Backcountry snowboarding

Backcountry snowboarding

Backcountry snowboarding is a unique sport that is rapidly growing in popularity. The sport of backcountry snowboarding is characterized by the fresh tracks and deep powder that only the slopes of a remote mountainside can offer. The sport is a completely separate discipline from snowboarding at a public resort and it comes with its own set of hazards. The sport often attracts independent-minded adventurers because there are no lifts, nor are there any hired personnel there on the spot to help a rider in trouble. Another unique characteristic of backcountry snowboarding is that it is a blend of both mountaineering and snowboarding. The ascent of the mountainside for many riders is often considered to be as big of a thrill as the snowboarding itself. A love of simply being in the mountains is a necessity for the backcountry snowboarder because if a helicopter is not accessible, the day will often consist of 90% mountaineering and 10% snowboarding. A boarder not prepared for this reality can be in for a grueling day.

Choosing a Snowboard

Buying a quality snowboard that matches both the rider’s style and the terrain that is going to be ridden on is absolutely essential for the backcountry snowboarder. There are some general guidelines that can be used to pick the best snowboard for the riding situation.

When choosing the length of your snowboard, it is important for the backcountry snowboarder to carefully consider what type of terrain he or she will be riding. Longer boards tend to be advantageous for the snowboarder who loves powder on slopes without any trees. A longer board has a greater surface area and will do a much better job of staying on top of deep powder. The avid backcountry snowboarder who is planning on snowboarding on thick powder should plan on purchasing a snowboard with a length somewhere between 170 and 200 cm ("Backcountry Snowboarding, p. 28").

"Choice of snowboard is unique to each individual"

Shorter boards with a length of 145 to 160 centimeters are great for snowboarders looking for difficult terrain loaded with many tight technical turns. The downside of this type of board is that the flotation of many of the longer boards is sacrificed for top notch maneuverability. Medium length boards with a length between 160 and 170 centimeters are probably the most widely purchased snowboard for the backcountry. This is because they provide a good compromise between the longer boards meant for handling powder, and the shorter boards meant for technical terrain. A mid-ranged board will handle all of the conditions that are thrown at it, but will not have a specific specialized advantage like the longer and shorter boards have. The boarder looking to conquer all kinds of terrain and only wanting to purchase a single board should choose a board of medium length.


Width is another important factor to consider when choosing a backcountry board. On average, snowboards are right around 25 centimeters wide. Narrow snowboards generally are better for tight turns and usually have more sidecut. Wider boards, on the other hand, have a greater surface area and provide more flotation on top of the snow pack.

Tail and Nose Scoop

The amount of bend, or scoop, on the nose and tail of the snowboard is also another very important factor to consider. One of the hazards of the backcountry is for the nose to dive into deep powder - often resulting in a fall. A board with a lot of nose scoop is advantageous for the backcountry boarder because it keeps the front of the board above the snow pack.

The tail scoop is also a very important element to consider because riding “switch” can be essential in the backcountry in certain situations. One of the drawbacks of too much nose or tail scoop is that it can decrease the amount of “effective edge” that the snowboard is able to utilize. The board’s effective edge is the amount of the board’s metal edge that is making direct contact with the snow pack. In general, the more effective edge that is in contact with the snow, the better grip the snowboard will be able to have on the snow pack. The result is deeper, longer, and more stable turns. When buying a board in the backcountry it is important to find the right balance between scoop and effective edge length.


The camber of the snowboard is a very important aspect to consider when purchasing a snowboard. Camber is the flexibility of the snowboard. In general, the softer the camber, or flex of the snowboard, the more maneuverable the snowboard is. Having an extremely flexible board can be beneficial in the backcountry because it makes a snowboard very easy to manipulate on soft powder. The downside of a board being extremely flexible is that many boards end up losing stability. Snowboards come with a wide range of cambers. A good rule of thumb to follow is to purchase a snowboard with an extremely flexible nose and a stiffer middle and tail. The result is a snowboard that has a good blend of both maneuverability and stability.

Swallowtail Snowboards

The swallowtail snowboard is a board designed specifically for the deep powder of the backcountry. The deep wedge shape cut in the back of the board is valuable in powder because it allows the back of the board to sink in with very little effort. This allows the rider to put equal pressure on both feet without having to concentrate on putting weight on the back of the board to keep the nose from diving into the powder. Swallowtail snowboards are designed solely for the deep powder of the backcountry. In the backcountry, there can be a variety of conditions and powder may not always be available. This is why the swallowtail snowboard should be an extra snowboard for those perfect snow conditions that the backcountry is renowned for, and should not be chosen as a rider’s only snowboard.

Bindings and Boots

There are four major binding systems available on the market today: strap bindings, flow-in bindings, plate bindings, and step-in bindings.

Strap Bindings

Strap bindings, or high back bindings, are the most common type of binding on the market today. They consist of a heel support that extends up the Achilles tendon to the lower calf and two straps that winch on over the top of the foot. These types of bindings do not need the structural support of a hard boot so soft boots are usually chosen. Some advantages of soft boots is that they are warm and have some flex to them so they are fairly comfortable to hike in – an important consideration when back country boarding. A downside to this type of boot is that they do not have the structural support necessary to easily kick in footholds while climbing steep slopes ( [] ).

Plate Bindings

Hard boot bindings, or plate bindings are the second major type of binding. This type of configuration utilizes steel bails which hug the toe and heel of a hard boot. There is also a lever on the front to hold the boot in place. This type of boot gives maximum edge control and is preferred by riders who ride a lot of difficult terrain. The major drawback of these types of bindings for backcountry boarding is that they require a hard boot which can make for an uncomfortable climb or hike

Step-in Bindings

The third major types of bindings are step-in bindings. This type of binding utilizes a device on the bottom of the boot that mates with a plate on the board. All a rider has to do with this type of binding is simply step in. The boots for this type of binding are more stiff then the boots used for strap bindings, but are not quite as stiff as the hard boots that are necessary for plate bindings. This type of binding is a great compromise for the backcountry because it combines relative comfort with the convenience of being able to just click into the bindings and ride. A major downside of this type of binding is that ice tends to build up on the binding mechanism which can make clicking in difficult.

Flow-in Bindings

Recently there has been the development of the flow-in binding. This binding is meant to provide the control and comfort of strap-in bindings with the convenience of step-in bindings. All the rider has to do with this type of binding is flip back the high back, slide the foot under the tongue on the front of the boot, and flip the highback forward locking it into place. This type of binding is a great choice for the backcountry boarder because they are convenient and utilize soft boots which are easy to hike in.

Backcountry Planning

Planning can be one of the most crucial aspects of a backcountry snowboarding trip. Becoming a master at reading topographical maps and using a compass are the first steps to planning a backcountry snowboarding trip.

Becoming competent at reading a topographical map is particularly important because it allows a backcountry snowboarder to plan the most efficient route possible, therefore getting more runs in. Learning to read a topographic map is also critical for safety reasons. Backcountry snowboarding requires dealing with snow that potentially can avalanche. So, for maximum avalanche safety, planning ahead of time in order to avoid certain types of terrain is absolutely essential.

In order to understand how to read a topographic map it is first important to understand how the earth is divided up on a topographic map. On a map, the earth is divided into 360 sections known as degrees. The map is also divided into longitude (measurements going north and south), and latitude (measurements going east and west). Longitude starts at Greenwich England (zero degrees), and is measured 180 degrees east and west. Latitude is measured ninety degrees north and south from the equator. A map is then further divided into minutes and seconds. Each degree is made up of sixty units known as minutes. Each minute is then further broken down into sixty seconds. The map is then prescribed a scale. A common way for a scale to be set up is to compare a distance measurement on the earth’s surface to an interval on the map (1 inch equals a mile). Also, maps are often prescribed the common scale of 1:24,000; or one unit on the map equals 24000 units on the earth’s surface. This common scale equates to roughly convert|2.5|mi|km to the inch, with an area covered of six miles (10 km). In Alaska, the old fifteen minute series map is used, where a scale of 1:63,360. This equates to exactly one inch to the mile ("Freedom of the Hills, p. 76")

Topographic Symbols

In order to become a master backcountry snowboarding route planner it is also very important to know what the symbols mean on a topographic map. Colors on a topographic map are designated important meanings which are utilized on all USGS topographic maps. They are: "Blue": Blue lines on the maps signify bodies of water. "Red": Signifies roads in the area. "Black": Black lines signify trails, latitude and longitude markings, buildings, benchmarks, and other features that are not naturally present in the area. "Green": Green always signifies vegetation. Heavily shaded green areas typically signify thick forested areas. Areas with sporadic green markings indicate shrubs and less significant vegetation. "White with Blue Contour Lines": This signifies a heavily glaciated area. For the backcountry snowboarder, these are very important areas to pay attention to because they are highly hazardous. Crossing glaciated terrain requires special equipment and training and should probably be avoided without the proper experience. "Brown": Brown markings are the most common marking on a topographic map. They indicate the elevation of the area. Reading Contour Lines Having an understanding of how to read elevation change on a map through contour lines is absolutely critical for the backcountry snowboarder. With a thorough understanding of this concept, a backcountry snowboarder is able to locate new untouched powder. First of all, the contour lines on a map are given a constant distance interval. On the standard 7.5 minute topographic map the contour lines are typically given an interval representation of convert|40|ft|m. In Alaska, which utilizes the 15 minute topographic map, the interval between the lines is typically convert|80|ft|m. Also, the contour lines on a map will always represent a constant elevation. The curve of the contour line does not indicate a significant change in elevation, but simply a flat turn in the landscape.

