Disclaimer: This guide was compiled by me as an attempt to centralize information often asked by first timers. I, too, am new to backcountry and this is in no way meant to substitute for real world training and personal research. This is a work in progress and I encourage anyone with useful information to contribute.
Contributors: Alpinord, Cayuse, mountaingirl1961
Special thanks to mountaingirl1961 for her extensive overhaul and editting of this article
BC conditions are highly variable and just because you are competent on predictable, familiar or ski patrolled terrain does not necessarily mean you will also be proficient in the backcountry. There is a high likelihood there is some stuff you've never seen or experienced before out there. You need to go at it safely and smartly with your A-game and be able to adjust to the variables and rapidly changing conditions.
So you want to start doing back country skiing? You have a questions as to how to get started? Well, guess what you're not the first person to ask and this sticky is just for you!
First things first - back country skiing is not like resort skiing so an "easy" back country tour doesn't mean itsgoing to be like an inbounds green or blue. It could still be well into expert level skiing and as such you should be a proficient skier before venturing into the B.C . Only you can decide if you're proficient enough. If you've practiced at the resort in powder, on very hard snow, in the trees and on breakable crust, then you've introduced yourself to some of the conditions you will likely face in the backcountry. Judge whether you're ready based on your success in these conditions.
A typical B.C setup will consist of:
Skis with touring bindings*
*There are two type of bindings commonly used - telemark bindings and alpine touring bindings (AT bindings), otherwise known as randonee bindings. Both have their merits but the debate between which is better is beyond the scope of this sticky.
The three bold items are absolutely necessary. DO NOT venture into B.C without them. There have been many deaths over the years that could possibly have been prevented had the victims been carrying these basic items with them. Just carrying them is not enough, though You will need to know how to use them in pressure situations. We'll speak more about that later.
"But lonewolf I don't have the money for a back country setup," you say. That's okay, there are a couple alternatives that you can do to experience the B.C.
First and easiest is to snowshoe while carrying your skis. This is a perfectly fine alternative for your initial outings and will allow you to try the B.C without heavy investment into equipment. If you go this route please stay out of the skin track ( It's really hard to miss, its those two giant parallel lines going all the way up the mountain.)
Another alternative is to use a device called Alpine Trekkers, an insert that converts regular alpine bindings into touring bindings. You insert them into your alpine bindings, click your boots into the Alpine Trekkers, and start hiking uphill like you're in a regular AT setup. You'll need a set of skins and some Alpine Trekkers to give this method a try. By the time you buy the skins and the Trekkers it'll likely be more expensive than snowshoes, but it's still an inexpensive way to give backcountry skiing a try and will allow you to try this new terrain using equipment with which you're already comfortable.
Depending on your location, you may also be able to lap what is known as "side country," which is backcountry terrain accessed from a resort via marked gates. DO NOT assume that because it is near a resort that it is safe. The resorts do avy control inbounds but may not do avy control in the side country accessed via their gates. Sidecountry terrain is generally not patrolled.
Besides the basic B.C setup mentioned above, there are several other items that you should always carry with you. A number of scenarios exist that could have you spending an unplanned night out on the mountain. A little preparation will make the difference between an uncomfortable night and a lethal one.
First Aid Kit: you never know what can happen out there and it is always best to be prepared
Extra Food and Water: This doesn't mean bring food for the next week, but bring at least enough to get you through a night. Extra water is essential and while you may be surrounded by snow and frozen water eating it is a very dangerous practice and should not be done. For this reason make sure to carry more water than you plan on needing.
Extra Clothes: You will be hot when climbing and sweating is something you want to try and avoid in cold weather environments. Hypothermia can set in easily if you allow yourself to get wet from sweat. Dress in layers, so that you can regulate your body temperature by making adjustments as you climb and descend. In addition, if you do end up spending the night out, those few extra layers will be of help in keeping you dry and warm. Cotton for winter use is bad, it retains moisture and losses insulation when wet, so avoid it when dressing for winter activities. For a interesting comparison of the pros and cons for outdoor use of different materials check out: http://www.survivalistboards.com/showthread.php?t=79756
Map and Compass: These are essential. It can become very difficult to find your way back should a storm suddenly pop up if your explorations lead you far from your intended destination. A GPS can be handy but a map and compass never stops working. A GPS does.
