Backcountry Safety 101

Moving in the backcountry is all about risk assessment, making the right decisions, and being prepared. 

We all love a good day in the mountains but knowing what days are safe to head into the backcountry and when to keep it inbounds at the resort is crucial. Having the gear doesn’t mean you’re ready to get out there. Be prepared and know your partner(s) are too.

"Always go into the backcountry with a flexible mindset. Its ok to bail on a line or change your plans if the mountains telling you it's not safe, or if someone in the group is not comfortable with the conditions." - 686 Team Rider, Zoë Vernon

Know the Risks

When heading into the backcountry it is very important that you are aware of all of the hazards, conditions, snowpack, etc. There’s a lot more that comes into play than just coordinating a day in the mountains with friends. 

  • Roughly 20 to 40 people die in avalanches each year in North America alone. 
  • 90% of avalanche related deaths are from slides triggered by the victim or members of the victim's group. 
  • There is only a 30% chance of survival when buried by an avalanche. 

Be aware that avalanches are not the only risk out there and there will not be ski patrol to mark the hazardous areas or rescue you or a friend. You will be relying on each other to make the right decisions and be there for one another if something goes wrong.


Get Educated

The most common and gold standard to get started is the AIARE 1 certification. The AIRE 1 is typically a 3 day course that provides a solid basis to start moving in the backcountry. Expect to spend time learning in a classroom and gain hands on experience on the snow.

At the end of every AIARE 1 course, the student should be able to: 

  1. Develop a plan for travel in avalanche terrain. 
  2. Demonstrate the ability to identify avalanche terrain. 
  3. Effectively use The AIARE Risk Management Framework to make terrain choices in a group setting. 
  4. Demonstrate effective companion rescue. 

Have an Educated Partner

Moving in the backcountry alone is never a good decision and can be a fatal mistake. It’s very important to have a well-educated partner to make proper decisions with and feel confident in their ability to rescue you if a situation were to arise.

"You are only as prepared as your weakest link in the crew. Getting your snow safety education is all for the people you are out with. Take a class, get your education and make sure your riding partner has the education too. It makes the whole experience that much better to know that you are out there for each other." - 686 Team Manager, Patrick McCarthy


Have the Proper Equipment

"Always start with the Beacon, Probe, and Shovel. A little thing I like to do is carry extra AAA batteries." - Patrick McCarthy

Everyone develops their own tips and tricks for what they like to carry but everyone in your group should at least have the basics. (BEACON. SHOVEL. PROBE.) It is always a good idea to talk with your partners about what they are bringing and check their beacon/transceiver to be sure it has full battery. Remember these are the people you are relying on and their preparation may save your life.

"I always look to have trustworthy partners, a slope reader, 686 Insulator Layer to stay warm, one set of extra gloves is a big key for me." - Fancy Ruthford

Packing the night before helps to avoid forgetting something. Always double check that your beacon has full battery before you go out.

 "I always carry a Space Blanket in my backpack. It's really lightweight and takes of little space. It can be a real live saver for you out in the backcountry." - Parker White
Pack Checklist:
  • Beacon
  • Shovel
  • Probe
  • Slope Angle Reading Tool
  • Backcountry Whistle
  • Plenty of Water and Food
  • Sunscreen
  • Extra Layers
  • Extra Gloves
  • Extra Goggles
  • Space Blanket
  • First Aid Kit
  • Snow Study Tools

 For more information check out these other resources: