How to Get Started with Backcountry Snowboarding

After spending a few years going on snowboard trips, I decided to move to France from the U.K. for my first winter season. I had some previous experience of riding powder when I got lucky during visits to various French, Italian, Canadian resorts.


However, fresh tracks were few and far between and usually just to the side of the groomed slopes.


It wasn't until my first winter living in the French Alps that I had my first proper backcountry experiences. I fell in love with the feeling of effortlessly gliding through the powder, dropping little cliffs, and looking back up the mountain to see what my friends and I had just done.


However, I realize we were very reckless when looking back at those times. We put the sensations ahead of our safety. To be fair, we had no idea how much danger we put ourselves in. We were young with nobody to tell us any different.


So in this article, I will share with you what I have learned on how to get started with backcountry snowboarding. These tips will help you stay safe and enjoy your powder hunting even more.



  1. Get Educated


A few years passed before I did my second winter season in the French Alps. The people I worked with and the company I worked for really emphasized backcountry safety from day one. The company even paid for a local ski school to teach us some avalanche safety training.


With avalanche safety at the forefront of our minds, we decided to attend a lecture on avalanche awareness held in a local bar. This scared the hell out of me!


Henry, the guy taking the lecture, showed us photos of mountain faces that should be avoided at all costs, even though they look inviting. Some of them resembled a couple of my favorite faces that we rode in that first season. Which made me realize that I needed more education and that we were lucky to not get into trouble.


When it comes to getting started in the backcountry, don't be tempted to head out without being educated. The mountains are beautiful, but there are many hazards. Some of these hazards are more obvious than others; therefore, an introduction to backcountry is the best thing to do.


What Is An Introduction To Backcountry?


Most ski and snowboard schools in any ski resort will hold various classes for all abilities. These often include an introduction to the backcountry, sometimes called an avalanche awareness course.


These courses are great fun and incredibly interesting. The instructor will talk you through the various dangers you may encounter in the backcountry. For example, you will learn about avalanches, tree wells, and terrain traps.


They will also teach you about the safer areas to ride your snowboard. This will include the technical elements of backcountry snowboarding, such as the aspect of the slope, safer gradients, and how to read avalanche reports.


You may even dig a snowpit to see the different layers of snow to find the weak layer. This is where you cause a big block of snow to collapse, which is pretty eye-opening when you see how easy an avalanche can trigger.


Next, you will learn how to use avalanche safety gear. I will go into this stuff shortly, but there is no point having it if you don't know how to use it.


All this is pretty cool to learn, but your instructor will also take you to some excellent backcountry spots. This is your opportunity to get some local knowledge and get familiar with the first powder stash that you can keep going back to.


If you plan on doing lots of backcountry snowboarding (and why wouldn't you?), this first introduction to the backcountry is just the start. You can take professional courses that go into much more detail, using advanced rescue techniques and elements of snow science.


  1. Get The Correct Equipment


After getting scared by our avalanche awareness lecture, we instantly bought our avalanche safety kit. The basic things you need are:


A Transceiver


A transceiver is a pretty cool electronic device that you strap to your body, under your jacket whenever you are in the backcountry. It has two modes, "send" and "search."


You ride with your transceiver in send mode all the time, as it sends out a signal. If you get buried in an avalanche, your riding buddies will flick their transceivers to the search mode. This will allow them to find your location under the snow. These days transceivers are very accurate and can get your rescuers pretty close.


My first transceiver was the cheapest one you could buy, as I was working as a chalet host at the time on a pitiful wage. However, it worked pretty well, as it located my instructor's transceiver straight away, so it was better than nothing.


I now have a high-end transceiver, which I hope never to use.


A Probe


The probe is a long collapsable pole that your rescuers will use to refine the search. They will poke the snow in a specific pattern with the pole parallel to the slope until they feel resistance, indicating where to dig.


A Shovel


Once your rescuers know where to dig, they whip out their shovels from their backpacks. The shovels have removable handles, so they fit in the backpack easily. Metal shovels are best, as they won't break while digging as plastic ones do.


There is a particular digging technique that you will learn on an avalanche awareness course. This is a challenging task, as it is backbreaking work. However, you can clear a surprising amount of snow in a short space of time with the correct technique, which includes taking turns digging with other rescuers.


ABS Backpack


An ABS (Air Bag System) backpack is an excellent piece of avalanche safety equipment. But not 100% necessary if you are just getting into backcountry snowboarding.


These backpacks have giant inflatable airbags inside them. If you get caught in an avalanche, you pull a handle on the shoulder strap fitted with a small explosive charge.


Pulling the handle sets off a gas canister in the backpack to inflate the airbags either side of the backpack. The idea is that the airbags give you buoyancy keeping you closer to the surface of the snow. So when the snow settles, your rescuers don't have to dig as far down to get you out.


According to backcountryaccess.com, studies have revealed that ABS backpacks improve your survival rate by 27%. To put this into context, 56% of people without an ABS backpack survive, but 83% of people with them manage to get out alive.


As I got into splitboarding and spent lots of time in the backcountry, I decided to buy an ABS backpack. It is pretty heavy, especially when hiking up or riding tricky sections. But you get used to the weight, and now I ride with an ABS backpack pretty much every time I go off-piste.


The backpack has compartments to store your shovel, probe, water, extra clothing, etc. Its design allows you to get to everything quickly and easily in an emergency.


ABS backpacks are pretty expensive, so if you are on a budget. Don't buy one, and spend your money on getting educated. It is much better to know how to avoid an avalanche in the first place, which comes from learning from experts.


