Backcountry and Avalanche Safety
Who is This For: Anyone that travels in the backcountry during wintertime participating in a wide range of activities from simple hiking to skiing/riding, snowshoeing, mountaineering, snowmobiling and any other possible outdoor activity.
Warning: Backcountry travel in the winter can be hazardous and can even lead to fatality if the participants fail to be prepared. This section is to provide you with some resources for you to keep up to date with backcountry travel and avalanche safety and is not intended to be a definitive guide or teaching tool.
Introduction: Each year numerous outdoor enthusiasts venture into the outdoors during the winter time to experience a whole other dimension of the mountains. For the most part backcountry travel and sports are relatively safe if carried out in the proper manner. Having a sound mind, knowledge and being cautious will help ensure that you are having a great time while being safe.
This is a basic resource to give you an idea of traveling in Avalanche Terrain, we highly recommend that if you want to venture into this type of terrain frequently on skis, snowboards, or snowmobiles that you take Certified Avalanche Safety Courses by professional mountain guides. We recommend Colorado Mountain School for these courses (about every other year we offer these courses through our club) and spend a lot of additional time with experienced outdoors-people and continue your avalanche studies.
Avalanche Terrain in Colorado: Backcountry travel is considered any outdoor travel outside of the in-bounds ski resorts that closely maintain their slopes. Therefore going out on a simple hike or taking a long tour all constitutes as backcountry travel. As always in any backcountry situation (winter or summer) we hope that you are adequate in Wilderness First Aid Training, can properly respond to emergencies and are prepared in terms of equipment and food.
Colorado is home to some of the most dangerous avalanche conditions that exist in the United States. Since 1950 avalanches have killed more people in Colorado than any other natural hazard, and in the United States, Colorado accounts for one-third of all avalanche deaths. Thus backcountry travelers in Colorado need to pay special to the terrain and the factors that contribute to avalanches.
Factors that Cause Avalanches:
- Terrain: the slope must be steep enough to be able to avalanche
- Snowpack: the snow must be unstable enough to avalanche
- Weather: Weather is another important variable. Changing weather can quickly increase instability. And weather over a period of days determines stability.
Your Two Backcountry Travel Chocies:
- Avoid Avalanche Terrain altogether
- Still requires the knowledge to recognize potential avalanche danger
- Learn how to recognize and assess avalanche terrain
Avoiding Avalanche terrain means that you take the time to properly plan your backcountry travel. You do this by researching an area of travel by looking at guidebooks, analyzing maps, and talking to people that has been in that area. You set-up a group and make sure that the group is well prepared by making sure you are ready for the upcoming situation. You bring the proper equipment with you which usually means proper season clothing (no cotton), necessary equipment (snowshoes, etc), food, water, and first-aid supplies. Since we are in Colorado expect all types of weather regardless what the forecast says.
You go to places that have existing trails and other outdoor enthusiasts have recently enjoyed. You travel on ridges and in areas far away from steep slopes or gullies. You avoid walking across anything that has a steep slope and you are mindful of the trail. Generally you are not in very steep terrain or in terrain that is heavily forested and not on exposed open-slopes. You are very cautious and this caution keeps you safe while having a great time.
Taking the seemingly simple route of hiking down an open snowfield to get back to the cars or trail can quickly turn ugly on you. Recently (12/31/06) a father and son almost got killed as they were hiking down a open face around the Loveland pass area where they broke off an avalanche 300 feet wide, 2 feet deep and ran for over 500 vertical feet (story here) . They got lucky but it just shows that not knowing about avalanche terrain can lead to some serious problems.
Learn How to Recognize and Assess Avalanche Terrain
This is a collection of existing online tutorials that will give you an idea of what it takes to travel in the backcountry. We also recommend formal avalanche training before you venture out.
The Forest Service National Avalanche Center is a major source for information. It also has two excellent tutorials:
-Interactive Backcountry Tour
-Slide Guide- A overview of what you do in a day in the backcountry
Avalanche First Response Training is a great interactive tutorial to test your currently knowledge and let you know some other basics.
See some awesome avalanche slide footage at TGR’s Website
Colorado Avalanche Information Center
The most important resource for you traveling in the backcountry in Colorado. Updated daily it provides information on the existing weather, the current avy conditions and any reported avalanche sightings.
To be prepared to go into the backcountry you need to be knowledgable and be adequately prepared. Hopefully this helps you out some so you can have safe and fun backcountry travels.