While reading a map, it is very important to remember that the distance between the lines on the map is not a representative of the distance on the landscape. The distance between the lines on the map are a representative of the steepness of the terrain. Extremely steep terrain will have lines that are extremely close together, while rolling hills which are easy to climb will have contour line spacing that is further apart.

One of the most critical pieces of information about reading a topographic map is learning to tell whether or not the slope is gaining or losing elevation. Determining this is fairly straightforward because the elevation of every fifth contour line is marked with an elevation. So, if the elevation numerals on the map are increasing in value, the slope is going uphill, and if the numerals are decreasing, the slope is heading downhill.

Another important aspect about topographic maps to consider is that they can indicate the shape of the terrain. Contour lines with gentle “U” shapes indicate gentle rounded ridges. Sharp ridges will show up on the map with a more pronounced “V” shaped structure. These are very important aspects of the map to for the backcountry snowboarder to notice while contemplating what kind of terrain that she or he is seeking.

After some practice, reading topographic maps becomes second nature. However, it is extremely important to remember that topographic maps have their limitations. This is because the contour lines on the map usually have either forty or eighty foot intervals, and small abrupt changes between the contour lines will not show up on the map. For this reason, it is extremely important for the backcountry snowboarder to have backup routes planned out just in case certain unsuspected terrain is stumbled upon that cannot be traversed.

Compass Navigation

Compass navigation is also very important for the backcountry snowboarder. Coupled with a topographic map, utilizing a compass in the backcountry can greatly increase the efficiency of travel and allow for more time to ride the slopes.

Backcountry Ascent

Often, the experience of mountaineering is half the fun of backcountry snowboarding. Enjoying being in the mountains is a must because in general a rider can expect to only get around four to six runs in a single day. Backcountry snowboarding is as much about just enjoying being in the mountains as it is snowboarding itself.The backcountry offers some of the best snowboarding you can ever have. But to stay safe you'll need to have certain items -- and know how to use them. Here's a list of things you should take along with you into the backcountry. A backpack filled with essentials such as, food/water, extra clothing, a pick, shovel, compas, map, slope meter and sunscrean.

"Enjoying being in the mountains is a must for a backcountry snowboarder."

Earning turns and ascending the mountain can be the most difficult aspect of backcountry snowboarding. Having the proper gear can make mountaineering much more fun and efficient and the end result will be more runs through thick powder.


Snowshoes are the most common piece of equipment that is used for ascending a mountainside. They are useful because they can be attached to any boot, including snowboarding boots, and increase the total surface area of the sole; keeping the individual from sinking down into the snow. The downside of snowshoes is that they can be heavy and need to be taken off, packed, and carried on your run down the mountain

Short Skis

Short skis are another proper method of ascending a mountainside. Their main advantage over snowshoes is that they are longer and provide more flotation on the snow pack. Using skis is particularly effective because they can allow the rider to “skate” on top of the snow without sinking in and slogging up the mountainside. Short skis need to be compact enough that they can be strapped onto the back of a pack without being a burden and getting caught up on the snow pack while snowboarding.

Split Boards

For years backcountry skiers have been able to climb a mountain much more quickly and efficiently then snowboarders because they have been able to utilize telemark skies during ascent. These skis have a loose heel and a fixed toe so that the skier is able to glide right up the mountainside without the burden of lifting his or her feet. Recently, snowboarding has caught on to this concept with the development of the split board. This type of snowboard is a blend of both telemark skiing and snowboarding. The board can be split in two to form two skis. While climbing, the bindings can be adjusted from running perpendicular to the board’s edge, to parallel ski bindings. The result is a revolutionary concept that allows backcountry snowboarders to climb a slope as easily as skiers have been doing for decades. When using a split board it is important to use skins. Skins are cloth pieces of fabric that help grip snow and ice and make climbing much easier. They have a mild adhesive on their backside and can be easily put on and taken off the bottom of the snowboard when needed. Currently three companies are producing split boards; they are Burton, Voile, and Duotone. They are offered in both swallowtail and standard variations. The downside of these types of snowboards is that they are not cheap, and run around a thousand dollars ( [] ).

There is a much less expensive alternative to buying a complete factory assembled split board. For right around $150.00, Voile offers a split kit which comes with all the hardware that is needed to turn any snowboard into a split board. The only drawback is that another snowboard must be purchased and then carefully cut in half, which is a bit risky.

