There’s something to be said about stepping out of the ski resort boundaries and experiencing the wildness that lies beyond the ropes. The unknown. The freedom. And for many, untracked snow. But just as Spiderman’s uncle once said: “With great power comes great responsibility”, once you do make the decision to go out there, it’s up to you to stay safe. Our backcountry splitboarding guide highlights everything from tips on staying safe, gear reviews, news, events such as avalanche workshops, and some of our personal adventures to the great beyond.
What To Expect Backcountry Skiing / Snowboarding
Backcountry skiing, splitboarding, or should we call it alpine touring, isn’t always going to be all sunshine and bottomless turns. There’s going to be icy conditions, firm snow, and a variety of other obstacles. As the famous outdoor advocate and philosopher John Muir so eloquently put it, “Mountains speak, wise men listen.” And when it comes to ski mountaineering, this is VERY true. If you can’t say NO to powder after climbing for three hours, you shouldn’t be out there. Before you drop $1000’s of dollars on gear, check out our article for a few things to consider:
No matter how much you spend on equipment like an avalanche bag or a beacon, knowledge is WAY more important than anything else. Don’t chince on avalanche education. A good place to start is an avalanche workshop. Every fall for twenty bucks or less (some are even free), spend a day or two talking “shop” and learning about what’s happening in the world of snow. For a taste of what these are like, head down to our event recap section. You can find a workshop pretty much anywhere there’s a chance for an avalanche including the east coast. To find your local avalanche workshop, click below (note: we update this every fall):
Online Avalanche Course
Another great option to consider before diving directly into a full-fledged AIARE class is to take an online avalanche course. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to the terminology and immerse yourself in the concepts of snow science. To learn more about online avalanche courses and where to take one, click below:
Why Taking An Avalanche Course Is Important
Ignorance might be bliss, but the mountains don’t care if you’re all about chasing the powder. Understanding how to avoid being a statistic is crucial. Personally, we’ve made the decision to invest our hard-earned cash, not on more gear and gizmos, but rather learning. To get an idea of what to expect in an avalanche course, learn what is AIARE, and where to go to get training, check out our article:
One of the biggest things the snow safety community has been trying to push forward to ski mountaineering & backcountry enthusiasts is that education shouldn’t stop after you take the AIARE Level 1 course. It’s supposed to be the 1st step to guide you on a lifelong journey of getting educated. Besides going to EVERY California Avalanche Workshop and finding a backcountry mentor, we’ve taken the AIARE Rescue and Level 2 courses as well. Was it worth it? Click below to find out:
This is it! This is the year you’re going to take up backcountry skiing / splitboarding. You’re ready to take the plunge. If you’re going to do this the right way and not put your friends and yourself in harm’s way, expect to spend anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000. In addition to all the avalanche safety gear, you’ll need climbing skins, special splitboard bindings, and a board that splits into two for uphill travel. For a full run-down of the basic necessities you’ll need to go backcountry splitboarding, check out our article:
If you only backcountry ski or snowboard a handful of days or less you don’t really need one geared towards adventures beyond the ski resort. But as we found out there’s a certain threshold you pass that a backcountry ski jacket becomes a necessity. There’s a few different types like a soft shell such as the AdlerM Maloja Jacket. For your first backcountry specific jacket we suggest picking up a hard shell. The ideal version is to be as thin as possible. We can’t stress this enough – MINIMAL. All it’s supposed to be is a barrier between you and precipitation be it snow or the dreaded “R” word – rain. In the simplest terms hard shells should roll up to no bigger than a Nalgene bottle in your pack. If you’re curious about all the different types, what to look for in a jacket, and some of the best brands on the market visit our article Backcountry Ski Jackets Are Like Fries, You Can’t Have Just One.
