Margaret Wheeler

What do I do year round to be a prepared backcountry traveler?

Being a backcountry winter traveler also means you are a lifelong student of the mountains. Preparation happens every season regardless of your level of education, skill or abilities. It helps to direct us to the mindset needed in order to engage with backcountry terrain. Preparation is both physical and mental. It happens throughout the year. There are four pillars to preparation.

Continue Your Avalanche Education

The educational continuum is never complete. Avalanche education is a lifelong process that requires annual refinement. The process is open-ended and thus allows for the incorporation of new information or the revision of old information. Always seek expert and/or professional advice. The Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain program is just one step in the journey. Make sure to revisit the information, seek out more advanced understandings, read through text, attend snow and avalanche workshops, read The Avalanche Review produced by the American Avalanche Association, and start conversations that will engage friends.

Practice Avalanche Rescue

Yearly practice with your regular touring partners is very important. Avalanche rescue is one of the skills in life that you want to strive to perfect, but never have to use. It requires having the right gear and knowing how to use it, and storing that gear properly year round. Perfect practice makes for perfect performance in the event that rescue is necessary.

Track the Season’s Conditions

Imagine it is autumn and snow is falling in the mountains. The shaded slopes are holding that snow throughout the high pressure (sun) systems that follow. The cold temperatures and lack of insulation create weak layers in the snowpack that will impact your first days of the season out in the backcountry. It is important that we track these layers from the start of the season until the end. Daily avalanche advisories, weather logs, social media, and local talks from avalanche professionals are all great ways to keep an eye on the weather and snowpack. Pattern recognition is key to understanding how the weather affects the hazard.

Investigate Trip Options

A trip catalog or a bucket list helps to organize and classify objectives based on the season, conditions, and terrain. Investigating lines on a map helps to facilitate the trip planning process. You can create lines via an online mapping resource, or you can use readily available GPX files. However, it is important that you have an understanding and familiarity with the area prior to entering that terrain. Local guidebooks, gear shops, and social media usually offer a great start to the investigation process.