Like the swallowtail, a splitboard should never be the only snowboard that a backcountry rider owns. The problem with backcountry boards is they lack the tensional rigidity of two piece snowboards. For long trips it is highly recommended to undertake the burden of hauling up a one piece snowboard.

Ice Axe

An ice axe is an absolute necessity for ascending technical terrain with very steep icy slopes or glaciers. Many slopes are loaded with boulders and the occasional tree which can cause severe injury if a fall should happen. Glaciers also have the added threat of steep crevasses that can easily be fallen into. The ice ax is a great safety tool to have in the mountains primarily because it can be used to self belay and self arrest.


On extremely hard packed or icy terrain crampons can be an added bonus. Crampons are spiked platforms that are attached to the sole of your snowboarding or mountaineering boot. They provide great traction in slippery terrain and can be a great addition to an ice ax.

"Extra precautions and gear are necessary in glacial areas."

Avalanche hazard

One of the key components of backcountry snowboarding is the risk of avalanche hazard. In the backcountry, common sense is an absolute virtue, and in a lot of terrain the rider must take it easy and be careful not to put too much stress on the snow pack. In a single slope, there can be a variety of avalanche terrain or potential trigger points on which the rider must learn to avoid putting stress.Travel Techniques One of the key hazards of backcountry snowboarding is the risk of avalanche. It is an ever present hazard on the slopes that always must be taken into consideration. With a little common sense, snowboarders can greatly minimize the risk of avalanche by utilizing proper travel technique. Travel techniques are an important factor to consider in the backcountry but by no means do they eliminate the risk. On dangerous terrain, a particular travel technique may result in one person buried, rather than the whole group, which can result in serious consequences like injury or death. Utilizing proper travel technique can be appropriate for one situation but may not be appropriate for another situation. Some common travel techniques for backcountry travel are:- "Traveling through difficult terrain one at a time". This reduces the stress on the snow pack and the likelihood of an avalanche.- "Walking on each other’s footprints". This can reduce the risk of avalanche because it puts stress on the same part of the snow pack. Scattering the footprints over a large slope area may increase the likelihood of stumbling across a weak point and triggering a potentially fatal avalanche.

"Walking on difficult terrain one at a time as well as walking in each others footprints are two important avalanche prevention techniques."

- "Staying within visual contact of the other group members". If a person should be buried, having visual contact with the person in the front can save a person’s life. Knowing where the person was last seen can greatly reduce the recovery time and save a life.- "Finding a good location to stop and rest with good visibility". The mountains often can be loaded with barriers that can inhibit the ability to properly evaluate the snow pack. Stopping and evaluating the snow pack as a group is essential while in the backcountry.

"As a group - stop, rest and evaluate."

All of these techniques are very important to utilize while in the backcountry. However, different travel techniques may be appropriate for specific situations. With a little common sense, the backcountry snowboarder can quite easily learn to make the proper decision regarding travel technique. Choosing the proper terrain to ride on must be first and foremost. No travel technique can ever make a dangerous snow pack stable. If a snow pack looks particularly hazardous, the backcountry snowboarder must simply decide not to ride on it.

Avalanche Safety

One of the most significant hazards of the backcountry is the risk of avalanche. If not properly equipped with the proper knowledge and the proper gear, avalanches are often fatal.


The first precaution a rider must take before entering into the backcountry is to check the weather and avalanche advisory. If the avalanche hazard is even remotely dangerous, or conditions are favorable for avalanches, it is probably best to stay home and not head into the backcountry. If you happen to be in a remote area where there is not an avalanche advisory it is possible to assess the risk on your own. The most important factors to be considered are the snowfall, the temperature, and the wind directions. Recent snowfall is the most important factor to consider. Snowfall of over one inch per hour produces prime avalanche conditions. This is because the new snowfall has not had a chance yet to bond to the underlying snow pack and may be unstable. Also, the weight of the snow itself can even cause the underlying layers to fracture. Temperature change is also a very important factor to consider. Snow is a very good insulator so slight changes in temperature may not affect the snow pack very much. In fact, when temperature warms up during the daytime and cools off during the nighttime it actually may help harden and stabilize the snow pack.

Temperatures that remain below zero for long periods of time need to be given the most respect because they prevent sufficient stabilization of the snow pack. The long periods of cold weather without significant warm up do not allow the snow crystals to bond to each other and in effect strengthen the snow pack ( [ FieldSafety/Guidelines/Avalanche_Safety_Guideline.pdf] ).

The wind direction is also a very important factor to consider when assessing a slope. The wind direction has a dramatic effect on snow deposition. Wind gusts tend to transfer snow from the windward side to the leeward side. Good indicators of wind direction are cornices or overhangs because they tell which way the snow is being deposited. Overall, it is much safer to snowboard on a windward side of a mountain because there tends to not be as much snow and the snow pack tends to be much more stable and predictable.

