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So you want to start backcountry skiing or riding?

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Author Ian Hoyer, a forecaster with GNFAC, digs a quick snow pit while snowmobiling in the backcountry. PHOTO COURTESY OF GALLATIN NATIONAL FOREST AVALANCHE CENTER

By Ian Hoyer GNFAC Forecaster

Taking the leap beyond the safety of the ski resort to start exploring the backcountry is a significant decision. While riding the backcountry can offer transcendent experiences, doing it right takes careful planning and doing it wrong sets you up for dangerous failure. This is true whether you’re leaving a ski resort through a gate to go out of bounds, putting on snowshoes for a snowy hike, skinning up a mountain for the first time or learning how to snowmobile.

There are three key steps to set yourself up for success in the backcountry: get the gear, get the training and get the forecast.

In addition to any gear you might need for your new backcountry activity of choice (e.g. skins for your skis, snowshoes or a snowmobile), avalanche rescue gear is essential. An avalanche transceiver (worn on your body), a metal shovel and an avalanche probe (carried in a backpack) are required equipment in the backcountry. These items can be purchased at local ski or outdoor retailers or a plethora of online outlets. Expect to pay $300-400. 

Once you have the gear, you need to learn how to use it. The best and most effective way is by signing up for an avalanche class where you’ll go into the field to practice and learn skills hands on. In addition to personalized instruction in how to use your rescue gear, you’ll also learn how to avoid getting caught in a slide in the first place.

The Friends of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center offers an Avalanche Fundamentals course that is the perfect introduction to the backcountry. The class includes four pre-recorded lectures available to watch online at your convenience, a live question and answer session with the instructors and your choice of a snowmobile or ski/ board-based field day on January 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 29th or 30th. This course is the best deal in avalanche education – a slope meter and ECT cord (you’ll learn the importance of these items in the course) are included in the $40 price.

Once you have the gear and know how to use it, you’re almost ready to get out into the backcountry. The last step is reading the avalanche forecast. The avalanche forecast for Southwest Montana can be found at: mtavalanche.com/forecast. Check it before you head out the door in the morning. It is updated by 7:30 a.m. every day throughout the winter. In less than five minutes, the avalanche forecast will tell you how likely avalanches are that day, what to look for and which slopes to especially avoid.  

Whether you’re going into the backcountry for the first time or have been going into the backcountry for years but haven’t been taking safety seriously, now is the time. Exploring the mountains in the winter time is serious business. Make a plan to do it safety.

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