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Get Prepared For A Busy Winter In The Backcountry

Here’s what you need to know before you go, with tips from American Avalanche Association director Dan Kaveney.

Last spring, after the ski resorts shut down due to COVID-19, but the powder was still plentiful, some popular backcountry trailheads around the country saw what can only be described as mass chaos (remember this footage of the parking situation on Colorado’s Loveland Pass, entirely from backcountry skiers?). 

We saw much of the same uptick with biking and camping this summer. Sales of bikes, tents, camper vans, and other outdoor gear went through the roof. People fled cities and took to the open road, to mountain towns, to National Parks, and to the trails. It took a pandemic, apparently, for Americans to realize it was high time they got outside and explored.

There’s a good chance we’ll see that same surge to the wilderness again this winter. People may flock to ski resorts, which are reopening with COVID-19 policies in place. But they’ll also seek solace and space in the backcountry. We put together a list of essential gear and education you need before going into the backcountry, but we also wanted to know what those in the avalanche industry think about this coming winter and what people need to do to prepare. So, we called up Dan Kaveney, the Bozeman, Montana-based executive director of the American Avalanche Association, an organization dedicated to avalanche safety through education and professional development.

Do you think we’ll see a major uptick in backcountry users due to COVID this winter?

Dan Kaveney: Based on our experiences last spring after the ski resorts closed, we’re expecting bigger crowds in the backcountry and more backcountry usage than we would get in a normal year. This is on top of a rapid growth in backcountry usage before COVID. It had already been going strong. Now, we think the ski areas are going to open, but some of them will have limited capacity.

What’s your biggest concern regarding that growth?

I think our biggest concern is the people who don’t know what they don’t know. We are preparing a number of op-eds in Colorado newspapers encouraging people who may not know they need to educate themselves about avalanches to go and get the training. That’s our biggest safety concern that’s different this year. We’re expecting a lot of people who haven’t traveled in the backcountry before. If you don’t know the right questions to ask, you can’t find the answers.

OK, so people should remember to sign up for an avalanche course.

Yes, make sure you get some education. One of the websites we run is Avalanche.org, a clearing house for avalanche forecasts from across the country that also has information about avalanche education, or check your local avalanche center. If you’re brand new to the backcountry, taking an avalanche awareness course or an Avalanche Level 1 course is a good idea. Those awareness courses are usually free—they offer them at REI in the evening. A recreational Level 1 course is a bit more of a commitment, but it’s well worth doing. You should do that before you spend any significant time in the backcountry. 

There are lots of examples last spring of people behaving in ways that we wouldn’t consider responsible. We don’t want to put our first responders or rescuers at risk, especially this year, so my advice would be dial it back.

 

What else should people do, besides taking a course?

Find a friend who knows what they’re doing. That’s an excellent way to learn. You need to learn by being out on the snow and gaining experience. When you take your Level 1, now you’re in a position to gain that experience more safely. Experience is important. The best way is to take advantage of a friend who’s been out there a while. Also the Know Before You Go Program can be done quickly and online.

Jacob Urban discusses the snowpack during an avy course with the Jackson Hole Outdoor Leadership Institute.

Jacob Urban discusses the snowpack during an avy course with the Jackson Hole Outdoor Leadership Institute.

Some avy education has gone virtual this year. Can you learn what you need to know via Zoom?

The biggest avalanche course providers have brought the classroom portion 100 percent online and retained the field portion outside. We at the American Avalanche Association think that a field component is absolutely important. You can’t learn a lot of it on the computer. But that classroom portion prepares you to take full advantage of the field session. Avy course providers are moving the classroom onto the computer, then having the field sessions. You need both. The field sessions are critically important.

How do you think things will look different in the backcountry this year?

Keep in mind that avalanche terrain is a wicked learning environment. You can ski a slope that’s unstable and get away with it. Also realize that due to COVID and more people in the backcountry, the hazards may be higher. Be aware of what’s below you and the fact that there might be someone downhill or uphill of you. Behave in ways that don’t put that person in danger.

Finish this sentence. When you’re in the backcountry…

Use common sense. Be safe. Follow the guidelines that the local land organizations issue. There are lots of examples last spring of people behaving in ways that we wouldn’t consider responsible. We don’t want to put our first responders or rescuers at risk, especially this year, so my advice would be dial it back.

To support the American Avalanche Association, consider making a donation or purchasing a membership, which keeps you up to date on the latest in avalanche science (and only costs $35 a year). Also, buy a Flylow A3 Trucker Hat and all proceeds go to support the organization.


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