Learning the Art of Backcountry Snowboarding, On Your Own
Snowboard expert Jeff R. shares the story of how he got into backcountry snowboarding and offers some advice for other beginners.
There have been many ways that people have learned to snowboard—and more importantly, to enjoy it. Some were taught by friends, some taught by experts, and some chose to learn on their own by going out buying the gear, watching YouTube and movies, reading, or whatever else they could find. We all learned one way or another, because we had a curiosity about the sport, a love of powder, a love of the challenge of earning turns.
And there are even more reasons why people turn to riding in the backcountry. It is the best way to go, in my opinion, but it can also be dangerous. So I want to tell you about my journey. Maybe it will encourage you to approach the backcountry safely and, hopefully, choose to do it the right way so you can keep yourself educated and safe out there!
Harder than Expected
My first experience in the backcountry came at my home mountain. I’d just returned from traveling to Grand Targhee for a beautiful opening day, where my girlfriend and I had had a great time riding the slopes. And since it was Thanksgiving Day, hardly a soul was there! That is when I knew I found my love for wanting to hit untouched snow every day that I possibly could.
When we came back, we decided that we wanted to grab our packs the next day, hike up our home mountain and shred down it thinking that we were going to hike all the way up the mountain in just our boots—NO snowshoes, NO splitboards, NO skins. Just our boots, packs, and planks! So we packed our lunches, filled up our bladders, and went up to the mountain the next morning expecting to have a nice hike ‘N’ ski/board.
We hiked as far up as we could. The snow was not touched by a soul, and we were so excited, yet exhausted by the time we took our fourth break! We hadn’t even made it halfway up the mountain before our legs were worn—especially mine, as I was recovering from knee surgery earlier in that year. So we decided to stop right there and ride down all that beautiful powder we had just spent God knows how long trudging through.
The snow was like no other! The ride went way too quick, but it was fun plowing through snow. My girlfriend and I looked at each other and did not say a word, just started loading up the Subaru and headed home for a nice bath and dinner!
Kicking Things Up a Notch
I decided after a short session of thinking that hiking up any snow-covered mountain with all of my snow gear and equipment attached again was out of the question. So, I went to the local ski shop to see what I could find. To my amazement, right there they sat. A pair of beautiful snowshoes (ON SALE) that were going to make my life so much easier! And of course, my girlfriend bought touring bindings for her skis and skins.
Finally we felt a bit more prepared (especially me) to hike all the way to the TOP of this mountain and shred to the bottom.
I am not going to lie—I was super nervous that this was not going to work out as I had hoped. I had read so many articles on packing in with your board on your back, and even watched videos! But, once I got the mountain I was worried that I would not be able to make it, and that I had wasted my money.
We started trekking away, up the steep-sloped mountain. As we climbed, a couple of people on skins flew by me like lightning! I almost felt embarrassed. But then I thought to myself “I am up here earning my turns, who gives a shit what they think!”
It honestly was not long before my girlfriend was quite a ways ahead of me on her skis and skins—she was cruising and it was heating up! As fast as I tried to go, I was not going any faster. I picked a pace and kept with it, put my music in, picked my playlist, and just went. Not a care in the world. I was just in the moment, not getting tired out, but getting frustrated at how far behind I had started to become! I kept daydreaming that I had a splitboard with skins like my girlfriend’s at that point—I’d never thought about it before until then.
When we finally found the right spot, we just picked our lines and slayed these runs. I mean, this was one of the most fun runs in the backcountry I’ve ever had. Maybe even best at a resort at this point! The snow was amazing! We were having the times of our life! And boarding with a very heavy pack makes for a very good challenge when trying to do any tricks off of makeshift jumps!
Building Up the Pack and Quiver
So, I found myself a little jealous of my significant other’s setup. After our amazing day, I went home and started watching the series Further, Deeper, Higher, a trilogy by Teton Gravity Research. I started thinking about how I needed to utilize my money a little more wisely when buying equipment. I then went to every ski shop in the area looking, and was met with disappointment. I couldn’t find anything that I was looking for. I honestly didn’t even know what I was looking for.
