When discussing the topic of winter safety there are a number of key items that come to mind. Avalanche safety, road safety, temperature management and hydrated to name a few. The information offered here is only a sample of a large and complex topic. It is by no means a thorough presentation and should be taken as more of an introduction. The intent here is to create awareness on a few chosen topics and to encourage adventurers to continue their research via self study or participation in organized courses.
You can’t have a discussion about winter safety without spending significant time on the topic of avalanches. You could be putting yourself at risk without even knowing it. This is why even if you never plan to go backcountry skiing you should still have a basic understand of avalanche safety. A few places where you could be at risk that might surprise you are:
- Driving through avalanche terrain on major roadways.
- Traversing at or near the base of a snow loaded slope (including on cross country skis, snow shoes etc).
- At your local ski hill.
- Hiking mountains in the winter, or even summer depending on how far into the alpine you are going.
In the context of this discussion “backcountry” essentially applies to any place where there is not active avalanche control being performed. So depending on location and the path of a route this could include popular hikes, out of bounds on ski hills, cross country skiing, snowshoeing trails / zones. If you are considering venturing into the backcountry in the winter you should be aware of the current conditions, what to watch out for when it comes to warning signs and you should be prepared to properly respond in case one of your party is buried. Being prepared means having knowledge, training and the appropriate equipment including at minimum an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel.
Full disclosure, I would consider myself a novice when it comes to my overall knowledge and experience on the topic. This is after taking the Avalanche Skills Training 1 (AST1) course a number of years ago, having approximately 30 days in the backcountry since then including some guided trips, continued self study and active monitoring of avalanche conditions and min reports. For context, professional ski guides can spend 150 days or more in a single year guiding groups in the backcountry while continually improving their knowledge based on the latest snow science. They are the real experts and I would highly recommend seeking out a professional guide if you are keen to get into some big terrain for the first time.
Here are a few excellent resources for education on the topic:
- Avalanche Canada
- University of Calgary Outdoor Center – Avalanche Training
- Book – Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain
The first two links are mostly representative since I realize not everyone reading this information will be located in Canada. I encourage you to seek out avalanche reports for your chosen location and to seek out avalanche training that works for you where you live. When planning a backcountry day it’s important to do your own research, make your own observations and practice your own evaluation skills. I often go into the backcountry with friends who are more experienced than myself but rather than solely rely on their skills and knowledge I continually discuss my observations with them to get a feel for how accurate they are and to get used to speaking up when I see something of concern. We will also practice our skills regularly so if someone is buried we’ve already got a system in place for how we would respond.
The topic of road safety is always on my mind as I travel out to the mountains. I often hear that you are at higher risk of an accident on the way to an activity than you are when participating in the activity itself. While I haven’t verified the research for myself the sentiment behind this statement makes me think about road safety a lot. An adventure into the backcountry starts when you leave your house and only really ends when you return safely home. While I’m certain there are many resources available with guidance on how to be prepared for winter driving conditions here are a few things to consider:
- Ensure you have winter rated tires on your vehicle and maybe even consider carrying chains.
- Be familiar with how your vehicle handles in winter conditions.
- Keep an eye on the outside temperature and the ever changing road conditions.
- Drive for the conditions and not necessarily to the posted speed limit.
- Give yourself plenty of time so you don’t feel the need to rush putting yourself and your passengers at risk.
- Keep in mind that as the driver you are responsible for the safety of your passengers.
- Carry thermal blankets or a winter rated sleeping bag in case you break down in a remote area.
- Carry a road side emergency kit (CAA recommended kit).
- Check for any highway closures on your route.
- I’ve been diverted or stuck on several occasions due to construction closures in the Kicking Horse Pass / Canyon and closures due to avalanche conditions in the Kootenay Pass and Rogers Pass.
- Tell someone at home your trip plan and agree on a timeline for making contact to check in.
- It’s important to consider whether or not you think you’ll have cell service is going out into a remote area for the day and plan your check in accordingly.
- You could also consider getting a Garmin inReach, Zoleo or similar product that allows you to make emergency calls / texts when you are well out via satellite.
As usual, you should conduct your own research for your chosen location and ensure you are prepared to be self reliant when travelling through the mountains in the winter. Many of the listed tips are applicable to winter travel in general and could come in very handy even in the city during or after a significant snowfall.
More content coming soon!