Ski Often, Ski Safe: How to Plan a Backcountry Ski Tour

After months of waiting, waxing, tuning, and pretending to enjoy trail running, we’re finally on the verge of winter. But as new snow settles into the couloirs and glades, it’s easy to get caught up in the stoke without doing your homework—a potentially fatal mistake when you’re backcountry skiing in avalanche terrain. To get the season off on the right boot, we teamed up with Joey Thompson, Colorado Mountain School’s Head Mountain Guide as well as a BCA and Hestra ambassador, to put together this must-do, pre-trip checklist.

Skimping on your tour plan comes with high consequences. On average, 27 people lose their lives in avalanches every year in the United States. Even more sobering: Those fatalities include experts, guides, and professionals as well as backcountry skiing novices. The good news is that, while your safety in the mountains is never 100% guaranteed, you can scale your odds overwhelmingly in your favor with the right research and preparation.

Here the ten essential steps you should take to plan any backcountry ski trip.

1. Evaluate your experience level.

The first thing you should do is take a hard look at your overall experience and comfort in the mountains before you get in over your head.

“Overconfidence is a common trap,” Thompson says, and that’s especially true among skiers with only moderate avalanche education. In fact, some studies show that folks with just the first level of avy certification are more likely to expose themselves to undue avalanche risk than any other group.

Getting certified with an avalanche awareness class (like the level 1 course from AIARE, the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) is a good first step. However, Thompson warns that years of experience, a lot of practice using a beacon, and good temperament and mountain sense are often more beneficial than formal education alone.

If you’re really new to backcountry skiing—or really obsessing over a descent that might be just outside your comfort zone—consider hiring a guide or finding a mentor with a decade or more of mountain experience to show you the ropes.

2. Check the weather before you pick your route.

Second step: Thompson recommends cross-referencing several weather forecasts before you get your heart set on any particular line.

He checks predictions from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), and the European weather service MeteoBlue, all of which use different predictive models. For quick reference, map NOAA’s predictions directly over your route plan in Gaia GPS using the Precipitation and Snowfall forecast overlays.

Steer clear of high winds, which can load snow onto leeward slopes; sudden spikes in temperature, which can cause wet slides; and huge dumps of snow, which can build into storm slabs. Also keep an eye on cloud cover, which will flatten the light, making variations in the snow surface tough to distinguish.

If you haven’t already, get a feel for weather patterns in your area. The Pacific Northwest’s snowpack stabilizes much faster than Colorado’s, for example, which means you can start skiing sooner after storms.

3. Select backcountry zones based on the avalanche forecast.

Next, Thompson heads to the local avalanche bulletin and rules out geographic zones, elevations, and aspects with high avalanche risk.

The avy forecast measures risk as a function of both likelihood and size (consequence).

“For example, if you’re skiing in Rocky Mountain National Park in April, you probably have a weak layer [from the thaw-freeze cycles that usually happen in early winter in Colorado] buried really deeply in the snowpack. Maybe it’s dormant—buried too deep to have a high likelihood of getting triggered,” Thompson explains. “But if it does get triggered, all that built-up snow is going to result in an avalanche big enough to sculpt its own landscape and bury a train and houses and condos.” That’s a low-likelihood, high-consequence avalanche.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a few inches of new snow on short, steep slopes might be really likely to slide, but the avalanches will be much smaller. Those might knock a person off her skis but they’re unlikely to bury anyone completely.

4. Plan your route.

Now that you’ve ruled out the danger zones, evaluate slope angles to find a safe route. Gather beta from friends, online trip reports, and websites like OpenSnow and Wild Snow, and figure out what routes local guides are taking clients on that time of year.

“If you can get your hands on a prerecorded track from a buddy, that’s awesome,” Thompson says, especially if there’s a chance of low-visibility conditions. You can create your own route directly in Gaia GPS, or upload a track from a friend via a KML or GPX file.

Most avalanche educators recommend avoiding slopes between 30 and 45 degrees, especially if the avalanche forecast calls for anything more than low avy danger. (Visualize slope angle along different routes with the Slope-Angle Shading overlay.) However, persistent slab avalanches happen on slopes as low as 22 degrees, so don’t skimp on your weather research.

5. Make a Plan B. 

Prerecorded tracks are great, but any time you’re backcountry skiing, conditions can change fast. Be prepared to tweak or bail on your route at the last minute.

Thompson recommends setting waypoints at decision-making thresholds like headwalls, summits, and higher-consequence slopes to facilitate group discussion about the conditions and terrain.

Always make sure you have a safe escape route in mind. Create plan-B and plan-C tour plans, and download the appropriate maps for offline use.

6. Bring the right maps.

Before you leave service, download maps of the area you plan to explore, along with any routes, tracks, or waypoints to help you find your way. Thompson typically downloads the USGS Topo and NatGeo Illustrated Trails maps. Some other helpful layers:

(Many of these maps are only available with a Premium Membership. If you want to try them out, click here for a free 7-day trail.)

Download multiple map sources, and plan to stash your phone in a chest pocket to keep it warm (cold batteries die faster). Bring paper maps and a compass as backup.

7. Pick your partners wisely.

Going solo in the wild has its allure, but it’s hard to argue with the facts: If you get caught in an avalanche and you’re alone, you’ll have no one to dig you out. Pick partners who share your levels of ambition and risk tolerance, and who you know will be open-minded and communicative with the rest of the group.

Thompson recommends aiming for a group of five. It’s a small enough number for efficient movement and quick decision-making, but big enough that even if two skiers get buried, there are still more diggers than victims.

If you’re a beginner, Thompson suggests skiing with other beginners. They’ll allow you to learn the basics at your own pace in mellow terrain.

8. Get your gear together.

Every group member should have a beacon, probe, and avalanche shovel. Also consider an avalanche pack. They’re expensive, but research shows that when used properly, they can effectively buoy caught skiers above sliding debris.

Put new batteries in your beacon, and securely attach it to your body, either in a chest harness over your baselayer, or clipped to a belt loop and zipped into a pocket. Keep your probe and shovel easily accessible in your pack.

Also throw in plenty of snacks and water. Staying hydrated and frequently consuming carbohydrates will keep you warm and prevent bonking, which can impair your decision-making abilities.

9. Talk with your team the day of the trip.

Discuss turnaround time and goals with your group to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Agree beforehand on what slope angles the group feels comfortable skiing, what weather or snow surface conditions constitute a no-go, and what your plan-B and plan-C options are. Predetermined limits are a good failsafe against succumbing to summit fever in hazardous conditions.

Thompson also suggests designating a team leader before you head out. That way, if something goes wrong, you’ll have enough organizational structure in place to quickly make a plan and avoid infighting.

“It’s really invaluable for beginner skiers to debrief at the end of the day, too,” Thompson adds. “If you skied something outside of your route plan and just got lucky, you’re not going to learn from it if you just slap high-fives all around, get in your car, and drive away without thinking it through.”

10. Do your final checks.

Before you leave, scan the day-of forecast and local avalanche reports. Reconsider your route if you see evidence of avalanche activity on similar slopes in adjacent ranges.

Reading avalanche terrain is an incredibly complex science, Thompson warns: “Even after 25 years of ski touring, I’m just now feeling like I have a handle on it.” So no matter how well you’ve prepared, always double-check your terrain and weather information, and jot down the number for your local Search and Rescue team, just in case.

If all looks good, do a final beacon check, click in, and get after it.