The Snow Doesn’t Know It’s May… How To Plan Your Backcountry Trip With CalTopo

Mt Lassen National Park Backcountry skiing Spring splitboarding epic winter

May has been all-time in North America. Record setting snowfall, cold temps, and a deep snowpack means a lot of people are still getting after it. The scary part when we were out there last was seeing someone kick-off a slide on their ascent. Looking at some statistics about incidents, over 36% of avalanche deaths happen during the ascent. Seeing where this particular slide took place, it could’ve been avoided with a little route planning. Instead of chastising, we thought… “Why not use this as an opportunity to help educate people?” A quick win for everyone is to plan your backcountry trip with CalTopo.

Powder Skiing In May Lake Tahoe
Mid-winter snow… in May?!? Photo by: Local Freshies

What’s CalTopo?

CalTopo is a website that provides a wealth of tools, giving you a basic lay of the land. Simply put, it’s the ultimate resource for backcountry skiers, splitboarders, backpackers, and hikers. We personally use it every time we step out into the wilderness.

How To Use CalTopo

As you pull up the website, the first thing you’ll notice is you may not know where to begin. Like any new tool, once you get a few quick tips, it’ll make more sense and you can expand on it quickly. Here’s a quick crash course on how to plan your backcountry trip with CalTopo:

Identify Where You’re Heading


Start off by typing in the highlighted box the mountain peak or region you’re heading to. Then zoom in close enough so you can see the gradients.

Add Slope Shading


Click on the Slope Shading button. This will color the map so that you have an idea of where the slopes are near 30 degrees or steeper. Any slope that is steeper than 25 degrees is typically considered avalanche terrain.

Plan Your Route Up


Now it’s time to plan your route up AND down. When climbing uphill, it’s always a good idea to avoid steep slopes. And not just because it’s avalanche terrain… but why make it more difficult for yourself?

  • Click on Add New Object
  • Click Line
  • Click Style – From this you can pick how you want the line to look. For now, select the up-arrow type to show that’s how you’re going uphill.
  • Now navigate back to the map and click where you’re going to ascend. Once done with the route, click OK.


Do the same for the route down.

Note: This is only an introduction on how to plan your backcountry trip with CalTopo. We recommend taking an avalanche course and even a navigation class to get a true deep dive on this tool along with understanding the snow.

Get Educated Or Continue Education

During the season, it’s always good practice to read the forecast from your local avalanche center not just when you go out but every day during the season. is a great resource to find your personal avalanche center or where you’re planning on touring. With the ski resorts closed but the thirst for pow hunting still calling many of us, be extra cautious when venturing even inbounds this time of year. Ski patrol does a lot to mitigate these risks during the season. But, dangers are still lurking in late season so be sure to carry a beacon, shovel, and probe. We aren’t the experts but hope this at least starts everyone on a path to begin or continue your avalanche education.

Remember the goal isn’t to ride powder but to come home safe and shred another day.

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