Types of Avalanches

There are four basic types of avalanches: "slab", "point-release", "cornice", and "ice". A slab avalanche is the most dangerous type of avalanche and is responsible for most deaths in the backcountry. This type of avalanche involves one large compact unit of snow fracturing and separating itself from a weaker section of snow underlying the slab.

"Learn to evaluate the landscape for avalanche potential."

A point-release avalanche is triggered from a single point and then fans out as it descends down the mountainside. In reality, very few people are killed by this type of avalanche because they usually tend to be small and fracture beneath whatever is in its path. However, like any avalanche, these types of avalanches need to be given a tremendous amount of respect because even point release avalanches can occasionally be very large and fatal (there have been cases of them burying houses). A cornice is a large windblown overhang that becomes consolidated on a mountainside. If accidentally ridden over, these cornices can collapse or break off and may even unleash a slab avalanche. Cornices are especially dangerous because they can blend into the slope. While hiking on Mt. Edgcumbe with a group from a college mountaineering course, a fellow student almost walked onto a cornice that would have sent her over a hundred foot cliff. An ice avalanche is similar to a slab avalanche except it is consolidated ice on a mountainside instead of snow. Like a cornice, it too can potentially break off and cause an avalanche

The Avalanche Life cycle

The Starting Zone: This area is where the avalanche first breaks off from the rest of the snow pack and begins its descent down the mountainside. Often this occurs at higher elevations but the starting zone can occur at virtually any point on the slope.

The Avalanche Track: This is the area between the starting zone and the run out zone where the avalanche is building up its momentum. Often it is at this point when the avalanche catches up to the snowboarder. When assessing a slope, pay attention to see if there are large patches of trees missing, indicating an avalanche track.

The Run Out Zone: This is the area where the avalanche finally comes to a stop. This is often the most critical area to assess after an avalanche has occurred because often it is where the person is buried. This is often also known as the deposition zone ( [] ).

The Importance of Slope Angle

Another important factor to consider when assessing a particular mountainside is the slope angle. The slope angle can be the number one indicator of the amount of risk that a snowboarder is accepting while riding down a particular slope. The most hazardous avalanche terrain exists on slopes with an angle between thirty five and forty degrees. More avalanche accidents occur in this degree range because these are the slopes that are most often ridden. Slopes with a smaller angle than this usually are not steep enough to build enough momentum to slide. Steeper runs then this are for the expert backcountry riders who are able to adequately assess the increased hazard that occurs with a steeper angle.


The location of the slope, or its aspect, is another very important factor to consider. Generally speaking, northern slopes, or windward slopes are the most dangerous because wind tends to accumulate snow on this side of the mountain. The ever changing snow conditions make a northern slope extremely prone to sliding. Unfortunately, the northern mountainside usually is the most desirable side to snowboard on because it also has the most powder. The downside of backcountry boarding is that no mountainside is completely safe. South facing slopes have their own set of hazards. They typically receive the most direct sunlight, which is an extremely important factor to consider before snowboarding. During the spring time for example, the longer daylight hours and more direct sunlight can significantly warm the snow pack and make point release avalanches more likely.

Avalanche Anchors

Avalanche anchors are large objects holding the snow pack in place. They are usually large boulders or trees. They are particularly important for the backcountry snowboarder because they provide escape zones if an avalanche should occur. Typically a single tree is not enough to hold the snow pack in place. Clusters of trees spread out along a slope usually provide the best anchors


The terrain in the area is also an important aspect to consider when assessing a slope. Terrain traps, like trenches and crevices crossing a slope, can be particularly menacing because if an avalanche does occur, severe injury or death is far more likely. A terrain trap like a gully is extremely dangerous because the snowboarder ends up getting buried more deeply, inevitably making rescue more difficult. Though greatly minimizing the risk of avalanche in the backcountry is feasible, completely eliminating the risk is impossible, so it is important to think about the terrain traps in the area that will cause greater injury if an avalanche does occur. ("Backcountry Snowboarding, p. 74")

Snow pack Assessment

Sometimes the evidence of unstable snow may not be sufficient from the surface so it may be necessary to do further stability testing. These tests are a little time consuming and often take fifteen to twenty minutes to conduct. The tests entail digging a pit that is at least four feet high and four feet deep. Make sure the test is being performed in a safe area so that the test itself does not trigger a catastrophic avalanche – the very thing the test is meant to avoid! "The shovel shear test": This is perhaps the most well known snow stability test. The test involves cutting a block of snow with a length and width that measures about the same as the length of an avalanche shovel (about 30 cm x 30cm). Once the block has been cut, place the shovel behind the block and pull gently forward. The weakest layers will crumble. This test allows you to locate the weak layers in the snow pack. One important aspect of the shear test to remember is that it is useful only for identifying weak layers in the snow pack. In no way does it determine the strength or bonding between these layers which is actually more important to determine in order to assess the risk of avalanche. This test should be supplemented with both the Rutsheblock test and the compression test ( [ new_slides/shovelshear_15.html] ).