So back to the columns it was for me, and YouTube, and Jeremy Jones’s website to actually look for a board. I couldn’t get any answers from any of the places that I went, but I did get a reply from a couple of pro riders (Danny Davis & Kevin Pearce). I also got an email from a college professor at Idaho State University (Professor Ron Watters, Idaho State University Chair, National Outdoor Book Awards). They gave me plenty of advice on building strength, staying safe, and learning how to read snow conditions.
The information that I got from these amazing gentlemen was the most helpful information that I could get, along with the support and information that I was getting from my girlfriend.
So I made my dreams come to reality and followed through with what I kept wanting to do. I bought a splitboard, I bought splitboard bindings (after extensive research), and I bought skins for my board! This was all much-needed equipment for me to get up and down the mountains that I want to ride. I have the luxury of choosing where I go to ride now, and when I get to do it. There are no boundaries, no costs, just my food, gas, and filling up my bladder to my pack! I did not know how much easier life would be by getting these items in my quiver! Yes, it may have cost a pretty penny. Was it worth it?
Learning About Snow Safety
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. One day, after the snow had piled down all night and basically all day, we headed up the mountain. It was waist-deep powder for me and I am 6’2—so pretty deep that day! I picked a line that I wanted to go down that was a little more technical than what my girlfriend was wanting to go down, specifically because it drops directly off of a big rock cliff. I hit it at a higher speed than I should have and landed on a bad angle. I caught myself, but not in time to miss the tree branch that caught me off guard and knocked me off balance. I ended up hitting another tree and went down hard, feeling my head bounce and rattle a bit. I looked up just to see a huge layer of snow slide right off of the big rock and straight down onto me.
I realized then that we were in a very avalanche-prone area at that time due to the heavy snowfall. I caught up with the others I was riding with and explained what had happened and we stayed close, but assessed the areas we were riding the rest of the way down.
When we made it to the bottom and were driving home, we watched search and rescue trucks coming up the road we’d just left. Later on the news we watched on television that an avalanche had happened probably 100 feet from where we had been riding, and someone lost their life.
This is what made me make the decision to start investing in protective equipment and learning how to read snow. Prof. Ron Watters is the one who gave me the insight on just about everything I needed to look out for when riding in the backcountry. He also gave me some extremely important advice: “Your safety, as well as the ones around you, is always the first priority when skiing/snowboarding in the backcountry.”
I bought myself and my girlfriend a beacon, probe, and shovel after extensive research on all three items. I wanted to make sure I got the best ones, since any one of them failing at the wrong time could cost you your life.
Being smart when doing your research on all of the items you buy or talking with an expert WILL SAVE LIVES. Especially if you plan on doing a lot of backcountry riding. I love riding more than anything and it is truly my passion, but I don’t want to lose my life doing it.
It is a journey that you get to choose while riding in the backcountry. YOU get to explore whatever terrain that you want! YOU get to choose to ride what line that YOU want, and most importantly YOU get to get out there and do what you love, and whether that be snowboarding, skiing, fishing, hunting, camping, or sitting at home, YOU get to choose! So why not make it fun, make it memorable, make it exciting, make it a hobby, make it a lifestyle, make it a passion? This sport is exhilarating, it gives you a better rush than an amusement park, keeps you in shape, and the best part is you can do it with whoever you want wherever you want!
In terms of learning how to backcountry snowboard, on my own—did I get it done? I would say that it’s hard to know. As you’ve read, most of my experiences lead me to the next step in getting to where I want to be, but there was definitely some help. I had to seek it out and patiently wait for an answer, but I got the answers that I needed to figure the rest out by myself.
I have also learned that there are no definitive conclusions on this topic. There are so many things that can be learned—what to pack or how to make sure you’re performing safety checks—but this is a story to give insight that anyone can ride in the backcountry. You just need to reach out to the right people for advice on how to do it! This Sport is FUN, but also DANGEROUS! So, assess your limits, know your boundaries, stay educated, and Have FUN!!! If you have any questions about the perfect gear to get you going, reach out to a Snowboard expert here on Curated for free, personalized advice and recommendations.