scouting lines ahead of winter with the help of onX Backcountry

Using onX Backcountry for Scouting Lines Ahead of Winter

While we daydream about soft turns and wait for the first flakes to fly, this time of year is great for scouting ski lines for the upcoming season. By doing your homework, you’ll spend less time looking for lines and more time skiing them when the snow arrives.

There are a lot of different ways to scout lines. At Bluebird we like to use a combination of both digital tools and our eyeballs. Our digital tool of choice is onX Backcountry— a GPS navigation app designed for hiking and skiing. Using onX, you can explore the terrain around you from the comfort of your home. With topographic layers, satellite imagery, and 3 dimensional effects, you can figure out what terrain might become your new favorite ski zone.

Once you’ve identified some areas with potential, it’s fun to spend the day exploring them in person. Navigation and mapping techniques have come a long way since the days of using the position of the sun and stars. Despite these technological advancements, seeing something on a screen is never quite the same as seeing it in person.

waiting for snow to fall on backcountry lines

Admiring from afar and waiting for the Naked Lady Couloir, a classic Southwest Colorado ski descent, to fill with snow. Photo: Ti Eversole

There is a lot to consider when scoping out lines because a lot of things go into making a good ski line. Here are just a handful of questions to ask yourself when scouting ski lines:

What is the approximate slope angle or pitch?

Too steep and you may get yourself into trouble (depending on your skill level). Not steep enough and it will be difficult to maintain momentum.

If the line you are considering is in avalanche terrain, where would the best places be to dig a pit and assess the snowpack?

Even in zones with avalanche forecasts, it’s a good idea to do your own research because forecasts cover large areas and your specific line may have different avalanche problems.

When skiing the line with friends, where are the best places to regroup?

When stopping anywhere while skiing a line it is important to do so in predetermined safe zones.

What aspect is the line?

Selecting an area with multiple available aspects is great as it gives you options when different avalanche problems exist. Having a few aspect options also gives you the best chance at finding good conditions. A north facing line can ski much differently than an east facing line that is right next to it.

Is the line above treeline?

Lines above treeline are often affected differently by the sun and wind than lines below treeline. This is especially important to note if your line transitions between these two zones.

If not, are the trees spaced widely enough to make skiing possible and enjoyable?

If you want to ski rather than bushwhack through dense vegetation, it’s a good idea to figure out the answer to this one.

What other potential hazards exist?

When it comes to identifying hazards while scouting lines during the off season, you will mostly be looking at terrain hazards. Weather and snowpack hazards are typically assessed closer to the time when you will be skiing or riding. However, you may still be able to find anecdotal or historical information about the weather and snowpack hazards that exist in the area you plan to ski.

How can I mitigate those hazards?

A great way to get this information is through backcountry travel and avalanche courses. If you haven’t taken one of these courses, we highly recommend it. If you have, there is always more to learn, either through additional formal education or simply by spending time with friends and mentors assessing weather, snowpack, terrain, and human factors.

Are there any special pieces of gear I might need to ski this line?

When getting into advanced terrain, it can be a good idea to carry crampons, ice axe(s), and maybe even a harness, rope, and climbing hardware.

Do I have the experience, knowledge, and skills to navigate this terrain safely?

This is a big one. Be honest with yourself. Just because your more experienced friend thinks it will be a walk in the park, does not mean it will be easy for you. This is one of heuristic traps that backcountry travelers can fall victim to if they are not careful.

Where can I park my car?

Parking your car in the wrong spot can be annoying for others or even dangerous. Make sure you follow all parking instructions at trailheads and don’t park on private property unless it is allowed. Trailheads have been shut down due to improper parking. Access to these places we like to recreate is a privilege, not a right. If we are respectful, we will ensure that this access continues to be available in the future.

What is the best approach route to access the line from the trailhead?

While a straight line is the shortest path from point A to point B, it is usually not the best path when trying to get to the top of a line. By looking at surrounding features like cliff bands, steep slopes, ridgelines, and areas of dense vegetation you can avoid a treacherous climb or a frustrating slog.

Based on distance and elevation, roughly how long will it take me to get to the top of my line and then back to the car?

With some experience in the backcountry you can get a general gist of how fast you move through different terrain. Having this rough estimate is helpful as it gives you the best shot at skiing your objective, and will keep you from getting caught in the dark.

scouting lines close to the road

Not all scouting missions require extensive mileage. Don’t forget to make time to seek out shorter lines close to the road for those days when you only have time for a hot lap or two. Photo: Ti Eversole

This might seem like a lot to consider, but this is by no means a comprehensive list. It’s a lot of work to search for, plan for, and execute a backcountry ski line, so you might as well get started now. You’ll be glad you put in this time during the preseason when the snow starts falling and you know exactly where you’re heading to ski. As they say, “You reap what you sow.”

Happy Scouting!

If you are looking for some technical information or guidance about using onX, specifically right before and during a tour, check out our article on how our education team uses onX.

If you are looking for additional resources for planning your ski tour, check out the video below from two time US Extreme Freeskiing Champion, Griffin Post.