"The Rutshelbock Test": This is a very effective method for testing the stability of the snow pack. Despite its effectiveness, one of its downfalls is that it is a little time consuming. Many people have a hard time taking the necessary time out of their day to perform this test. This test is very effective and it is well worth sacrificing a few curves in order to assess the stability of the snow pack. The test must be performed on a slope that is a minimum of 20 degrees but thirty degrees if possible. As always, when dealing with a slope that is this steep and can harbor an avalanche, it is important to perform this test in a safe, well anchored area. The Rutshelblock test involves cutting a six by six block of snow in the snowpack. Once this is done the snowboarder climbs to the top of the block and puts the board on the block and then straps into the bindings. If the block crumbles immediately after strapping into the bindings or after merely bending at the knees on the snow block the snow pack is very unstable. "This is a red light" and snowboarding or even walking on the slope should be avoided at all costs. If the snow block fails after merely jumping up or down once or twice a yellow light is flashed. The rider may go down this slope at his own risk. Proper route selection and safety precautions are essential but snowboarding on snow of this stability is never recommended. If the snow block fails after several hard jumps or remains intact, slopes of similar steepness in the area are probably safe to snowboard on. It is important to remember however that avalanche risk can never completely be eliminated. Proper safety precautions are always to be taken seriously while in the backcountry, no matter what the snow conditions may be. "The Compression Test": This is the third major test that can be used to assess the bonding stability of the snow pack. The compression test is fairly simple to do so it is always wise to do multiple tests to confirm results. The first step of the compression test is to cut a one foot by one foot section of snow at the back of your snow pit. It is important that the column of snow remain intact so if you do not have a snow saw to cut the back of the column, a trench or triangle can be cut at the side of the column to provide easy access to the back. Once the chunk of snow has been isolated from the pit, the stability test is ready to be undertaken. First, place the head of your shovel flat on top of the column and tap it ten times with your wrist while keeping your forearm stationary. If the column fails within the first ten taps the snow pack is very unstable and should not be snowboarded on. The next step is to tap the head of the shovel utilizing your elbow. This provides a little more pressure to the snow pack. If the column crumbles while utilizing the momentum generated from your elbow, then the snow pack is only moderately stable and probably also should not be snowboarded upon. If you have to hammer down on the head of the shovel pivoting from the shoulder then generally the snow pack is stable and safe to snowboard upon. Again, proper precautions should still be undertaken ( [ newslides/compression.html] ).

Heuristic Traps

In 2002 a man by the name of Ian McCammon did a scientific study dividing avalanche into four basic heuristic categories; the familiarity heuristic, the social proof heuristic, the commitment heuristic and the scarcity heuristic. All five of these heuristics, or simple rules of thumb to follow for day to day decision making, have important implications for avalanche hazard and snowboarding and should definitely be taken into consideration.

1. The Familiarity Heuristic

The familiarity heuristic is perhaps the most powerful decision making force in backcountry snowboarding. This heuristic deals with the idea that a slope is safe to ride on simply because it is familiar to the rider and has been ridden in the past. In fact, this heuristic is such a powerful force, that according to McCammon, 69% of the avalanche accidents that he studied involved the familiarity heuristic. Sadly, McCammon reports that in familiar terrain, people with avalanche awareness skills and training tended to be the most likely people to be killed or hurt in avalanche terrain. Their avalanche awareness skills produced a type of cockiness that in the end made them careless and, despite their training, victims of powerful and unexpected avalanches. The level of a familiarity of a slope by no means makes a particular slope safe. All slopes in the backcountry, particularly in the hazard zone of thirty to forty degrees, have a variable level of safety depending on many different factors. Every time a slope is ridden in the backcountry, no matter how familiar, the snow pack must be assessed for avalanche hazard. The familiarity heuristic also has other implications for backcountry snowboarding. Often, in my personal experience, I tend to ride slopes that I know more aggressively. By doing this, I am putting myself more at risk for injuries. I may not always be riding slopes involving a ten hour hike onto some remote peak, but I am almost always riding in a wilderness context that is at least two hours from definitive care. Riding in the backcountry requires an increased level of caution because if something does go wrong, getting help is a much more involved and difficult process.