Some people will put themselves in danger because they have an ABS backpack. Doing this is a bad idea, as the bag may not do its job or be effective enough to save them. An ABS backpack is the last resort, not a ticket to ride a dangerous face.


  1. Other Stuff To Take With You


What you take into the backcountry depends on the conditions, location, and how long you go out for. But here are some things you should consider bringing with you:


A Good Backpack


ABS backpacks are great, but you need a backpack that will hold your safety gear as a bare minimum. Some packs have a low profile and are excellent for lift-accessible powder. However, it is always good to have space for extra stuff.


For example, food and water will keep your energy up. When you fall in powder, you will soon realize that trying to stand up again zaps your energy.


Bonus Tip: If you fall in the snow and can't get up, take your backpack off and put it on the snow to use it as a platform to push from. This spreads your weight rather than your hands sinking into the deep snow.


An Extra Layer


You should also keep an extra layer in your backpack. A thin down jacket will keep you warm if the weather changes. These are lightweight and don't take up too much room.


A Multitool


If you are out in the middle of nowhere and your bindings come loose, or a binding strap comes off, your dream powder run could be ruined. But a small multitool will keep you riding. I always carry one when I'm splitboarding, as there are more moving parts on a splitboard setup.


A Camera


Backcountry days can be incredible and deserve to be documented. I love taking photos and video footage of my friends and me having the best times.


I try not to make taking photos and footage interrupt the day, so I have to be organized. The last thing I want to do is get in the way of everyone having a good time.


Extra Goggle Lens


The weather in the mountains can change very quickly, which means the light can be dramatically different from the end of the day to the morning. Therefore, you may want to pack an extra goggle lens suitable for different light.


For example, if the weather forecast looks mixed, I will pack a low-light lens in case it gets cloudy. This way, I can swap the lens and still be able to see any imperfections in the snow and potential hazards.


  1. How to Access the Backcountry


There are a few ways to access the backcountry. Here are some of the ways you can ride untracked powder.


Lift-Assisted Backcountry


I just used to ride the lift-accessible powder in the early days, as it was the easiest to get to. I still love doing this and have an off-piste circuit that I do whenever we get a fresh dump of snow. Each winter, I add extra sections to my route as I find them.


Lift-accessible backcountry gets tracked out pretty quickly. So you have to keep an eye on the weather forecast and make sure you are the first on the lift in the morning. This way, you can beat the crowds, get first tracks and feel smug about it.


Small Hikes


Other backcountry areas require a little hike. These are still pretty easy to get to and often take longer to get tracked out. Depending on where these areas are, you shouldn't need any extra equipment to access them.


You will be surprised how a little walk can reveal some real gems in terms of powder runs.


Helicopter


You can access the backcountry via helicopter if you have some spare cash. Heliboarding is regarded as a bucket list item for any snowboarder. And I can tell you it is pretty awesome, as I did it in Canada once.


Heliboarding missions are usually based on the ability of people who go on ski trips. So they don't tend to be too technical or steep unless you state that you are an experienced backcountry rider. Your helicopter will drop you off at the top of the mountain, and your guide will give you instructions on what is safe and fun to do.


Depending on the heli company and location, you can get 2 to 5 drops in a day. The more drops you have, the more expensive it will be, but helicopters are not known for being cheap to run!


Heliboarding is illegal in France, so people often fly over the border into Italy. However, France does allow "reverse heliboarding," which is when you ride accessible powder, but a helicopter picks you up at the bottom. This is more affordable and a great way to end your day.


Other Mechanized Access


Some ski resorts allow you to access the backcountry via snowcat. These are big vehicles with caterpillar tracks that drive skiers and snowboarders to the top of powder runs. They are much cheaper than helicopters, and you can get more runs in one day.


Alternatively, you may be able to access the backcountry on a snowmobile. These are great fun to ride, but you may need to book a snowmobile guide or on to an excursion to do it.


Splitboard


I love my splitboard; it is one of the best ways to access the backcountry. You get a great workout, and it is more cost-effective than a helicopter.


A splitboard is a snowboard that splits into a pair of skis. In "ski mode," the bindings face forward and hinge at the toe, allowing you to glide forwards with ease.


To stop yourself from sliding backward, you attach skins to the base of your skis. Skins are strips of material that are secured via hooks and an adhesive. The side of the skins in contact with the snow has fine bristles, which allow the skis to slide forwards and not back. This means you can climb steep snowy hills under your own steam using collapsable ski poles.


When you get to the top of the mountain, you take off your skins and put them in your backpack with your poles. You then rebuild your snowboard and ride untouched powder.


It can take several hours to hike for a ride that lasts just a few minutes. However, it is a different style of snowboarding. You will soon appreciate the up as well as the down. The areas you access on your splitboard are stunning, and spending time in them is a wonderful thing to do. It's not just about the powder but the whole experience.


Splitboarding is very rewarding as you earn your turns. I have had some of the best days ever on my splitboard. But there are times when you learn a lot. Sometimes that fluffy-looking snow is actually bulletproof ice that your skins won't stick to. This is when you need to get out your crampons to cope with tricky climbs and get to the good stuff.


Final Thoughts


Since those first reckless days, I have learned a lot and am now a far more responsible snowboarder. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to get educated about the dangers of backcountry snowboarding.


Every winter, I book a refresher course on avalanche awareness. These sessions are a great reminder of what I am supposed to look out for in the backcountry. I get to practice looking for a transceiver and ride some great powder spots.


Ultimately backcountry snowboarding is one of the most enjoyable things you can do. There is a learning curve with all the elements involved, so you need to start slow and build up to bigger days and terrain.

Author: Tom Fortune

March 24, 2022