In winter recreation, “the backcountry” can describe mountainous areas where the avalanche danger isn’t managed or reduced as it would be at a ski area or on a highway. This could include terrain within minutes of walking from a parking lot along with remote mountainous terrain. It’s important to note that this is different from the common definition of the backcountry as only being remote or “wild.” The backcountry is similar to a beach with riptides but no lifeguard. In the backcountry, there may be limited to no resources for help if something goes wrong. This is a place where you need to be self-sufficient and prepared to manage a range of hazards, including avalanches. That means everyone in your group must carry avalanche rescue equipment: avalanche transceiver, probe, and shovel and know how to use them (link to Get the Training). You could also encounter poor weather and visibility, broken equipment, injuries, or unexpected overnight stays. Any outside help, such as a Search and Rescue team, could take many hours to days to reach you. Each individual is responsible for contributing to group decisions to manage your risk. You can find backcountry avalanche conditions at nwac.us for the Northwest, at avalanche.org for elsewhere in the US, and at avalanche.ca for Canada.
What’s Not the Backcountry
In contrast, most downhill ski areas in North America aren’t considered backcountry terrain. Ski patrollers reduce or mitigate the avalanche danger within ski area boundaries by triggering avalanches or closing areas that are dangerous. They’re also quick to respond to any injuries within the ski area. Similarly, highway avalanche workers keep motorists safe by triggering avalanches when the road is closed. In town, emergency services, like paramedics, are nearby and can respond within minutes. Some people use the term “front-country” to describe areas that have modern development, where help is nearby, and (in winter) the avalanche danger is minimized. Avalanche workers are highly trained professionals, who work hard to keep people safe. Even so, the risk of avalanches in snow-covered mountains can rarely be completely eliminated. Some people may choose to carry avalanche gear even when traveling at a ski area or other “front-country” locations.
When in doubt, you are responsible for your own risk
There are places where it may be easy to assume there’s little risk of avalanches or where it’s not always obvious whether that risk has been reduced by avalanche workers. Examples of this are groomed snowmobile trails, familiar hiking trails that enter snow-covered slopes, roads that are only maintained in summer, and popular ski runs just outside of the boundary of ski areas. Some people use the term “side-country” to describe these areas. It can be easy to incorrectly assume that side-country terrain is safe from avalanches due to popularity, familiarity with the area in the summer, or proximity to places where the avalanche danger is managed. These routes could cross avalanche paths and may take you deeper into remote parts of the mountains where rescue could be difficult. It’s possible to access very dangerous avalanche terrain with a short walk, ski, or ride from some trailheads or town limits. There are times when avalanches can occur in terrain where they wouldn’t normally be a concern. Often these are times when avalanche centers issue Avalanche Warnings for High or Extreme avalanche danger. Examples of unlikely pieces of avalanche terrain are low elevation slopes that typically don’t hold enough snow to slide, areas beyond
of the historic limits of avalanche paths, or slopes that are so short or low-angle that they produce avalanches infrequently and only under the most dangerous conditions. It’s important to recognize that you can be in avalanche terrain no matter how remote or near to civilization you are. Look for signs at trailheads or ski area boundaries informing you of the potential for avalanches. If you’re not sure, assume that it’s up to you to recognize avalanche terrain and to manage your risk of being caught in an avalanche. Remember that avalanches can occur anywhere that snow covers the mountains.
How we travel in the backcountry
There are lots of ways to enjoy the backcountry. Some people may ride snowmobiles or snow bikes. Others ski or climb. Others still may travel on snowshoes or just go for a leisurely walk. Anyone can be caught in an avalanche regardless of their travel, experience, education, or age. Avalanche education is important for all who travel in snow-covered mountains. Each mode of travel may bring unique considerations to decision-making. As you learn to travel in the backcountry, it’s important to be aware of how your mode of travel may bring you in or near avalanche terrain, when you could be at risk of being caught in an avalanche, and what you can do to stay safe.
Spending time in the backcountry can be a great way to relax, have fun, get exercise, and connect with friends in the mountains. It’s important to travel safely. Backcountry Basics or Awareness classes are great resources to start you on a path of avalanche education. To learn how to make decisions in and around avalanche terrain, take a Level 1 avalanche course. If you’re going into the mountains, check the NWAC avalanche forecast before you head out for the day. Enjoy the mountains and stay safe!