A Beginner's Guide to Backcountry Snowboarding
Backcountry snowboarding can mean access to unlimited powder. But it can also be dangerous if you're not prepared. Snowboard expert Bobby Chadderton has some advice for beginners.
It’s safe to say that snowboarders have earned a certain reputation among the industry. While snowboarding is growing quickly, the sport wasn’t always well received. In fact, from 1984-85, only 40 resorts across the United States allowed snowboarders. Today, only three ski resorts in North America still bar access to snowboarders.
Referred to as powder scrapers, side slippers, knuckle-draggers, and worse, it’s no coincidence that snowboarding began in the backcountry. With no other option, backcountry touring emerged and held strong long after resorts began opening their slopes to boarders.
If you’ve heard the phrase “No friends on a powder day,” you probably understand why it’s acceptable to selfishly scout out the freshies without regard for your buddies. Powder is a hot commodity within the ski area boundaries of a resort. If you’re fed up of butting heads over fresh tracks, maybe it’s time to hit the backcountry and experience the timeless roots of boarding.
It doesn’t take an expert level snowboarder to ride in the backcountry, but it does require some expert level knowledge that is easily obtained! With apocalyptic lift lines and costly lift tickets, more riders are slapping on their skins to earn their lines the way nature intended. If you plan on getting out there this season, you must be prepared for dangerous situations and avalanche terrain. Here’s a quick breakdown for anybody looking to get started with backcountry touring:
- Invest in your “Big 3”: Avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel. You may be able to find an Avalanche 1 course that offers rentals for learning purposes, but ultimately these are the most important items you’ll have when touring. You’ll wanna become familiar with your own ASAP.
- Gear up: Purchase a backcountry backpack, splitboard, splitboard bindings, skins, and poles. If you don’t wanna break the bank this season, you can use your snowboard as long as you have a solid pack to hold it - you’ll need snowshoes and poles for ascending in this case. Keep in mind that snowshoeing uphill is much more tiring than skinning, you’ll want to invest in a splitboard setup eventually.
- Get educated: Take Avalanche Awareness, Avalanche Rescue, and Avalanche 1. You may be able to find a free Awareness class. You and all your riding partners should be Avalanche 1 certified before you head into backcountry terrain. Most courses require a splitboard, and it’s a great time to hone in on your skinning skills and practice in a controlled environment before heading to the backcountry. Some providers may have rental or demo avalanche safety gear available.
- Practice: Get familiar with your gear at home. Always put your beacon, shovel, and probe in the same position and practice taking them out of your pack. Understand how to switch your binding modes and put your skins on. Go through your Checklist once, and then do it again!
The Necessity of Backcountry Safety
Snowboarding outside of resort boundaries brings a new world of fun - and danger. Avalanches, tree wells, hypothermia, frostbite, and dehydration are all risks posed by the backcountry. Before you’re ready to begin touring out in the wilderness, you should be prepared with adequate gear, training and practice. Always start small as you learn how to properly address and anticipate snow conditions.
Avalanches pose the biggest risk to backcountry riders. Yet, tree wells, cold temperatures, and a lack of resources are additional dangers that you’re more likely to encounter in the backcountry. Always be sure you and your touring partners have enough water. For me, 1.5L is typically enough for a moderate tour. If you’re not comfortable riding tree lines, avoid them in the backcountry (especially after a large snowfall). A fall into a tree well could land you upside down in 5-6+ feet of powder in the right conditions. In this case, the only people capable of saving you are your riding partners. Always carry an emergency whistle and maintain a line of sight. By knowing your limitations, preparing carefully, and always riding with a partner, you can effectively mitigate backcountry risks.
Since the 2009-10 winter season, there have been an average of 25 backcountry avalanche fatalities every year. While this is a grim statistic, it underlines the inherent risk that avalanche danger plays anywhere in the backcountry. With no support from ski patrol, no directions, no speed limit, and no avalanche mitigation, you must be thoroughly educated and prepared when touring outside of resort boundaries. Complacency and comfortability are your worst enemies if things go south - a healthy amount of fear and respect for the powers of nature will keep you and your riding partners as safe as possible. Your training and equipment will be your only lifeline while touring, having a solid avalanche education could save lives.
The Big 3
Before you’re ready to get out there and snorkel your way through waist-deep, untouched lines, you’ll need to invest in three life-saving pieces of safety equipment: An avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe. These are the most important items that you’ll carry when touring.
An avalanche beacon is a device that emits a pulsing radio signal to be tracked by other transceivers. In the event of an avalanche, your beacon may be the only way for your riding partners to pinpoint your location if you become trapped. For the highest level of safety possible, I recommend investing in a digital 3-antenna beacon and ensuring that anyone you’re venturing with is also equipped with a working beacon. I personally use the Backcountry Access Tracker 2. No matter what beacon you purchase, the most important thing to do is practice, practice, practice. The majority of beacons will include a harness / holster; if you use a harness, be sure to equip it underneath your outermost layer and practice withdrawing your beacon and activating it quickly.
- Be aware of your beacon if you ditch a layer while ascending. Many beacons have been lost due to stripping layers prior to descent.
- Get in the habit of always stashing your beacon inside one of your snowboard boots at home. That way it’s impossible to forget.
- Consider designating a front pants pocket for your beacon. I use my front right pocket so I don’t have to worry about ditching layers and always feel exactly where it is. Always turn off or leave behind cell phones when touring to prevent signal interference.
