Hey, you mad snow-loving, mountain-conquering, adrenaline junkie!
Yes, I’m talking to you. The brave soul ready to swap cozy resort runs for the unpredictable thrill of backcountry snowboarding.
You’re considering smashing the ‘off-piste’ button and snowboarding where no lifts dare to tread. Well, good on ya! Like a drunk bungee jumper, you’re pushing boundaries.
But where does one start on this incredible (and let’s face it, slightly bonkers) journey?
Buckle up, my friend, because we’re going all-in together. Here’s my crash course on how to get into backcountry snowboarding.
A Quick Reminder Before We Start
Now, before we start this epic journey, let’s be real – backcountry snowboarding isn’t for the faint-hearted.
It’s not just about crazy snow carving—but safety too. Imagine being on the wrong side of an angry avalanche. A situation you’re keen to avoid, right? So, I’ve got your back.
This guide is your survival kit, a nifty bible, if you will, on how to turn yourself into a lean, mean, backcountry-slaying machine.
Now, if you’re still yearning for some fresh-snow-sprinkled thrills… and are okay with the idea of starting a new life as a yeti, this guide is for you.
So, hold onto your helmets, prep your ‘sleds,’ and let’s dive into the wonderful world of backcountry snowboarding!
Welcome to Backcountry Snowboarding!
Backcountry snowboarding, that off-piste rollercoaster of a ride you’re about to hop on, it’s not just a hobby. It’s not even a sport.
Brace yourself, buddy, because you’re about to embark on an adventure. In fact, it’s pretty much a lifestyle. And no, I’m not talking about the kind of lifestyle change that involves kale smoothies, 5 am yoga, and regret.
The backcountry lifestyle is all about embracing the unpredictable, utter madness that comes with strapping a plank to your feet and deciding that gravity is your new best friend.
Now, this lifestyle does require a few sacrifices.
You’ll have to bid adieu to those lazy weekends, a full bank account, and, if you’re serious about this, probably your razor too (did anyone say frosty beard?). Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
But I know what you’re thinking, “Small price to pay for legendary powder-hound status, right?”
A word of caution – to quote a wise (albeit slightly shaky) backcountry snowboarder I once met:
It’s tough on your body, like wrestling with a grizzly kind of tough. So, you better start preparing your “after action” recovery routine – from hot tub soaking to crying in a river.
But here’s the silver shredding lining – there’ll be nothing between you and that fresh untouched snow.
No lift queues, overpriced resort cappuccinos, or six-year-olds on leashes to slow you down. All you’ll hear is the crisp crunch of snow under your board and the sweet, sweet noise of untouched terrain.
If you love nature, solitude and fresh powder, this is as close to perfect as it gets.
10 Golden Rules for Getting Started in the Backcountry
Before getting too deep into the details, I thought I’d hit you with my golden rules. We’ll go into each one further down the article.
1. Know Before You Go
The backcountry isn’t like resort riding. Take an avalanche safety course, become familiar with reading terrain and weather conditions.
2. Gear Up
Before heading out, ensure you have the essential gear. The bare minimum is a beacon, shovel, and probe. Safety should always come first!
3. Stay Together
In the backcountry, sticking with your group isn’t just about having fun; it’s about keeping everyone safe. No buddies? No backcountry!
4. Choose Your Terrain Wisely
There’s no rush. Select routes and descents that match your skill level.
5. Check the Forecast
Always check the avalanche forecasts and weather conditions. Nature is unpredictable, but being prepared is a step in the right direction.
6. Go with a Guide
For your initial trips, consider going with an experienced instructor or guide – their expertise is invaluable in unfamiliar terrain. I’ve been riding for over 15-years (and a snowboard instructor for 10). I still hire guides when exploring new mountains.
7. Plan and Communicate
Before setting off, share your plans with someone and set check-in times. It’s essential to let others know where you’re headed. Before tackling riskier sections, double-check the plan with your team.
8. If in Doubt, Don’t Go Out
Trust your instincts. If conditions seem off or if you’re feeling unsure, wait for another day. The backcountry will still be there tomorrow!
9. Know Your Exit
Before I make my way up, I always plan my route down. Knowing where you’re going and having an exit plan is key. This includes nominating islands of safety, especially on high exposure slopes.
10. Respect The Mountains
The backcountry is breathtaking, but it demands respect. Always remember to leave no trace, respect wildlife, and recognize the power and unpredictability of the mountain.
Getting Started with Essential Gear
Alright, you’ve heard my golden rules – let’s move on.
It’s impossible to discuss how to get into backcountry snowboarding without touching on the gear.
