Venturing out in the backcountry during the colder months can be an exhilarating—yet intimidating and inherently risky— experience. But when you come prepared with the necessary tools and knowledge for traveling through the snow-covered Wasatch wilderness, the rewards are peace, solitude, inspiration, and access to pristine untouched powder. With so many worthy objectives out past the ski resort boundaries and an abundance of beautiful places to discover right in our backyard, it's no wonder backcountry travel has become so popular.
Whether you are headed to the remote mountains or sliding out the gates at ski resorts, preparedness is key to fun and safety. Backcountry skiing/snowboarding—and hiking, and snowshoeing—come with great responsibility. When wandering in the wilderness, the first priority is to keep you, your partners, and anyone else you come across, safe. Thanks to a trio of local advocates of backcountry preparedness—Matt Mravetz owner of Wasatch Adventure Guides (WAG), Shaun Deutschlander, owner of Inspired Summit Adventures, and Robby Young an avalanche expert with the Park City Professional Ski Patrol—here we lay out what steps you need to take to be prepared, what types of training you should have, what gear to pack, and what resources to trust in order to have a fun and safe day in the backcountry.
Nature can be unpredictable, even when we try to manage it and mitigate the risks, so be self-reliant and prepared for changing conditions, from unexpected weather to emergency situations. “Every trail you step foot on is dynamic, nothing is static,” explains Mravetz, who’s been leading guided adventures in the outdoors for 20 years. “Even if it is the same trail you hike on every day. You can't take it granted. You must be ready for changing conditions. You hope for the best but prepare for the worst”.
Ski-resort accessed backcountry is no less dangerous than remote wilderness. The same level of preparedness and education apply. “The backcountry terrain that is accessed by ski resorts is often referred to as “sidecountry,” but that’s really a word we're trying to remove from our vocabulary as it gives a false sense of perceived security,” says Young. In reality, you are still responsible for assessing avalanche hazards and snow quality and approaching that easily accessible terrain with the right education and gear.
Preparedness basics (for novice and advanced backcountry explorer alike):
Have A Plan
- Decide where you want to go. What trail will you be on? Are you going out the gates at the ski resort? What’s your objective? How many hours are you planning on being out?
- Make A Plan. Research it. Check the weather and snow conditions. You can contact local guide services and outfitters. Mravetz says the guides at WAG are always happy to give out free trail advice.
- Make multiple plans in case you need to change course during your day.
- Sync up with a partner you trust. Going alone is not recommended.
- Tell multiple people where you are going and what time you are planning on returning.
- Be physically prepared. Going to the gym or participating in endurance exercise can be helpful in the backcountry, especially when traveling uphill.
- Make sure you have all the gear you need and you know how to use it.
Dial in your gear
You may never touch some of the things in your pack, but having the right gear is essential to being prepared to save a life, including your own. Here’s what you need:
- Multiple ways to start a fire—fire starter and lighter (most important)
- Space blanket
- Leatherman/basic repair tools
- Duct tape (can be wrapped around hiking poles)
- Bag of spare parts
- Extra gloves
- Layers including a warm puffy and Gore-Tex windproof jacket
- Small medicine kit
- Cellphone with a charged extra battery
- Baseball hat
Depending on the activity, you’ll need to choose your mode of transportation:
- Skis with proper touring bindings and boots
- Splitboad with appropriate bindings
- Snowshoes with appropriate boots
- Adjustable poles with powder baskets
- Glob stopper wax for skins
When traveling in terrain with the potential for avalanche activity, there are some additional needs:
The top three avalanche tools should be housed in a separate compartment for easy access, if they are needed.
- Avalanche transceiver with fresh batteries and a replacement set
- Avalanche probe
- Avalanche shovel (with a metal blade)
- Snow saw (optional) for instability tests and/or cutting branches for shelter and fire
- Snowpit kit for evaluating snowpack (bonus points!)
Organize your pack. Deutschlander suggests coming up with an organized system for your backpack, so that if you are in inclement weather you don’t have to dig through your bag for the things you need most. If snacks are your number one need to keep you fueled and happy, make sure all your favorite treats are at the top—or if you get cold easily, your extra layers should be closer at hand.
Layer. Both Deutschlander and Mravetz suggest dressing in layers and adjusting for the season. You’ll get warm as you hike uphill, so starting off cold is the best way to stave off a sweaty base layer. When you get to your objective, that’s where you should start adding layers.
Fuel up. One of Mravetz’s favorite treats on the trail is to have a thermos full of warm green tea and honey with a side of dried mango. Yum!
Know before you go. Before answering the siren call of untracked backcountry, learn how to make smart decisions (as an individual and as a group), how terrain choices and changing weather impact your safety, how your actions can impact the safety of other groups, how to travel in avalanche terrain to minimize your risk, and how to rescue one or more buried people. And recognize that the right (and unpopular) decision may be not to go or to turn back.
There is a distinct culture around venturing in the backcountry. It’s about having a deep appreciation for the natural world and the mountain landscape that surrounds us, especially from a local perspective. Consider the impact you might have on the environment and on others also moving through the backcountry. As Deutschlander’s Inspired Summit Adventures advocates, the mindful exploration of nature can help us develop a stronger awareness of ourselves and of our surroundings and acknowledging that nature is never black and white, but truly dynamic.
Here are some ways you can start the journey of becoming a responsible traveler in the backcountry:
- Read up on what backcountry touring is, what snow safety entails, and the culture of traveling in the backcountry.
- Have some basic training. Visit the Utah Avalanche Center website to find “Intro to Avalanche Training” classes where you are given a high-level local education of what it takes to be safe in the Utah backcountry.
- Take your training to the next level by enrolling in an Avalanche Level 1 course that will teach you travel techniques, basic rescue procedures, and information that should be standard for anyone adventuring in the backcountry, with or without a guide.
- Wilderness First Aid classes are also available via wmutah.org for when injuries and illnesses are encountered in the wilderness.
- Learn and practice how to use your beacon, shovel, and probe; take advantage of the free beacon training park at Park City Mountain, located near Red Pine Lodge.
- Join a guided trip where you can learn first hand from your guides and emulate their organization skills and movements through the mountains. Of note: Guides are a great resource for tips on technical movement that can help you move more efficiently when traveling uphill.
- Before heading out on a tour, Deutschlander suggests performing a trailhead departure check where all participants understand how to use their beacon and make sure it’s turned on and working properly.
Always check Utah Avalanche Center before heading out into the backcountry. There, you can check the avalanche forecast and advisory, watch tutorials, read observations about recent avalanches, and find trainings and classes to help advance your skills. Also, check out the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance to learn more about the backcountry community here in the Wasatch Mountains.
Be safe and if the stars align, enjoy the fresh tracks!