry skier wears an insulated jacket while ripping skins

When it’s time to transition, layer up as soon as you stop. It’s easier to stay warm than get warm. Photo: Big Agnes

What to Wear: A Sample System to Layer for Backcountry Skiing and Splitboarding 

On the bottom:

  • Thin wool base layer
  • Softshell touring pants or hardshell pants with full side zips
  • An insulated skirt or other bonus layer for emergencies

On the top: 

  • Thin wool T-shirt
  • Thin long-sleeve quarter-zip
  • Lightweight insulated vest
  • Fleece or synthetic midlayer (The Bluebird staff all use the Big Agnes Barrows Jacket, which offers great balance between breathability and warmth retention. Our love affair with this jacket is a big reason that Big Agnes is Bluebird’s official insulated apparel sponsor.) 
  • Big puffy jacket
  • Hardshell jacket 

On your hands and feet

  • Lightweight gloves for touring
  • Warm, waterproof gloves for going downhill
  • Warm ski socks
  • AT boots 

On your head: 

  • Sunglasses and sunhat for touring
  • Helmet and goggles for skiing 

Want a full packing list? Check out our ultimate Bluebird gear checklist

Two backcountry skiers with Big Agnes jackets perform a beacon check

Bring a big puffy (like the Big Agnes Shovelhead jacket, left) and a lighter-weight jacket (like the Big Agnes Barrows jacket, right) to adjust your temperature whether you’re working hard or standing still. Photo: Justin Wilhelm