Smartphones may be the best piece of outdoor gear you can take with you into the backcountry. In this article, learn how to use mobile apps both online and off to plan an unforgettable backcountry ski trip this winter.
Start the planning process by determining the best location to backcountry ski based on weather, avalanche forecasts, and navigation.
In the wild, use your smartphone to track your route, take field notes, and capture photos of your adventure.
1. Weather and avalanche forecasts
Photo by Nicolas Cool
Winter backcountry travel requires extra research than other seasons. Why? Because snow and avalanche danger add unstable risk. Temperatures and precipitation forecasts start the planning process but more conditions come into play.
Be informed on the weather
Track weather daily since the snowpack will depend on snow, wind, rain, and snow levels (or freezing levels). Temperatures hovering around freezing level can warm the snow throughout the day but freeze the layer at night causing icy ski conditions until the snow softens up again or new snow falls. Learn more about snow versus freezing levels.
Wind gusts can remove light snow off the windward side and deposit the snow to the leeward side of the mountain. Windward aspects of the mountain may show scoured snow and form a cornice at steep ridgelines. Strong winds in the winter can also make it downright unpleasant for the skier.
Most skiers don’t want to see rain in the forecast. Similar to temperatures hovering around freezing, the rain melts the top layer of the snow and creates a hard rain crust not optimal to ski. Monitor the snow levels in order to know what elevation will have snow to ski.
Different regions have avalanche field reporters assessing the snowpack. Use local avalanche forecasts to help decide whether you earn your turns or go to a resort.
Avalanche forecasts provide ratings such as low, moderate, considerable, high, and extreme and evaluate below treeline, near treeline, above treeline. In addition to the ratings, forecasts indicate predictions on what slopes may slide and what type of avalanche you may see (i.e. wind slabs and storm slabs).
Take an AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) class to learn about snow stability and how to read forecasts.
Note: Smartphones can interfere with avalanche transceivers, or beacons, and should be kept far from each other when in avalanche terrain.
Navigation starts when you step out your front door. Drive to the trailhead or starting point of your trip using road maps. Minutes before you leave, check local webcams on highways or ski resorts for current conditions and gain a sense if the weather forecasts are accurate.
Plan your route
After reviewing the weather and avalanche forecasts, use Gaia GPS map layers to find the right route. Summer trails may be hard to find under the snow but can be used as a starting point when planning your route.
Avalanches occur most commonly at 30 to 45-degrees. Use Gaia GPS Slope shading overlay to help determine the best slopes to stay safe on the mountain. If the conditions aren’t favorable, it is crucial to select safer terrain. Reference the satellite map layer to see if the terrain is passable‒look at tree coverage and areas for obvious cliffs to avoid.
Go to gaiagps.com to sign up for a free account and start planning your next route today at gaiagps.com/map.
View your route and maps offline
You planned a route and want to use it to navigate offline to save battery. Select the download offline map function and set a box around the terrain you wish to explore. Consider saving areas that look promising for back-up plans.
Learn more on how to download maps for offline use here.
3. Tracking your route
Tracking with a GPS is valuable especially as a beginner. If you plotted a route on the map, you can check your phone at junctions or every 30 minutes to stay on course.
Monitor your pace, distance, and elevation to maximize the short winter daylight hours. Calculate your average moving speed for the elevation to mile ratio and plan how long your outings will take.
In addition to tracking, add waypoints to the trip. Waypoints add points of interest or landmarks during the outing: where you parked the car, where you dug a snowpit, or where you transitioned from touring to ski mode.
4. Field notes
Avalanche classes teach backcountry skiers to write down the predicted conditions while trip planning, along with taking notes in the field, especially when plans change. Instead of carrying a little blue field book, consider entering notes into the smartphone in your pack.
Plan your trip
You have researched various areas to ski over the weekend, so writing notes come in handy for remembering the exact forecasts and details when offline. Start the note with the date and the location you plan on skiing. Next, record the avalanche forecast and weather conditions, along with any snowpack concerns. It can be as simple as taking a screenshot image on your phone to reference. Add the travel plans for the day with alternative routes and look up the emergency response phone numbers for the area.
In the field
Make note of any deviations from the original plan. Observe the sky (clouds and precipitation), temperature, wind, and snow. How do the conditions differ from the forecasts? If you plan on returning to an area, consider taking a photo of slopes to ski or write down the area’s terrain (trees, bowls, ridgelines, etc.).
Debrief the day
Traveling solo or as a group, reflect on the conditions of the day and make any notes on what you learnt or observed. The notes can come in handy for future planning or sharing your trip reports, or beta, with friends.
Everyone can be a photographer: just add a smartphone. Not to mention ski poles make a good selfie stick with the right attachments. Below are a few tips to keep in mind when photographing your adventure.
The reason why you go out in nature is the sweeping beauty and remote possibilities. Shooting pictures of landscapes doesn’t take much effort but avoid placing the focus of the image dead center. Use the rule-of-thirds and place the object off-center.
Tap the screen where you want the lens to focus on and allow it to adjust for the exposure or lighting of the photo. If the photo looks dark, consider focusing on a dark area to brighten the image. Most smartphones automatically adjust the photo while processing with a HDR (high-dynamic-range) setting.
Smartphone cameras have many settings, including burst modes to capture action shots. It takes time to perfect action shots for skiing but burst mode allows you to take many photos and choose the best one later
Position yourself downhill from your friend, or subject, and ask him or her to ski close to you at a fast pace. Choosing the slope with no tracks makes it more appealing and shows the remoteness of the excursion.
Focus on the skier to get the right exposure and let the phone burst to capture the sequence. Don’t forget that practice makes perfect. It takes time to know how close the skier should be and the best angles. Once you figure out the distance, throw a snowball where you want to skier to turn and communicate your vision.
Nature can be hauntingly silent where your thoughts can interrupt focus. Music can drown out the silence or keep you motivated to keep a steady pace.
Enjoy the outdoors how you want but please consider others when outside or keep the music to yourself with earbuds. Download music offline to listen in the car, at camp, or a backcountry hut.
7. Emergency contact
Almost everyone carries a smartphone these days and has a hard time leaving it at home. Being connected allows skiers to share their plans with friends. Tell a friend your plans: start time, end time, and where you’re going. Check in with said friend after your day ends.
Cell service networks reach more remote areas than they have in the past. Send your planning notes to a friend that is a reliable source.
Your smartphone can be the ultimate backcountry tool – but remember to plan smart. Preserve phone battery life by keeping it in a warm jacket pocket and always bring back up maps and other essential equipment.
Most importantly, always travel with companions, practice safe skiing techniques, and have fun!