in Skiing & Snowboarding / by Roofnest Team

Snow in the Rockies means different things to different people, but for some, a snowflake in the forecast induces a pavlovian response to gear up for fresh tracks in the backcountry. 

Ski season in the Rockies can often start out slow, and this year is one of the slowest starts in history. But if history has taught us anything, the latter months of winter and early spring offer the most opportunity for epic powder days.

If you haven’t already, it’s time to start preparing for a season in the backcountry. 

Here are a few tips to help you start getting prepared for backcountry winter adventures:

1. Take an Avalanche Safety Course! 

Avalanche danger is the primary safety concern in the backcountry; especially in the Rockies where snowpacks are notoriously unstable. Large temperature fluctuations and sunny winters contribute to uneven layering throughout the snowpack. Combine that with wind deposits, storm slabs, persistent slabs, and there are plenty of reasons to take safety seriously. 

Taking an avalanche course helps develop a solid understanding of avalanche risk and how to plan a backcountry trip. Everyone who recreates in the backcountry should have a level 1 certification. Don’t fool yourself, YouTube videos and online articles are great for helping you fix your home applianes are no substitute for the information provided in a course. 

The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, or AIARE, oversees avalanche education in the U.S. Like the AMGA for all you climbers out there.

The standard education progression begins with AIARE 1. A course ranges from $500 to $800 and usually lasts three days. 

AIARE has partnered with providers all over the country to offer courses. Check out AIARE’s webpage to find a course near you.

These courses are expensive but could save your life. If finances are an issue, AIARE offers a range of scholarships. Many individual providers also offer their own grant/scholarship opportunities. 

If you cannot take a course, consider finding a workshop or refresher in your area. Additionally, find a mentor who has the experience and is willing to pass along knowledge. But remember, skiing in the backcountry is inherently dangerous, and there is no substitute for the information provided in a professional, educational setting. 

Participate in a Refresher or Workshop. 

AIARE providers, your local avalanche forecasting center, resort, or even outdoor gear stores frequently offer single-day refresher or workshop courses. 

Additionally, check with your local skiing community to see if any workshops or clinics are offered. Often outdoorsy Facebook groups will be host workshops or information sessions; this is a great way to refresh your skills and build community. 

2. Plan your Route

Route planning is a topic that deserves an entire book of its own.

Safe terrain in the backcountry is regionally specific; what might be safe in Washington is extremely dangerous in Colorado. Terrain safety can even be zone-specific – meaning safe terrain varies within a mountain range. Moreover, safety changes from season to season and is sensitive to time of year. 

Given how nuanced picking safe terrain is, providing a comprehensive guide in a blog post is not feasible. Information like this is best imparted during an AIARE course or from a mentor. 

However, some universal tips help with route planning regardless of terrain.

Tips and Tools to Help Planning:

Weather

Check the weather frequently. Your chosen weather app (I have some suggestions below) is your best friend during the winter months. 

By checking the weather before a trip, you’ll be able to make critical decisions, like whether it is even feasible to go and determining a plan B in advance. Choose a couple of sources you like and check them regularly leading up to a day out. 

Here are our go-to sources:

weather.gov

Pros

Forecasts are consistent, reliable, and provide only the essentials.

  • NOAA issues forecasts for each day and night, avoiding hourly forecasts. The more time intervals provided by a source, the more error present. By only giving a general forecast for the day and night NOAA is consistent and reliable. 

Location-specific forecasting. 

  • NOAA enables you to select a location-specific forecast anywhere; this is especially important when backcountry skiing as these environments are elevation-dependent and not close to municipalities.

Cons

Poor user interface.

  • The user interface on NOAA’s website isn’t exactly intuitive or accessible.

Pros

Designed for climbers and mountaineers. 

  • Mountain Weather Forecast offers location-specific forecasts for prominent mountains and the ability to adjust elevation. 

Consistent and reliable forecasts. 

  • Mountain Weather Forecast only provides 3-time intervals to its daily forecast. Like NOAA, this helps the platform maintain its accuracy.

Cons

Does not provide forecasts for all mountains.

  • Mountain Weather Forecast only offers forecasts for the most prominent mountains in an area. This usually isn’t a huge issue because if there isn’t a forecast for your

Pros

Larger-scale weather trends. 