I don’t mean your garden-variety rental gear either. We’re talking gear that makes Bear Grylls look like a cub scout on a day out. It’s time to whip out your notepad, pen, and mandatory wad of cash. This stuff ain’t cheap!
Now – I’m going to assume you already have the basics needed for snowboarding. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then go back to the basics and leave backcountry snowboarding for at least a few years.
If you do, then let’s jump in!
1. Avalanche Beacons
Avalanche beacons are mandatory.
They’re your lifeline, linking you to the rescuers ready to dig you out following an avalanche. Essentially, your beacon sends signals to your buddies beacons, indicating exactly where you are under the snow. Without one, they’re wasting precious minutes searching the entire avalanche field.
Never venture out of bounds without a beacon (or without beacon-carrying buddies). Nice and simple.
If you don’t already have one, choose one of the more beginner-friendly avalanche beacons.
Next, you’ll need a probe.
Sounds alien, I know, but trust me, this isn’t extra-terrestrial.
This bad boy helps your fellow riders locate you under an avalanche. Avalanches can bury you alarmingly deep, alarmingly quickly.
Once the beacon has identified your whereabouts, prodding you with a probe is the quickest way to locate your depth and position.
Next up, shovels.
Ever tried digging through solidified snow with nothing more than your bare hands? It ain’t fun. In a worst case situation, you want your friends to dig you out as soon as possible (and vice versa). So, shovel up, pal.
I can almost feel your eyes rolling from here. I know you’re sick of preachy instructors like me talking about helmets, but mate, they’re vital for the backcountry. This goes for newbies and pros alike!
A good helmet protects your noggin from unexpected debris, pesky trees, and any wild snow beasts that may roam untamed in the backcountry.
Recommended Ski and Snowboard Helmets
5. Backpacks or Avalanche Airbags
Clearly I’m not going to ask you to hold all this equipment whilst riding. For this reason, a backpack is a necessity in the backcountry.
This can be a super-straightforward snowboard backpack, which won’t break the bank. However, if you do have the finances – consider an avalanche airbag.
Avalanche airbags are highly effective in avalanche situations, but should always be combined with the above equipment too!
6. Splitboard or Snowboard
You’ve got a decision to make, are you going to lean into splitboarding (a board that splits into two for the ascent) or stick to boot-packing (hiking with a regular board on your back). Most people start out by hiking from the top of lift-accessed terrain.
Either way, it’s worth investing some hard-earned bucks in a specific backcountry board. No beginner board is going to cut it in the backcountry, so don’t even try it.
Backcountry Snowboarding Skills
Break out the warm clothing, we’re plunging headfirst into an avalanche of knowledge – skills you need to stay alive when backcountry snowboarding.
First off, let’s talk about the big ‘A.’
1. Avalanche Safety
Trust me; you’d rather attend couples therapy with a rabid porcupine than find yourself at the heart of an avalanche. They’re terrifying.
While it’s easy to get caught up in the moment of snowboarding, safety ALWAYS comes first.
These mountain tantrums are a deadly cocktail of fast-moving snow and an unbelievably bad day.
The best way to learn what to do is to get yourself schooled in avalanche safety!
Courses are available at your local wilderness institute or online (perfect for those of us who prefer learning in our undies).
There, you’ll learn how to avoid getting caught in one, recognize potential mountain meltdowns, and spend quality time with safety gear like beacons and probes (you’re welcome, they’re your new best friends).
Practice is Everything
Simulate an avalanche where you can – some resorts have a special practice area. This way, if you ever (touch wood this never happens) find yourself in a bad situation, you habitually know what to do.
2. Riding Skills
If you think your high score on SSX Tricky is enough to qualify you for the backcountry, you’re as wrong as socks with flip-flops. There’s no ‘respawn’ here.
A robust skill set is as essential as hot cocoa on a frosty day. Can you ride switch comfortably? Navigate through trees without turning yourself into a woodpecker? Handle moguls and icy hard-pack?
If you’re still working on these skills, hold off hitting the backcountry for a while longer.
3. Basic Survival Skills
Lastly, let’s discuss basic survival skills.
Now, don’t squirm. This isn’t as dull as your grandma’s vacation slides. It’s more about knowing how to use your gear, communicate effectively, navigate your terrain, and manage basic first aid. You know, like patching up classic snowboarding injuries – from sprained wrists to bruised egos.
Possessing this holy trinity of skills will ensure you won’t end up as a yeti’s lunch or an ice-cube impersonator.
Let’s face it: nothing ruins an epic snow day like an unplanned helicopter ride.
Be smart – safety first, somersaults second!
Ever seen a sloth on a snowboard?
Neither have I (though if you have, please, for the love of all that’s holy, share the video). Sloths, or any unfit creatures, don’t fare well off-piste.
