Given that the University of Utah is nestled in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, it’s no surprise many members of the U community are into backcountry skiing. Whether you’re new to Utah or an experienced in-bounds skier looking to avoid traffic, lift lines and COVID-19 this winter, here are some tips on what it takes to get started backcountry skiing from Nate Furman, associate professor of Parks, Recreation and Tourism and co-coordinator of U-Explore. He’s been teaching avalanche education courses for 10 years and has been backcountry skiing for more than 20 years.
“Backcountry skiing is wonderful, but there are real hazards,” said Furman. “It’s cold, you could get lost, there are very rarely trails, it gets dark early, there are avalanches, and there’s no lodge to go to for warming up and no ski patrol to help you if you’re hurt. Becoming competent in all the different skill areas required to be a safe backcountry skier takes years, but here are the first four things to get you started.”
Below are Furman’s recommendations on getting started.
1. Avalanche education
You should not start backcountry skiing without an understanding of how to avoid avalanches and what to do if someone—maybe you—is caught in one. The traditional path toward being a prepared backcountry skier is to complete the Avalanche Recreational Level 1, Avalanche Rescue, and Avalanche Recreational Level 2 trainings from a provider who is recognized by the American Avalanche Association. We offer several of these at the U, but they fill up quick.
If all the classes are full, I recommend enrolling in the free Utah Avalanche Center “Know Before You Go” online training series and going to the Utah Avalanche Center’s presentations they host throughout the winter.
In addition, IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations) mountain guide Mark Smiley offers a good online course called “A Comprehensive Guide to Avalanche Safety” for $249 through his website.
You don’t want to use the same gear you use to ski at a resort. In terms of poles, skis, bindings, boots and skins, the options are limitless. Much of the decision starts with the ski bindings, since they determine what type of boot is compatible. If you’re a particularly aggressive skier, relish the idea of hucking your meat, and/or are a bigger human being you may gravitate towards something like the frame-style Marker Baron bindings. On the other hand, if your idea of a good time is getting in a lot of vert and mileage, are willing to be a bit easier on your gear, and/or are a smaller human, you may end up leaning toward some tech bindings like the Black Diamond Helio.
My recommendation is to visit a number of ski shops and try out a lot of different equipment. There are a number of used ski equipment shops, like Lone Peak Gear Exchange and The Gear Room that have amazing details on used equipment so you can get a feel for what gear you prefer before you spend a lot of money on new stuff.
You’ll also want to get an avalanche beacon, shovel, probe and backpack. A lot of people choose adjustable poles since you may want a shorter pole length going uphill. They also tend to swap their goggles for sunglasses since goggles will fog up when you’re climbing. As for a shovel and probe, go for a shovel that goes into “hoe mode” (Google it), and don’t go for a short probe—get a long one that will be useful for probing in terrain traps.
There are many good beacons and Wasatch local Steve Achelis’ website has good resources on how to choose a beacon. If you don’t have an interest in hemming and hawing over the technical differences between all of the different beacons, newer backcountry skiers seem to find success with the Backcountry Access Tracker 3. I do recommend buying a new beacon. Even if it’s someone you know and trust completely selling a used beacon, you can just never be totally sure of its history.
The avalanche backpack is important because it provides a place to store your probe and shovel for quick deployment, and in a game of seconds, the ones you waste digging through your backpack to get to the things you need to perform a rescue are ones that you’ll never get back.
Also, in terms of gear, I recommend downloading the Wasatch Backcountry Skiing Map app. It’s a tremendous resource that will let you know where you are and what to ski in the central Wasatch. Not only do you get a GPS-enabled dot that provides your location on a topographical map, but it also tells you the name of all the backcountry ski runs and you don’t need cell service for it to work. Just like a ski resort that names all their runs, backcountry runs are also named (but there are no signs).
Remember to fully charge your phone ahead of time and consider bringing an external battery in case it goes dead. Important tip: keep your phone at least a foot away from your beacon due to potential signal interference. In the event of a beacon search, make sure your phone is at least 20 inches away from the beacon.
3. Check the forecast
Check the Utah Avalanche Center forecast every day. It’s informational and educational so you’ll gain a better understanding of how terrain, weather, snowpack and triggers interact to make avalanches and avalanche accidents. Consider donating to the Utah Avalanche Center so they can keep the lights on and provide their world-class service to all of Utah.
4. Bring some friends
Backcountry skiing in groups of three to four is considered ideal because if one person gets caught in an avalanche, two people can perform a rescue. More than four gets harder to communicate and manage a group with so many differing opinions on where to go and what to do.
These tips will definitely get you started, but looking down the road, I’d advise that you take a wilderness first aid course and a backcountry navigation course. Learn what to wear for variable conditions, how to rig your skis to make an improvised sled, how to build a snow shelter, how to do emergency repairs to your skis and what should go in a ski repair kit. It’s never a bad idea to hire an AMGA-certified ski guide to assist you in the process of becoming a proficient backcountry skier—it will definitely accelerate the learning curve and give personalized tips for your experience level and backcountry ski aspirations.