Cellphone: Despite what you might think, you may have cellphone coverage in a lot of B.C areas, particularly on ridgelines. Should something happen the ability to immediately call in help is invaluable. That said, just because you can call out doesn't mean that help will be able to reach you. Don't become overconfident because your cell phone works. It's a handy tool, but it could be many hours - or more - before help can get to you.
Whistle: A whistle is a valuable tool in any situation involving remote areas. It allows for group members to find someone should they become separated and can help SAR locate you faster should an emergency arise.
Multi-tool: An essential survival tool that you should carry at all times. With a small kit containing a multi-tool, duct tape, parachute cord and wire, you can often repair malfunctioning equipment and prevent being stranded.
Fire Starters and Water/Wind Proof Matches: Fire is one of the essential components in survival and can make a night stuck on the mountain much more enjoyable.
Headlamp: Essential if stuck overnight or starting before daylight. Check batteries on a regular basis.
Extra Batteries: For any electronics you may be using on your trip.
Still with me? good. Now comes the important stuff, anyone can buy the stuff they need but it is what you know that will save your life.
A knowledge of basic first aid is highly encouraged for any outdoor activities involving travel through remote areas. The vast majority of injuries can be treated with basic knowledge, and you often can buy enough time for help to arrive or for the injured person to be evacuated. First aid is a component that is often overlooked and over shadowed by the shouts of "WATCH OUT FOR AVALANCHES." The chances of you or someone in your party suffering injury is many, many times higher than that of winding up in an avalanche.
A vital part of first aid knowledge for backcountry travelers is knowing how to use the equipment at hand to build a shelter (snow cave, hasty shelter, etc.) and/or a toboggan to extricate the patient. You may be miles from help, and need to understand how best to help yourself. In addition, any injury can and will be made worse if the patient becomes cold and/or wet.
As mentioned earlier, avalanches are pretty much what everyone talks about when it comes to B.C. Educate yourself about how to travel safely in avalanche terrain by taking an avalanche course. You can find avalanche courses in your area by visiting www.avalanche.org.
In addition, buy and read "Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain" by Bruce Tremper. The book covers much of the material discussed in a Level 1 avalanche class, and combined with the class will provide a good foundation of avalanche understanding.
Keep in mind, though, that more people are killed in avalanches that have some training in avalanche safety than are killed with no training at all. Just because you have the training doesn't mean that you can stop being cautious. Even very, very experienced people die in avalanches. Educate yourself, make your own decisions, and discuss them with your partner. Don't take for granted that your ski partner is making good decisions for him/herself, no matter how experienced they are. And - don't assume that because they're inexperienced that they're incapable of making good decisions. 90% of avalanche safety is observing what's going on around you. They may have seen something that you missed.
Practice with your shovel, probe and beacon, regularly. Should someone become buried they have approximately 15 mins before you go from rescuing them to recovering their body. This is 15 mins to locate and dig them out. Many resorts have places where you can go practice and this is perhaps your most important task for preparing for the back country.
If you don't live near a resort, you can practice with beacons easily enough by having your friends or kids bury a beacon or three in the snow or leaves. Play hide and seek. Kids love it. Or have your friends over for a beacon party. Whatever it takes, refresh your knowledge annually, and do it again repeatedly during the season.
Avalanches are a vast topic and for more information check out the avalanche sticky
You should understand the basics of safe winter travel before venturing out into the backcountry. Map and compass skills and winter survival skills are key to your being able to help yourself should the unexpected occur. You are the first responder to any incident - educate yourself on the basic techniques necessary to keep yourself safe and healthy should you find yourself stranded overnight.
Backcountry skiing can be an exciting new experience, but it requires a certain amount of knowledge and is not something to be taken lightly. The most important rules, though, are never travel alone, never allow yourself to be unobservant, and never travel into B.C without the basic equipment necessary to keep an epic from becoming a tragedy.
Mods please make this a sticky.
bears please feel free to add any pertinent information you may have
Edited by lonewolf210 - 2/13/11 at 4:00pm