2. The Social Proof Heuristic

The social proof heuristic is another major decision making model that has a significant impact on avalanche hazards and backcountry boarding in general. This heuristic deals with the concept that riding a particular slope is safe simply because someone else is doing it. With this heuristic just one person has to make the wrong move to get the entire group into trouble. Like the familiarity heuristic, according to McCammon, this hazard score seemed to increase with people who had basic or advanced training. Human nature seems to naturally assume that being in a group will decrease danger. In reality, with avalanche hazard the risk of avalanche increases exponentially because there are more people making an impact on a potentially unstable snowpack. The social proof heuristic also has implications in other areas of backcountry snowboarding. Although backcountry boarders almost always involve advanced riding skills, there is almost always a wide variation of terrain as well. The great potential for injury in the backcountry and the complications that a wilderness context can produce if injured require everyone to “ride their own ride” and not succumb to social pressures to ride areas that may be beyond a particular rider’s skill level. Risk and pushing the limits is an intrinsic part of snowboarding. But if you are riding an area incorporating skills that you have not used in the past, it may be better to first develop these skills in a controlled environment at a resort where injury can be more easily treated.

3. The Commitment Heuristic

The commitment heuristic is perhaps one of the most powerful forces in a recreational activity such as backcountry snowboarding. Unlike snowboarding at a resort, one of the great pleasures of this type of snowboarding is the satisfaction of putting forth an enormous amount of effort for just a few runs in powder. The problem with this is that snowboarders often come to the conclusion that after all of the effort put forth to get to the top of a run, they have a commitment to snowboard. In reality, this is a dangerous assumption to make because if snowpack conditions are not supportive of snowboarding, the run must definitely not be undertaken. Having to abort a run in the name of caution and safety after all the work ascending the mountain can be one of the great frustrations of backcountry boarding.

4. The Scarcity Heuristic

One of the main draws of backcountry snowboarding that separates it from riding a resort is the abundance of fresh powder. There is no better feeling then carving in thick powder and throwing up a massive wave of snow as you seemingly float above the snow’s surface. The problem with backcountry snowboarding is that even in the backcountry these fresh tracks may not always be easily accessible. Often, in heavily populated areas, or in rural areas (like Sitka) where there are peaks that are accessible within a fairly easy hiking distance, the powder does not remain untracked for long. Human beings are naturally competitive creatures. The result is that there is an increase in avalanche hazard on slopes where people tend to congregate in masses. The competitive instinct to be the first one to get fresh tracks can overcome the rational mind and convince a rider to neglect avalanche hazard. Avalanche Heuristic Conclusion: Although McCammon could realistically never be certain of all the factors that were involved in the avalanches that he discusses in his study, the heuristics that he discusses does give some food for thought and useful insight regarding avalanche safety. The bottom line is that when going snowboarding it is important to be responsible and make avalanche safety the top priority before attempting to traverse and eventually snowboard a slope in the backcountry.

Avalanche Survival

Avalanche hazard can be greatly minimized if proper avalanche hazard precautions are taken. However, backcountry snowboarding does have its inherent risks and all risk cannot be completely eliminated. If you decide to ride in the backcountry, you simply must accept the fact that an avalanche potentially can occur and know what to do if caught in one.

Self Rescue

One of the most important things that a rider can do is assume some responsibility for personal safety. In other words, the rider must know exactly what to do if swept up by an avalanche. The first and probably one of the most critical actions a rider must take when caught in an avalanche is to simply yell “Avalanche!!” as loudly as possible. This will get the attention of the other riders around you and will allow you to be located if buried. Avalanches can cover a very large area and knowing the general area where the victim was last seen can significantly decrease the time it takes to locate the victim and potentially save his life. While yelling “Avalanche!”, a rider must simultaneously try to cut off of the avalanche. In the early stages of an avalanche, which is usually within the first few seconds when the avalanche is moving under 30 km/h (ca. 20 mph), it is possible to move off of an avalanche. After the first few seconds an avalanche starts to build up so much momentum that the rider will inevitably lose control. If knocked down the rider must make sure to be sliding down the slope feet first. This is very important because it will protect the vital organs and head from blunt trauma caused by rocks and other debris that may be in the path of an avalanche. It is important to then attempt to grab anchors like trees or rocks to try to slow yourself down.

The next thing that you must do is try to fight to stay on the surface. This can be done by flailing the arms or “swimming” to the surface. If you have a light weight day pack, keep it on. It can serve as a flotation device which will help you remain at the surface. If you are wearing a heavy backpack, try to lose it in order not to be weighed down further in the avalanche. The last and probably the most critical actions that must be undertaken are sticking one hand straight up in the air as the avalanche slows, while placing the other hand in front of your face to create a breathing space. Sticking one hand up in the air allows your partner to locate you more easily since there is a chance that it will protrude out of the snow’s surface. Creating a breathing space can dramatically increase your chances of survival and allow you to remain buried under the snow without asphyxiating while waiting for rescue.