After the beacon, shovel, and probe, the avalanche backpack is considered by many the next piece of equipment backcountry travelers should consider picking up. In addition to the normal storage space, it also contains a balloon (or airbag) that inflates at the pull of a cord. To learn more on how it works and to get a recap of the differences between the Avalanche Airbag System companies, click below:
How To Travel Wisely In The Mountains
Learn from our backcountry mentors, workshops we’ve taken, and mistakes we’ve made. This is your one-stop shop on everything from online resources to tips on staying safe while playing in the mountains.
Making The Right Decisions In Avalanche Terrain
This is by no means a substitute for avalanche training, but rather a way to introduce you to new concepts or dust off those brain cells before venturing out into the backcountry. To learn more on how to get educated head over to our avalanche training section. That being said, one of the most fundamental things to consider are the decisions you’re making. We’re not talking about “should I ride or not” but the thought process of things like the type of terrain you choose to go splitboarding or skiing on. Luckily, AIARE has put together a decision making framework to help you. The five key components are: Plan, Observe, Teamwork, Choose Terrain and Travel Wisely. To learn more on what each of these means and how to use them head over to our article: Back To School…Decision Making In Avalanche Terrain.
Types Of Avalanches
Did you know that there are more than one type of avalanche? There are three types: Slab, Cornice, and Loose snow. Within each of these categories there are different varieties such as Loose Wet and Deep Slab having their own unique potential consequences for backcountry travelers. If you want to know how these avalanches are formed, where the different types are located and how they’re triggered head over to our in-depth article: Back to School…The Big 3 Avalanche Problems You Need To Worry About.
How To Use Caltopo
Did you know that over 36% of avalanches occur on the ascent? That means no matter how much you’d like to think you’re safe while splitboarding or skiing uphill, it’s a good idea to carefully plan your skin track to the top. Besides making it easier for yourself, you’ll also make sure you do your best to avoid avalanche paths and terrain. To learn more, check out our article:
Staying Safe When Playing In The Mountains
As soon as you step into the great outdoors, the first thing on your mind should always be, “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.” From hiking to backcountry skiing, things can quickly go south VERY fast. A fun outing can turn into a life-threatening situation in an instant. Are we saying don’t leave your house? Absolutely not! Just be prepared. Check out our article for a few ideas on how to be ready:
We’ve invested time, money, and sweat for the opportunity to go and do some ski mountaineering. While we don’t claim to be the best, we do try to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and explore the mountains outside of the resort boundaries. These adventures highlight the good, the bad, AND the ugly that our friends and us have had over the years. Enjoy and hopefully learn something!
While ski mountaineering, splitboarding, and every other backcountry activity is more of a small group affair, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a passionate community behind them. In fact, due to the danger associated with venturing into the wilderness, festivals are an important way for like-minded backcountry skiers & snowboarders to come together and share their knowledge.
Know Before You Go
A few years ago the Sierra Avalanche Center held a mid-winter session to heighten awareness & refresh your skills. As part of this event, they showed the short film called “Know Before You Go.” To learn about the 5 steps to keep you safe and some of the new-ish technologies that have been developed, click below:
California Avalanche Workshop Recaps
Our FAVORITE event of the year that we’ve religiously gone to each fall is the California Avalanche Workshop. Instead of hoarding the knowledge, we’ve documented each one so that you can learn as well.
