Unspoken Rules of the Backcountry

  • by Steph Nitsch
  • 1 Comment

Tips for making a smooth, safe and manageable transition from lift-powered snowboarding to lung-powered splitboarding 

By Lexie Anderson

Transitioning from riding at the resort into the backcountry can seem like an overwhelming and daunting task. Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to be an expert rider to have an excellent time out-of-bounds. Through good terrain selection, intermediate snowboarders can have a wonderful time riding the untracked paradise. 

Having splitboarded for 10 years, here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way to get you started.

Acquire the gear. At the minimum, it should include a splitboard, splitboard bindings, skins, poles, beacon, shovel, probe and backpack.

Steph Nitsch photo

ACQUIRE THE GEAR

You might be familiar with the actual gear that gets strapped to your feet: splitboard, split-specific bindings, skins (and collapsable poles!). But the most critical backcountry gear is your trio of avalanche tools: beacon, shovel and probe. Consider it a quartet if you include the backpack. Having a pack with a designated avalanche tool pocket and is designed to carry a snowboard in splitboard and solid mode is ideal. 

Practice with your avalanche tools and splitboard gear before heading into the mountains Steph Nitsch photo

PRACTICE

Get to know your beacon. Read the owner’s manual. Watch a YouTube video. Find some friends with beacons and practice together. Go to a beacon park [a dedicated beacon training zone found at many ski resorts] and practice some more. Practice taking your board apart and putting it back together. Practice applying, removing and storing your skins and practice those transitions from start to finish. Then repeat. And repeat again. Do it in the comfort of your living room, before you start up the mountain, so you’re familiar with the process and techniques. Learning these skills when you’re on a cold, windy and snowy skin track isn’t just uncomfortable for you (or your touring partners); it’s inherently dangerous for everyone — especially if there’s an emergency or avalanche involved.

Get educated from an avalanche providerSteph Nitsch photo

GET EDUCATED

Riding in the backcountry away from the safety of controlled terrain is an incredible experience. It’s also much more dangerous. Get some knowledge. Get lots of knowledge. Don’t ever think you have too much knowledge. Start your backcountry education with a Level 1 course through AAI (American Avalanche Institute) or AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Rescue and Education) in the United States or doing your AST 1 through Avalanche Canada — all of which are industry-leading organizations that set the baseline for avalanche education in North America. 

These organizations provide resources on where to find a local provider, course dates and costs. There are numerous scholarship opportunities available. Apply for them. Avalanche courses are also an incredible way to meet touring partners, especially when you’re new to splitboarding. A Level 1 avalanche course should be the minimum requirement for you and any person you venture into the backcountry with. 

Find great splitboard touring partnersSteph Nitsch photo

FIND PARTNERS

Keeping the backcountry fun and safe for everyone involved depends on the strong, active community of its users. Having competent, reliable touring partners — whether they splitboard or ski — is an invaluable part of your backcountry gear list. Find partners that are around your skill and ability levels to practice with. Be intentional about planning tours and setting goals together. Mentors are wonderful for passing along practical knowledge, helping you gain backcountry confidence, and teaching you a new vocabulary, but the right ones are willing to be patient with you. 

Social media is also another great way to connect with new people. Join a backcountry group on Facebook and attend an avalanche awareness class together — especially ones that cater to women — before meeting up on snow. In an Covid era, sign up for a virtual avalanche awareness class together, then meet up for a virtual beer after it’s over to discuss what you learned. 

Backcountry users are generally a welcoming bunch, so be willing to put yourself out there and make new friends. By nature, however, backcountry touring partners are complex relationships. You’re not just going for a walk with a friend; you’re navigating an untamed mountain together where safety, good judgment and interpersonal dynamics are very important. Finding the right ones can take some time and effort, and it’s okay to be choosey with who you venture into the backcountry with. But stick with it because those friendships are worth it. 

Progress your way into new backcountry terrain

Rider: Lexie Anderson, Photo: Katey Crystle

PROGRESS YOUR WAY INTO NEW TERRAIN

Start small. Don’t let your buddies talk you into bigger terrain before you’re ready, and always remember that you have the power to say NO. If something doesn’t jive with you, speak up. That is your second responsibility as a backcountry user. (The first is to get educated.) Great backcountry partners will respect your decision and accommodate your concerns. But do understand that your hesitation could possibly be a result of not having enough knowledge or experience to make an informed decision, so use this opportunity to discuss your fears or hesitations with your touring partner(s). They may be able to explain the terrain choices in a way that changes your understanding or perspective.

Many resorts are adopting uphill policies in a Covid era, if they haven’t already, which is a great place to explore splitboarding in more manageable terrain. Think of it as the climbing gym of the backcountry and a great way hone your skills if resorts allow it.

Openly communicate with your touring partnersPhoto: Steph Nitsch

COMMUNICATE

While communication can be a hard skill to practice and learn, the simple rule is: if a person isn’t communicating well from the beginning of planning a tour and throughout the day, they aren’t the right partner for you. It’s okay to “break up” with touring partners if they’re not the right fit.

Respect your touring partners and be on time for your day in the backcountryPhoto: Steph Nitsch

BE ON TIME

Show up to the trailhead on time. Packing your backpack, prepping your snacks, assembling your gear and getting prepared the night before is a great way to free up some time in the morning to eat a good breakfast and get into the flow of a big day. Arrive caffeinated, hydrated, fed, pee’d and ready to rock. Be sure to communicate any time or conflicts that might require you to head back to the car at a certain point. It’s a bummer when you’re not even to the top, and someone needs to head back because of overlapping dinner plans that were never communicated.

Check your local avalanche forecast every day

Photo: Steph Nitsch

CHECK THE FORECAST

Having a sense of the season-long history is invaluable. Many avalanche problems can exist because of older storms or snow layers, and it’s essential to understand which layers are becoming more or less stable over time. Check the avalanche forecast in your local area everyday, starting with the first snow report of the season.

Splitboarding has the potential to become a lifelong love affair when you approach the mountain with the utmost safety and respect. Be patient with the process, forgiving of the weather, and enjoy the journey. 

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1 Comment

  • Solid stoke building content right here!

    James on

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