Also, Mountain Safety Systems is now producing an ABS (Avalanche Airbag System), which is basically two large inflatable bags that help push a victim to the surface. For the avid backcountry snowboarder, purchasing one of these may be essential because they report that a victim with the system will not get buried 85% of the time ( [] ).

Companion Rescue

As a backcountry snowboarder it is important to be well versed in the necessary avalanche skills for companion rescue. Every backcountry snowboarder must always have a beacon (a transceiver), a probe, and a shovel and know how to use them. These items are absolutely essential because without them rescue is nearly impossible. After a person is buried there are four critical questions that must immediately asked. They are: “Where was the victim last seen?” “Were they wearing a beacon?” “How many victims were there?” and, “Is it okay if I have you wait here while I make sure that the scene is safe?” These are critical questions that must be asked immediately after an accident. It is important to rehearse and memorize them so that they can be asked quickly without hesitation. Making sure the scene takes priority over everything else. If the scene is not safe, a rescue mission cannot be attempted. This may sound unreasonable but if the scene is not safe chances are good that the rescue operation will become more complicated than it needs to be. The last thing the victim needs is more people that need to be rescued. Once the scene is cleared it is important to move efficiently and quickly. Rarely do avalanche victims survive more than thirty minutes. This is not a lot of time considering the victim must be located and then unburied. This is especially true because typically between one and a half tons of snow must be removed before a victim can be uncovered.

Beacon Use

Learning to efficiently use beacons is also a very essential skill to master. Although beacons may seem relatively easy to use, using them efficiently does take a certain amount of skill. Simply owning a beacon and wearing it is not enough to be safe in the backcountry. It is important to recognize that locating submerged beacons must be practiced routinely and mastered in order for a fast recovery of a victim to be possible. Mastering this skill can determine the difference between life and death for your companion adventurers. A good rule of thumb is that when trying to locate a victim in an avalanche chute is to make 20 meter (sixty foot) horizontal traverses along the side of the avalanche and then go downhill 10 meters (thirty feet) before making the next 20 meter sweep. You should remain no more than 10 meters from the side of the avalanche path ( [] ).

Once you are within five feet of the target you may then begin your pinpoint search. This is where you are going to want to get down on your hands and knees and place the beacon up against the snow pack. Then, utilizing the directional arrows on your digital beacon, create a box around the target with an equal distance on each side. Next, mark on “X” in the center of the box, assemble your probe and start probing the snow pack for the victim. This is a very general overview of avalanche safety. In reality, to truly become competent enough to be able to enter the backcountry, an avalanche safety awareness program is needed.

Other hazards

In addition to the avalanche risk of backcountry snowboarding, other mountain dangers are significantly more prevalent in the backcountry environment and away from the managed piste. Obscured cliffs, ledges, snow and ice overhangs and tree wells are all naturally occurring hazards which are frequently difficult to spot. Riding in experienced groups, with a sound knowledge of the terrain and staying in visual contact at all times may help in avoiding such potentially-fatal dangers.

See Also




Alpine Snowboarding


Backcountry skiing



AIRE: Avalanche Safety Handbook

Bennett, J., Downey, S., & Arnell, C. The Complete Snowboarder. Camden, ME, 2001.

Connally, Craig. The Mountaineering Handbook: Modern tools & techniques that will take you to the top. Cambridge: McGraw-Hill, 2005.

Cox, S. and Fulsaas, K., eds. Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. Seattle: Mountaineer Books, 2003.

Graydon, D., Handson, K. Freedom of the Hills. Seattler: The Mountaineers,1997.

McCammon, Ian. Evidence of Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents.

Miller, Billy, Ed. Ultimate Snowboarding. Chicago: Carlton Books, 2002.

Ryan, Kevin. The Illustrated Guide to Snowboarding. Chicago: Masters Press, 1998.

Tillberg, Christopher Van. Backcountry Snowboarding. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1998.

External Links

Backcountry Snowboarding Gear, Info & Tours-

American Avalanche Association. Compression. []

American Avalanche Association. Shovel Shear Test. []

Avalanche First Response Training. [ Response/course.htm]

Backcountry Safety Info. []

Country Walkers. Using a Compass and Map Together. []

Desert Research Institute: Environmental Healthy and Safety Department. [;FieldSafety/Guidlines/Avalanche_Safety_Guideline.pdf]

Luthien The ABC’s of Snowboarding; Snowboard Bindings –Functions and Types of Snowboard Bindings. 2003-2007. [] Splitboard. 1992-2007. []

Snowboarding Winch by Kurt Heine [ Snowboarding Winch]

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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