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Backcountry vs. Resort: Where To Ski Or Snowboard In A Covid Winter?

With the winter season upon us, you’ll likely start thinking about where you should ski or snowboard, especially since Covid-19 concerns are still lingering around (and worsening in some regions).

You might fear your season will be limited, which is why you should consider heading out to the backcountry. 

What is the backcountry?

The backcountry is unmarked and unpatrolled areas in which to ski or snowboard. It has fewer people around and more ungroomed slopes to enjoy.

It’s the perfect place to go if you want to chase powder. But, you have to ensure that you’re prepared for the backcountry because it deserves respect. Here’s how to backcountry ski and snowboard when resorts are off limits. 

How Covid-19 Has Impacted Skiing And Snowboarding

How Covid-19 Has Impacted Skiing And Snowboarding

As with everything else, the Covid-19 virus has had an impact on snow sports such as skiing and snowboarding. Earlier this year, towns and resorts were hotspots for the transmission of the virus and this was especially found to be the case in Europe (via NY Mag).

One of the biggest reasons for this is because of how people travel to these resorts from all over the world. 

While being out on the snow is generally safe because you’re wearing masks, gloves, and goggles, many ski resorts have had to close due to restrictions. 

Now with second and third waves of the virus rearing their heads, resorts are trying to open in a safe way while allowing people to make use of them.

They are working on new rules for people to follow, such as standing six feet away from each other in lift lines and not enjoying dine-in services.

Being indoors at the resort will be more dangerous than outdoors, especially because these places tend to be crowded, which is why people will have to follow important guidelines, such as wearing masks inside. 

Still, it’s probably a good idea to avoid resorts over the winter season. An alternative to going to resorts is to opt for backcountry skiing or snowboarding. 

What To Know About The Backcountry

Backcountry is the perfect solution if you want to enjoy the snow and not have to risk getting the Covid-19 virus. In fact, you’ll probably love it because of how remote it is and how there’s tons of space around you to enjoy nature and peace. 

The beautiful thing about backcountry skiing and snowboarding is that it doesn’t have to restrict you. For some people, backcountry refers to enjoying wilderness hikes and making use of distant slopes.

For others, it’s going to a distant location by helicopter. Whatever backcountry is, it can be defined as when you’re enjoying a snow adventure outside of a resort.

However, there are some important things to know about the backcountry because it can be a dangerous place. 

Be prepared for avalanches

Out in the backcountry it’s pretty remote. Not only does that mean that you won’t have ski patrol around to help you, but it also means that you’re in a completely wild and uncontrolled environment. Avalanches are a real risk that you face.

Some avalanche safety training before you try it is recommended. This is important because it will give you a wealth of valuable information that could save your life if the worst happens when you’re enjoying your backcountry adventure, such as how to get local weather reports. 

Get avalanche safety equipment

You’ll need some important items in your ski pack or snowboarding bag, such as : 

  • An avalanche transceiver. This sends a signal to rescuers in the event of an emergency. 
  • An avalanche shovel. This tests the snow conditions and digs out victims of avalanches. It has to be an avalanche shovel, not just a regular one.
  • An avalanche probe. This is used to probe the ground for buried people, and it’s collapsible for easier carrying.
  • An avalanche airbag pack. These packs contain airbags that you use by pulling on a cord during an avalanche. The pack fills up with air so that it can assist you in rising to the top of the avalanche debris.

Improve your skills

The backcountry is not suitable for you if you’re a beginner skier or snowboarder. At the very least, you should be at an intermediate level before you head out there.

Remember that the backcountry isn’t going to have groomed or marked terrain. You never know what terrain and conditions you’ll encounter, so you need to be experienced in order to deal with it. 

Understand the terrain

You need to ensure you know how avalanches work so you can be prepared for them. Many avalanches will move in paths on smooth slopes that are between 25 and 60 degrees.

However, there are exceptions, which is why you should learn about terrain features such as rocks, ledges, slope angles, and others. It will help you to have an instructor or guide to assist you. 

Make use of resources

Topographic maps such as Caltopo that will help you learn the lay of the land are valuable.