You’ll want an avalanche-rated shovel with a comfortable grip and the longest pole / largest blade your pack can accommodate. If you wear mittens, a D-grip will typically be easier to operate. Your probe can be used to evaluate snowpack and check depth for buried victims. I recommend 2+ meters in length at a minimum. I use a 280cm probe, which makes it easier to test deeper without wasting energy bending down and digging. For both your shovel and probe, invest in high quality, durable materials. Avoid plastic and carbon - these two items are not the place to cut pack weight. Once more, practice, practice, practice. Your gear is only as effective as your level of training and preparedness.
Get Educated: Avalanche Rescue and AIARE 1
There’s plenty of information online to educate you about avalanche safety, but you should never consider yourself fully prepared to shred the backcountry until you’re at least Avalanche Rescue and Avalanche 1 certified. Both courses are offered frequently all over North America, you can find a course near you by browsing this section of AIARE’s website. Avalanche Rescue is a one-day field course that’s designed to be used as an introductory course as well as a refresher for the experienced. AIARE 1 is a three-day course, with a combination of classroom and field lessons in avalanche hazard management. Qualified instructors will teach you proper equipment use, rescue techniques, and snowpack evaluation skills.
A beacon, shovel, and probe along with the price of certifications can quickly add up. But the most important thing to remember when investing in these items is that there is no price tag on your life. The best part? Once you’re equipped, never pay for a lift ticket again! Think of these life-saving investments as the equivalent of a season pass purchase that never expires.
Backcountry Snowboarding Gear
From your pants up, you can expect to use the same gear for touring that you’ve been wearing at the resorts. Keep in mind that your ascent will begin at a lower elevation with warmer temperatures, you’ll want to have a warm base and mid layer that you can strip down to. Things get more complicated below the knee - uphill travel with a full touring setup is a bit different than hopping on a ski lift. Aside from your beacon, probe, and shovel, lightweight gear and item prioritization are key to making sure your ascent isn’t cut short by fatigue.
Modified snowboards that split vertically, creating a large surface area underneath each foot for staying above deep snow. For your first setup, I recommend an all mountain splitboard to accommodate all types of snow (and ice) as you learn to read and anticipate snow conditions. Consider sizing up slightly!
Typically lighter than standard bindings and designed to orient themselves vertically or horizontally with a pin-system for ascent or descent. Before purchasing a set of splitboard bindings, talk to an expert to ensure you don’t need pucks or additional mounting hardware.
Splitboard skins are fish scale-like fabric strips that attach to the base of your snowboard for ascending. They allow a smooth forward glide and prevent backwards slippage. Make sure your skins fit your splitboard properly, some are trim-to-fit while others have clips that allow for some length adjustability.
I recommend a traditional lace boot in the backcountry along with a spare pair of laces in your pack for repairs. If you have BOA or Speed-zone lacing systems, no worries! As long as your current snowboard boots are comfortable and in decent shape, they’ll suit your touring needs just fine.
If you find yourself touring more often than resort riding, a stiffer boot will help you hold an edge on ice or hardpack while ascending. I recommend a traditional lace boot in the backcountry along with a spare pair of laces in your pack for repairs.
I recommend a set of collapsible poles over telescopic for the ease of stashing them in your pack before descending. An expert can help you determine the proper length for your height.
Arguably your most important piece of gear, a proper touring backpack will have quickly accessible storage for your beacon and shovel, a stash spot for your goggles and helmet, and an external strap to accommodate your snowboard/splitboard. A 20-35L backpack should be more than enough room for one day of backcountry riding.
With the essentials covered, there are still a few items you may want to consider stuffing in your pack. If there’s anything I’ve learned from touring, it’s to always be over prepared.
- Navigation: Map, compass, GPS device. I personally use a Garmin InReach Mini. You can use your iPhone on airplane mode as a GPS tracker but you may have difficulty getting help in an emergency.
- Water reservoir / Food: I personally use a 1.5L hydration bladder that I’ll fill with warm water on really cold days. Try to keep your hydration pack against your back and exhale into the tube after each sip to prevent it from freezing. You’ll be working harder without a lift - bring nutritious snacks and don’t skip breakfast!
- Emergency kit: First-aid kit, whistle, paracord, ski straps, zip ties, a head lamp, and extra batteries are all extremely useful items to have on you at all times.
- Extra gloves/layers: I typically bring three pairs of gloves - a liner and two sets of waterproof mittens. You may wind up on all-fours more than you anticipate - frostbitten fingers are extremely avoidable.
- Sunglasses / Hat: Especially if you’ll be ascending above the tree line!
Getting Out There
Familiarize yourself with whatever gear you’ve chosen for your adventure and start planning your first backcountry tour. Go through your gear checklist and lay everything on the floor in front of you. Never go into the backcountry alone until you’re extremely experienced - even then you should always have a partner. Round up your buddies or browse an online forum for riding partners - just make sure they know you’re a beginner. That checklist? Run through it again!
Browse trip reports online or use word of mouth to find an easily accessible destination. Check your local avalanche forecasts the night before and the morning of your tour at www.avalache.org. For your first time, simplicity is best. You’ll be learning proper skinning techniques and how to assemble/unassemble your gear.
As you gain experience, make friends in the backcountry, and start tackling some gnarly lines, remember that complacency kills. Ritualize and practice the same safety measures that you took on your first tour, you won’t have a warning before it’s time to use them. Continue your training, share the stoke, and remember to always follow Leave No Trace guidelines in the backcountry.
If you have any questions on finding the right gear for your first trip out into the backcountry, please don't hesitate to reach out to me or one of my fellow Snowboard experts for free advice and gear recommendations.