Winter backcountry play is truly exceptional. Mountaineers can’t wait to get out and experience both the solitude and the grandeur— the stillness alone is spectacular. The mountains and forests take on a magical feeling under their blanket of twinkling snow, and the skies can become a deep shade of periwinkle blue. However, winter also commands an additional level of respect; Mother Nature is not to be reckoned with. Whether you’re an experienced mountaineer, or just learning the ropes, we’ve put together some top-of-mind tips for playing in the backcountry.
On Your Left...
Go with the flow. Nordic trail systems generally flow in one direction. For the enjoyment of everyone, stay on course. Yes, it’s tempting to mix it up and enjoy different scenery, but stopping is not always easy, and going against the grain in this situation can create more havoc. When Nordic skiing, faster skiers and those going downhill have the right of way. When approaching someone from behind, give them a head’s up. A simple, “On your left/right,” works just fine.
Shared Open Spaces
Trail systems are there to keep you safe and let you know where it is best for you to go. That's why trail maintenance is everything. Whether trails are maintained by paid personnel or volunteers, a lot of hard work goes into grooming. Try not to walk or snowshoe on groomed trails, especially classic tracks for Nordic skiing. Walk as far to the side of the trail as possible. Cover any divots you accidentally create.
Pay Attention with Pets
Keep it pet-friendly. If pets are allowed in the area, make sure to keep them under control, particularly in parking lots, and please clean up after them! Keep in mind, dogs are prone to hypothermia, especially short-haired or elderly dogs. Be sure to bring proper outerwear and pads for them to rest on. It’s also important to remember that dogs can be startled and it’s easy for them to end up under a ski. Accidentally slicing a dog’s leg with a ski is more common than you would like to know.
Know When to Say When
Know your limits. Oxygen levels are thinner at higher elevations and altitude sickness is real. If you are visiting, it’s wise to spend a few days getting used to the altitude before attempting anything strenuous. Be sure to stay hydrated, a good rule of thumb is to drink before you feel thirsty. Be sure to pack a lot of snacks, particularly carbohydrates. Your body needs more calories at higher elevations. If you experience headaches, nausea or dizziness, the best thing to do is head down to a lower elevation.
Stay in Your Lane, Bro...
Be courteous when backcountry touring. If you’re backcountry skiing or snowboarding, there are some unspoken rules to the game. Number one, don’t destroy the skin track set by those who made it up the mountain first. If you’re a snowboarder, use a separate post hole trail. It’s also important not to drop in on someone else’s line if they arrive at the top first, let them go first, (unless they offer the first run to you.)
Prepare Yourself For What's Ahead
Be prepared with the proper equipment. An avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe are recommended for all backcountry activities. Know how to use them as well as how to avoid needing to use them! We highly recommend taking an avalanche certification course and watching the avalanche forecast before heading out. Always adventure with both humility and respect for others.
Use the Buddy System
Tell someone where you are going. Cell service in the backcountry can be spotty, so always let someone know where you’re going and when you plan to return. Be as specific as you can be. Use the buddy system. The mountains can be twice as dangerous in winter. Adventuring with a friend is always recommended.
Be Ready for Changing Weather
Pack water, snacks, layers, and sun protection. The weather changes rapidly in the mountains and the sun can be just as damaging as the cold. Also, keep in mind, you’ll most likely work up a sweat when exercising in the cold and when you stop, you’ll get chilled. Bring an extra, lightweight layer to throw on when you are not moving.
Manage Your Maps
Download GPS and compass apps to your phone. These maps will work without cell service. Some batteries drain quickly in the cold, so if you can, keep your phone on airplane mode to conserve the battery. Carry a battery or solar operated phone charger as a backup.
Have the Time of Your Life
Most importantly, have a blast! We’re lucky to have these open spaces to enjoy, so soak it up!
Pledge for the Wild is a group of mountain towns supporting responsible tourism in wild places. To learn more, go to https://www.pledgewild.com/.