Also stay informed about the weather so that you’re one step ahead of any weather hazards. The great thing about Caltopo is that it will also provide you with useful information about dangerous slopes. 

Have more than one route planned

No matter how confident you feel about the route you’re going to be taking in the backcountry, you should always ensure that you have a plan B in place.

You never know when the weather will surprise you and take a turn for the worst, causing you to not be able to navigate the mountain in the way you had planned.

Find useful landmarks

It’s always useful to have some landmarks along the route you’ve chosen. These can be lakes, summits, or logging roads, for instance. Go one step further and make estimates about how much time will be required to move from one landmark to another.

This amount of detail is especially useful if you’re navigating uncharted terrain or if you’re setting out into the backcountry with a specific skiing or snowboarding goal you want to achieve. 

Get a smartphone map

No matter how much you’ve mapped out your trip beforehand, you need to ensure that you’ll be able to adjust the route when you’re in the backcountry and you don’t have your computer in front of you.

That’s where your phone comes in. An app like Gaia GPS will help you to make changes to your route when you’re out in the snow.

It can be used to track your location even when your smartphone doesn’t have a network signal. It is a bit difficult to grasp, so it’s good to get used to it before your trip begins. 

While planning the backcountry trip, also make sure that you know where to park and where to enter the backcountry.

Backcountry skiing has grown in popularity, which has caused parking lots to become cramped and full, so make sure you check local backcountry skiing websites to find out about any area closures that could be occurring as well as crowded parking issues (via New York Times).

This is crucial so that you don’t find yourself without a place to go. A back-up location is a must! 

Extra Safety Tips For Backcountry Skiing And Snowboarding

Extra Safety Tips For Backcountry Skiing And Snowboarding

It’s not just avalanches that can be a potential danger out there – harsh weather conditions, such as in the form of storms, can also be a risk. Here are some other safety tips to bear in mind. 

  • Never go to the backcountry alone. Stay in a group and don’t wander away from its members as that can put you in trouble if you get lost. 
  • Never assume that avalanches will only happen in large paths. This is a myth. They can even strike in forested areas (via National Ski Patrol) so you need to be careful. 
  • Never hit the slopes after a big storm has occurred. This can leave the snowpack unsettled. Steer clear for a minimum of 24 hours. 
  • Never judge the safety of a slope according to tracks in it. Wind, temperature, and sun can change the stability of the snow, which means that its condition can change quickly, sometimes within a few hours. 

Gear You Need For Backcountry Skiing And Snowboarding 

Ready to head out to the backcountry?

Make sure you’re equipped with the right gear. Here’s a rundown of what you’ll need.

  • Skis. If you’re skiing in the backcountry, you’ll want to choose skis with the right shape, weight, and width and take your experience as well as the terrain into account. So, for example, lighter skis will be good for use on uphills while heavier ones will give you much more stability when you hit the descents.
  • Ski boots. These should be of a lighter weight if you’re a mountaineering enthusiast. But, if you’re focused on descents, choose a stiff, sturdy boot design. Again, it’s about having stability. 
  • Ski poles. Make sure your ski poles are collapsible so that you can make them shorter or longer depending on your needs. A pro tip: powder baskets will help to prevent the poles from sinking into the snow (via Switchback Travel). 
  • Climbing skins. These are important because they get attached to your skis so that you don’t fall backwards while on a slope. Opt for nylon skins as they provide more traction, therefore making them ideal for climbing slopes. 

What About Snowboarding Gear? 

If you’re keen to take your snowboarding to the backcountry, here are some important pieces of gear you need to pack. 

  • Splitboard. A splitboard is a snowboard that has two halves which are attached. These can be used together so that you have a regular snowboard, or they can be pulled apart and used for climbing uphill. Most of these types of boards will be flat or cambered underneath. You can choose ones that have a rocker design at the tip and these are ideal for when you’re dealing with deep snow. However, they’re more difficult to control when you’re on a skintrack. 
  • Boots. When it comes to the snowboarding boots that you need, make sure they’re lightweight and comfortable, while offering water resistance and durability, and, of course, excellent grip. 
  • Skins. These are attached to the bottom of your snowboard to give you more traction. Skins are important when descending so it’s a must to choose ones that are made with quality features otherwise they could leave you stranded. You want skins that offer good glide as well as grip! 
  • Collapsible poles. These are good to have when you’re snowboarding in the backcountry. They can be changed according to the terrain you’re dealing with and since they can fold up they’re much easier to carry around. 