2019 California Avalanche Workshop Recap
When you get a chance to hear the LEGEND Jeremy Jones speak about splitboarding, you don’t miss it. His speech gave us an up close and personal look into what his guiding principles, rules, and philosophy is on heading out into the wilderness. If you’re a weather geek like us, you’ll also enjoy the interesting perspectives from the Central Sierra Snowlab and National Weather Service. Last but not in the way least, Michael Ferrari, director of ski patrol at Mt. Rose, talks about opening up the steeps known as the Chutes and his personal experience of his patrol partner getting caught in a slide. Click below to read the full recap:
2018 California Avalanche Workshop Recap
The focus for this CAW was on adding clarity to the resources available and some concepts on how to manage risk with your team when heading into the backcountry. The star speaker of the 2018 event was Todd Offenbacher. He delves deep into his own psyche as he talks about getting caught in a slide on Mt. Tallac. For the full write-up, go here:
2017 California Avalanche Workshop Recap
The kickoff to the 2017/18 season was a doozy. Steven Reynaud provided a recap on the season of atmospheric rivers followed by Jordy Hendrickx dropping some knowledge that more people die from avalanches than earthquakes. Richard Bothwell, executive director of AIARE, shined a light on the human aspect of avalanches and how WE are responsible for teaching as well. The event was capped off with Andrew McLean. Widely considered one of America’s greatest living ski mountaineers, his speech delves into some of the fatal backcountry mishaps that happened on his escapades. Click below to read the full article:
2016 California Avalanche Workshop Recap
When you hear about the Freeride World Tour, you’d think “Oh, that terrain has to be patrolled.” Well, that isn’t really the case. Hazel Birnbaum pulls the wool from our eyes and shows us the dangers on the circuit. Brandon Schwartz and Andy Anderson give a recap of the 2016 ISSW which included a great overview of the common missteps avalanche practitioners make when heading into the backcountry. The frosting on the cupcake for this CAW was Cody Townsend’s speech and how he gave his own personal account of the slow march towards a bad decision. Luckily, his group pulled out just in the knick of time. For the full write-up, click here:
2015 California Avalanche Workshop Recap
Yet another event that contained some BIG names in the snow-sliding community. From award-winning journalist David Page who wrote the Human Factor to pro snowboarder Kevin Jones talking about his experiences through his twenty-two-year career. It also had one of the most heart wrenching stories we’ve ever heard. Jon Rockwood’s 1st person experience of losing a friend in the Ward Creek Avalanche is intense. Click below to read the full article:
2014 California Avalanche Workshop Recap
The 1st ever California Avalanche Workshop was a ground breaker. Elyse Saugstad talked about her personal experiences using an airbag. Brennan LaGasse giving the scoop on remote heli-ski guiding in the Chugach. And last but definitely not least, Alex Do sharing his account and lessons learned from the December 2013 Pucker Face avalanche accident in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Click below to read the full article:
Get the scoop on what’s going on in the backcountry industry. Read about what’s the next in the evolution of the sport.
A Fun Look Into The Emergence Of Vermont Backcountry Skiing
For those of you who thought backcountry skiing is a west coast thing or just happens at Tuckerman Ravine on the east coast, you’d be wrong! The film called Leave Nice Tracks shows us that the grassroots movement of splitboarding and backcountry skiing is really catching momentum. Click below to learn about the purpose-built backcountry ski network that’s being constructed in the central Green Mountains of Vermont.
The Story Behind The Book – Backcountry Ski Snowboard Routes: California
We’re all creatures of habit. We pick the same backcountry runs on powder days. Head to the same resorts because of our season pass. Jeremy Benson’s story of how he got into backcountry skiing and the opportunity to write the book “Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes: California” isn’t your normal path. For the full story, click below:
How To Extend Your Season Into June
When it comes to backcountry skiing late into the spring/early summer, there’s only one place in North America that you can pretty much guarantee awesome snow – the Eastern Sierra. Home to 14,000 foot peaks, deep snowpack, and epic corn, there’s no better to place to grip it and rip it. To learn more about why it’s the best late splitboarding / backcountry skiing destination, click below:
Over 150,000 acres in the great Lake Tahoe area is available for those who want to earn their turns. Unfortunately, with an outdated land use policy, the amount of parking for public access continues to dwindle. Click below to learn more on who is helping combat this & how you can help:
The Boom! Continues
What was originally a subculture in the skiing & snowboarding community has now exploded. To learn just how much, click below:
In summary, splitboarding and backcountry skiing are inherently dangerous sports that YOU are the one responsible for your own life AND those around you. If you do wish to pick up this activity, please don’t do it lightly. Get a mentor, take an avalanche course, and most of all, take it slow.