Backcountry 101

December 12, 2015

5 tips for staying safe

By Rebecca Agiewich

Photo at right: Prepared backcountry skier, Karen Schooley, on Mazama Ridge. Photo by Rebecca Agiewich


Weary of the jam-packed groomed trails at your favorite ski resort? Longing for solitude, yet concerned about safety, in the backcountry?

Whether you’re snowshoeing, making soft powdery turns on backcountry skies or hiking snowy woodlands, exploring the backcountry in winter can be an exhilarating and rewarding experience if you’re properly equipped.

Because of possibilities from extreme weather and avalanche, plus additional navigational challenges posed by snow, you need to be extra prepared for your backcountry adventure. Here are our top five tips for safely enjoying the Northwest’s winter wonderland.

Find Outdoor Buddies

For the newbies, outdoor clubs are a great resource. They offer training, resources and mountain-ready companions. The Mountaineers, Washington Alpine Club and Washington Ski Touring are all excellent starting groups to check out in Washington, as is The Mazamas club in Portland, Oregon. In Idaho, the Idaho Alpine Club and Idaho Mountain Recreation are good choices.

Pack Right with the “10 Essentials”

Ask 10 different backcountry travelers what they put in their pack and you’ll get 10 different answers. Most pack some form of “The 10 Essentials,” improvising to meet their own requirements and preferences.

Non-essential Nice-to-Haves

Other non-essential but nice to have items for winter travel, include:

•    Sit pad for providing insulation on snow, or using as a splint in an emergency
•    Insulating storage vessel with a hot beverage inside
•    Bailing wire and duct tape; a screwdriver, extra ski binding parts and screws for emergency repairs on skis
•    Mobile phone
•    Stove, gas and lighter for making hot food or drinks on the trail

Be Avalanche Aware

Traveling through avalanche terrain requires extra training and equipment. You can find plenty of backcountry destinations that don’t have steep terrain, but sometimes even the easiest of winter trails might cross one avalanche-prone slope. In that case, you need to be prepared.

Research the area you’ll be traveling to; get the daily forecast and pack the equipment you need, such as avalanche beacon, shovel and probe. Be sure you have the knowledge of how to use your equipment.

The American Alpine Club in the Northwest, the American Alpine Institute in Bellingham, REI and other mountaineering companies also offer classes on avalanche awareness, navigation, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, and other basic backcountry skills.

Know yourself and your companions

It’s important to trust your backcountry companions and instincts. If you have a nagging feeling telling you something isn’t right, pay attention to it. In winter, with short days and harsh weather, the consequences for a mistake can be higher.

Taking the appropriate precautions, packing the right equipment and knowing where you are going can result in a very rewarding day.

Rebecca Agiewich is a regular contributor to OutdoorsNW. She’s an avid cross-country and backcountry skier who especially loves skiing on the Cascade volcanoes (when they’re not erupting, that is).

Reynaud’s Phenomenon is a common safety issue in cold weather – check out these options to help keep your hands and feet warmer this winter!

Check out these resource lists for more places to enjoy the back country on Nordic skis and snowshoes:

Best NW places to get your Nordic on!

This list of NW Nordic resources will astound you!

Our great NW list of places to stomp in the snow:

2016 NW Snow Play Resources

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