Building Smart Habits for Backcountry Travel

Swarms of skiers are turning the page to backcountry skiing. It’s a natural progression for adventurous souls who don’t want to be limited to the confines of a resort—no matter how big and challenging the terrain may be. Being in the wild environment is only the beginning. Half of the prize of heading off from the trailhead is knowing that you and your partners are in control of your experience. If the untracked line is the goal, then self-propelled and self-sufficiency are no less a virtue—but, buyer beware. When enough mistakes are made in the backcountry, terrible things can happen. It pays to know some simple basics when venturing into the wild winter.

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Jake Urban is an avalanche educator based in Jackson, WY, and is the Deputy Director and Training Advisor for Teton County Search and Rescue. He’s been educating people on responsible backcountry and outdoor practices for two decades and has seen the sad fallout from bad decisions and seemingly innocuous mistakes many times. There are many major tenets of backcountry travel, but there are a few Urban feels are worth highlighting.

The first one is simple: let people know what you’re up to. “We often get calls for overdue hikers, hunters, and skiers,” says Urban, “but the reporting party often only has a vague idea of what and where their friends were going or doing. Urban advises to make a solid plan, communicate it and stick to it. “It makes you searchable,” he says.

When you do end up with a plan and have told a friend what you and your party are getting into, it’s also a good idea to have realistic expectations of what you’re trying to achieve, and how long it’s going to take to tag a peak, ski a run, and/or get back to the trailhead. Urban says that many new to backcountry skiing underestimate the amount of time it takes to do an objective, and don’t stick to a turn around time. “Keeping track of the amount of daylight you have and turning around with adequate time makes for a more comfortable ending—despite getting your objective,” he says. “Chalk up the missed opportunity to experience, and come back and do it in better style.”

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Many experienced outdoor people have one time or another unwittingly spent the night out in the summer months, which can be an anecdotal right of passage. In winter, it’s a different story, and freezing to death is real if you’re not familiar with how to prepare for a night out. Many novice backcountry skiers or skiers unfamiliar to a certain area, can sometimes drop into the wrong drainage and get disoriented. Before long, they are miles from the trailhead, going nowhere fast.

The scenario can be relatively serious, but doesn’t mean you have to go overboard and pack a sleeping bag, stove and tent every time you head out for a mission. Urban just wants people to be smart and have some kind of a game plan in the unlikely but potential situation where you or your party aren’t going to make it back by supper. “In my experience,” says Urban, “if individuals carried an extra layer, with hat and gloves and are able to make a fire, most could comfortably spend the night out without incident.”

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