Other Items You’ll Need For Skiing And Snowboarding In The Backcountry

Other Items You’ll Need For Skiing And Snowboarding In The Backcountry
  1. Backpack. Choose a backpack that has a decent capacity – at least 30 liters – so that you have everything you need for a full day’s worth of backcountry skiing or snowboarding.
  2. Bindings. These are attached to your board or skis. If you’ve got a splitboard your bindings can turn from tour to snowboard mode to give you an easier transition (via Colorado University). When it comes to skiing, you’ll want to get your hands on pin bindings that are light in weight and can be used for touring mode.
  3. Clothing. You’ll need to ensure that you’re dressed appropriately, but this can sometimes be tricky when you’re in the backcountry. This is because you’re going uphill and downhill and your clothing choices will change accordingly. Overall, you need to ensure you’re wearing comfortable clothes that keep you cool when you’re skinning, and then you’ll want to make use of waterproof and insulated clothing when you’re going downhill. Here are some tips to help you choose the right clothing:
  • Start with a long-sleeved base layer, long underwear pants, and warm socks. If you’re dealing with extremely cold weather, you could also add fleece to your base layer. 
  • Then, you’ll need a puffy jacket and wind layer (or outer jacket), as well as gloves. 
  • When choosing a base layer, fabrics like merino wool are great because it feels soft and also maintains the heat well. 
  • When choosing a mid layer, you want to choose synthetic materials that are breathable and resistant to water. 
  • Your puffy jacket won’t have to be worn all the time – just on extremely cold days. You’ll also need a hard-shell jacket that you can wear when it snows. This will keep your base layers nice and dry.

It can be difficult to know what to wear when in the backcountry, so try to pack clothing that feels comfortable and prevents you from sweating a lot. When you stop to have a break, it’s good to put on a puffy jacket so that you can maintain your body temp. When you start moving again, make sure you remove it so that you don’t sweat too much. 

  1. Accessories. These include balaclavas to help you deal with the harsh elements, goggles, sunglasses, a beanie, and a helmet.

Health And Emergency Gear You Need For The Backcountry

Health And Emergency Gear You Need For The Backcountry

While you’ve packed some essentials to prepare you for avalanches, you should also ensure you have other emergency and health-related gear with you. Here’s what to remember to pack in your bag. 

  • Water. This will ensure you stay hydrated – aim for having at least one liter per day. 
  • Reflective space blanket. This could save your life during an emergency. 
  • First aid kit. You want to be able to treat minor wounds when you’re out there. 
  • Headlamp. This will help you out whenever you’re in poor visibility conditions, even if that means heading back to the carpark when it’s dark. 
  • Lighter or fire starter. These will certainly come to your aid if you find yourself stranded. 
  • Two-way radios. These are a must to have, especially if members of your group tend to go off in different directions. 
  • Phone charger and extra batteries. These are crucial, especially if you’re going to be using maps on your phone. 
  • Multi-tool. This handy and versatile tool can help you in a variety of ways, from helping you tighten binding screws to cutting bandages. 

Related Questions 

How should you train for skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry? 

Make sure you build lower body strength, concentrate on your core muscles, and boost your stamina. Some cardio will also be good since there aren’t ski lifts in the backcountry. 

Where can you find resources for avalanche courses? 

If you’re located in the U.S., visit the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education as well as Avalanche.org

Conclusion 

Heading out to the backcountry for a bout of skiing or snowboarding is an exciting idea. But you need to ensure you’re up for the challenge because the backcountry can be a dangerous place.

In this article, we’ve looked at how to backcountry ski and snowboard so that you make it a tour to remember for all the right reasons.

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