  • Windy is especially helpful when understanding the big picture. It show moisture, wind, air pressure, etc. trends on a global scale.

Cons

No real cons. If you don’t like the user experience try Ventusky.

SNOTEL recording stations are another useful resource for monitoring conditions; they track current and historical snow depth and snow water equivalent (how light or dry the snow is). The data provided by these monitoring stations are exceptionally accurate.

Mapping

A reliable mapping system in the backcountry is crucial as it enables you to identify safe terrain to ski and ride in. 

Conveniently enough, many of the best mapping options are available through your mobile phone. The right app allows you to download detailed topographic maps that are accessible even when out of service.

I’ll outline a few options below:

Gaia

Pros

Map options

  • Gaia has a seemingly endless assortment of map overlays; everything from slope angle maps to cellular coverage and private land maps.

Track recording

  • Gaia enables you to track and save routes, mark locations, draw lines, and much more. 

User interface

  • Gaia boasts a modern and intuitive user interface. 

Cons

Subscription Fee

  • Gaia requires a subscription fee to download maps offline, which is requisite when traveling in the backcountry. 

Avenza

Pros

Free

  • Avenza is free and does not require a subscription. Despite this, the platform enables you to import topographic maps and overlays your real-time GPS location on these maps (no cell service required).

Integrates with other mapping softwares

  • Avenza integrates with many different mapping platforms, like Caltopo. To begin using this system, go to Caltopo on your desktop, pick out the area you will be skiing, then export a Caltopo map as a pdf. The map will automatically generate a QR code, that when scanned using Avenza, will import into the app.

Cons

Limited map storage 

  • The free version of Avenza can only store four maps at a time; this means you cannot keep a record of all your routes, and will have to delete and download maps frequently. Often you will have to download multiple maps to Avenza for one day in the backcountry, either because your route is too long or you need a more detailed view of your area.

No live adjustments

  • Because Avenza is overlaying a GPS location on a pdf, you cannot make live adjustments or drop pins.

While Gaia is objectively better in all facets, Avenza is a perfectly reasonable option for those just dipping their feet in the water. Most avid backcountry skiers start using Avenza and then upgrade to something like Gaia once they are committed to the sport. 

Alternative options include onX and Caltopo’s paid version. I maintain the opinion that Gaia is the best option. 

Before you enter the backcountry, plan a low-risk route by spending time studying a topographic slope angle map. 

3. Pre-make Food

Pre-make a hot meal at home and pack it in an insulated container. The best meals for this are soups or high carb meals like rice and pasta. 

It’s usually not worth the hassle of cooking in the cold, especially if you are only there for one night. 

Hot Drinks

Waking up to a hot drink makes the morning exponentially more enjoyable. If you own a thermos, make some hot tea or coffee the night before. Otherwise, bring a small stove and boil some water in the morning. Trust us, it’s worth it. 

4. Familiarize yourself with free camping resources

If you are planning on doing some winter camping, ioverlander and freecampsites.net are great, crowd-sourced directories of free camping spots across the U.S. If you’re an experienced free camper, then you already know what these resources are; if not, you should get to know them. 

Camping at the Trailhead? 

Snow brings closures to most dirt roads and therefore the best free camping spots. It becomes challenging to access national forest lands, and travel is often limited to main through roads. So, is it okay to camp at a trailhead? The answer is maybe…

Considerations

Who owns the land at the trailhead?

  • If that land is private or within a national park, camping is almost surely not allowed. If it is forest service or BLM land, your chances increase.
  • Are there explicit signs about camping?
  • Even if the trailhead is within forest service land, camping may be explicitly prohibited. Look when you arrive and obey any direct rules.
  • Are there other people camping? 
  • If you arrive at a trailhead and find a half dozen vans, then it is probably alright for you to camp there as well.
  • Please be respectful of rules and others. Access is dependent on the stewardship of each of us, and the actions of individuals reflect our outdoor community as a whole.
  • The backcountry is a special place, and very few of us ever get the chance to ski or ride it. Make sure you do it correctly: get your certifications, find a mentor, and do your research. Most importantly, however, recognize what a privilege it is to access the backcountry and act as a good steward. 
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