5 TIPS FOR BEGINNER BACKCOUNTRY SNOWBOARDING
Quick disclaimer: I am not an expert.
Last year, I decided to start splitting my time between snowboarding in resorts and creating my own routes in the backcountry. I was intimidated by the idea of hiking up to what seems an unattainable and challenging mountain summit, and making it down safely. Was it worth it? Absolutely. That said, avalanche danger is serious and I believe that in order for all of us to be safe when shreddin that epic pow in the backcountry, we need to be prepared, as well as educated.
Although I emphasize being safe and educated to the utmost, I want to tell you guys, being in the backcountry is the most rewarding experience that I have gone through to this day. Not only do you get to be away from the crowds at the resorts and are able to soak in the solitude, but you are really pushing yourself. You are leaping past your preconceived notions about ‘doing something scary’, and can truly feel that sense of satisfaction when you get to the summit.
Even though I was terrified (let’s be honest, I still am at times), I now understand why it is that people brave the unmarked terrain, and that is to genuinely be surrounded by something that man has not shifted. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love going to the resorts, lapping out runs, and getting a beer afterwards, but this is a different kind of fun. It’s a day to reflect, recharge, and remember. Each day is completely different. That’s what we are all striving for, right? A unique experience? If that sounds like you, here are 5 tips that I have learned from my experience in the last year, to get you started as a beginner in the backcountry.
1. KNOW YOUR GEAR
When starting your backcountry touring career, it can get expensive, although the proper gear is essential. Here is the gear that I never leave home without:
AVALANCHE BEACON: PIEPS DSP Sport Avalanche Beacon, $320
If you forget one of these, just have an epic day at the resort because you aren’t prepared. These are the items that are going to save your life. In order for you to feel fully ready for anything in the backcountry, I also have a list of other gear that I use:
BACKCOUNTRY PACK: DAKINE Heli Pro II, 28L Pack, $145
SKI POLES: Black Diamond Compactor Ski Poles, $130
FIRST AID KIT: All-Purpose 187-Piece Kit, $20
HYDRATION: CamelBak Antidote Reservoir, 3L., $25
WALKIE TALKIES: Motorola Talkabout Waterproof 35-mile, Two-way Radio MS350R, $65
Also, of course, my snowboard, goggles, helmet, warm layers, riding boots, allen wrench riding tool, mittens, hand warmers, extra socks, sunscreen, etc. (Normal resort gear)
So you have the gear that you need, now how do you use it?
Don’t be that person that gets ready next to your car and you have never even tried using your avalanche beacon, or the person that doesn’t know how to attach your snowboard onto your pack. Know your gear before you get out there. Practice makes perfect.
Check out my Gear Closet Post, here, to see specs and explanations for this gear.
2. KNOW WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING AT
If you don’t feel like you have enough knowledge about the backcountry, take a class, or better yet, start with a free class. I took my first avalanche class at REI for free. (They even had free beer, too. Does it get better than that?) Everyone wants to be safe, so it is an open environment where you can ask questions, and feel more qualified for what you’re getting into. You can also check out Know Before You Go (KBYG). They are a site associated with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), as well as others, that offers a free online program that takes only 1 hour, and it fills you in on the basics of avalanche safety.
Once you are ready to take the next step, there are so many companies that offer more technical classes to better prepare you, like getting your AIARE Level One Certification from Colorado Mountain School.
3. KNOW THE CURRENT CONDITIONS
You wake up, start pouring your mug of coffee, and it’s snowing outside! Your first thought, “hell yeah, powder day!!” but, before you start heading up to your favorite spot, check your local conditions.
Make a Plan.
I live in Colorado so I use Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), where they tell you the current snowpack conditions, where on the mountain there are risks, future forecasts for snow and weather, and recent avalanche accidents. Being as current as possible is important because snowpack can change by the hour. If you don’t live in Colorado, there are numerous avalanche safety sites that will tell you what you need to know for the day, including avalanche.org, which shows you a current map of the entire United States.
You also need to know the red flags. According to the American Avalanche Association, the red flag questions are as follows:
Have there been recent avalanches?
Are there signs of unstable snow around you?
Has there been heavy snow or rain in the last 24 hours?
Has the wind blown snow in precarious areas?
Have there been significant temperature variations recently?
Are there persistent weak areas?
These are all questions that should be going through your head when heading out into the backcountry. If you want to know more about these signs, again, always check your local current conditions or take a class!
4. KNOW YOUR PARTNER OR GROUP
It’s just like any other partner sport; you need to know whom you’re going out there with. Not only do you want that person, (or people) to respect the environment and the experience, but you are putting your life in their hands, and they should know what they’re doing, too. You need to make sure that they are the kind of person that will turn back even if you just have some weird “gut feeling”. The same goes for you. Are you prepared to save this person if something happens? Are you prepared to turn back when you have come so close to the summit? Always know your limits, but don’t be afraid to gain knowledge and push past your comfort zone.
Also know what you are looking at in terms of the people around you. Is everyone else being safe? Ask them what their group plan is and where they plan on heading up and heading down the mountain. Being aware of what other people are doing and where they are going, as well as giving them your plan, not only helps them out if something were to happen, but it helps you. Remember, we are all working together to stay safe (and have fun, of course.)
5. KNOW YOURSELF
Why are you going out there? For me: I love snowboarding. I love resort riding. But most of all, I love just being in the mountains. I want to be surrounded by ancient, evergreen forests and hear nothing but the wind pushing snow off their branches. Once you have established that you aren’t just doing it for the reward, but you are doing it for everything up to that point, then you’re ready.
You’re doing it for that miserable early morning wake up, for the battle in your head of why you shouldn’t be out there because you’re scared, for the extra push you have to give yourself when you’re freezing your ass off, for the moment of pure silence as you take a breath and appreciate being present, and for that moment when you finally reach the top and crack open a half-frozen beer to cheers to the view. That’s what ends up making the risk worth it.
DISCLAIMER: I am a beginner in the backcountry, all my advice is purely my own advice, take it at your own discretion. Also, I did not receive any of the gear mentioned above for free. I get asked from friends, family, and acquaintances all the time what I have in my closet, and here ya go, easy to access at a later date. All of these statements are purely in my opinion only, because I only promote brands that I truly like! All photos were taken by me, other than the ones of me. Those were taken by Andre Gonsalves. :)
Where are your favorite spots in Colorado? What do you bring with you to the mountain? Do you have any suggestions??