Sure, snowboarding wallpapers might make it look like all you gotta do is stand and let gravity do its thing, but the reality is you need sturdy muscles.
A solid fitness regime is essential for backcountry snowboarding. An unfit body simply can’t handle backcountry riding – especially the ascent.
So, to keep yourself from puffing like a steam train or gasping like a fish, you’ve got to get fit.
Here are some exercises to help you shape up; you won’t even need to swap your beer for protein shakes:
- Squats: Maybe you haven’t felt the burn of a long, epic run in the backcountry. You need strong legs! Squats work the quads, hammies, and booty!
- Lunges: These will make your legs hotter than fresh waffles in a ski lodge! Switch it up with forward, backward, and, if you’re feeling like a show-off, jumping lunges.
- Planks: Plank exercises will work your core strength, essential for turning, jumping and hiking.
- Box Jumps: Ideal for crafting springier and more resilient legs. Work on these and you’ll be popping off of cliff drops in no time.
- Cardio: Last but not least, cardio. We’re trying to prep you for the snow-covered wilderness after all. Hiking, cycling, swimming, or running – pick whatever keeps your heart throbbing and your body sweating.
Remember, there’s no shame in starting slow and gradually increasing intensity as you gain strength, endurance, and courage (or lose sanity).
All this hard work isn’t about getting ripped for some beach extravaganza (though you’ll definitely look better in your thermals). It’s all about making sure you can enjoy your time in the backcountry without worrying about aching limbs or shattered pride.
Get fit, get strong, and remember: snowboarding beats the StairMaster any day!
Destination: Picking Your First Spot
Break out the world map or spin your globe. We’re about to take a wild jaunt across the globe for your first backcountry spot!
Now, don’t go picking out the gnarliest, most neck-breakingly vertical slope you can find, or we’ll be shopping for your tombstone.
Remember, there’s a fine line between ‘gnarly’ and ‘Darwin Awards nominee.’
When picking your first spot, you aren’t looking for the snow-white equivalent of Mount Doom. Stick to areas that won’t leave you clinging on for dear life!
Here are a few things to consider when choosing your first spot:
- Slope: Stay mellow, my snowbound friends, at least the first time. A slope angle between 25-35 degrees is a sweet spot. Anything steeper, and you’ll need wings (or a sturdy pair of underpants).
- Terrain: Aim for open spaces, with clear exits/runouts. Picking a hill riddled with cliffs, crevasses, and other nasty obstacles is like choosing to wrestle a honey badger: downright foolhardy!
- Avalanche Rating: Getting caught in an avalanche should be avoided at all costs. Check the avalanche forecast in your chosen riding area. If they’re predicting anything beyond moderate, stay home, watch some snowboarding flicks, and live to shred another day.
- Access: Unless you’ve always dreamt of a solo “Into the Wild” experience, choose a spot with relatively comfortable access. A four-hour uphill slog isn’t anyone’s idea of a rocking good time (and if it is, seek help).
- Snow Conditions: Keep an eye on the snow reports. No point getting all pumped if the powder gods have decided to indulge somewhere else. Likewise, too much fluffy stuff can also make your outing challenging. When it comes to snow conditions, be more Goldilocks.
If your head’s spinning faster than a rookie hitting a jump, don’t fret. We all started with sweaty palms and a dizzying array of options.
Reach out to local guides, or your grizzled, bearded snowboarding mate who always smells vaguely of pine.
They’d know which spots are good for beginners and which should be reserved for backcountry gurus. It’s fine to ride with more experienced pals, but they need to be absolutely transparent about risk and the required ability level.
Never blindly trust the expert to call the shots either; always consider your own risk tolerance and plot an exit strategy.
You've Got a Friend in Me (Ride in Groups!)
Backcountry snowboarding is a hell of a lot more fun – and safer – when you’re doing it with your buddies.
You know when you watch those extreme Red Bull snowboarding videos. How often do you see them riding alone?
Hardly ever, and even if the rider is solo, they have a huge team around them recording and monitoring their safety.
Long story short, never go out alone.
Sure, it might be a smidge harder to coordinate, but that’s the price you pay for camaraderie and an extra pair of hands to dig you out.
So, for a safer and more badass backcountry experience, let’s walk (or rather, snowboard) through some tips on how to ride in groups:
1. Size Matters
Nope, not talking about your board here. For a group of snowboarding adrenaline junkies, 3-5 is the sweet spot. It’s a regular fun-sized combo. Any smaller and risk management becomes dicey, any larger and you’ll be waiting for stragglers more than you’ll be shreddin’.
2. Team-Building Skills
Here’s a protip – pick your snowboarding friends carefully. Aim for an eclectic mix of riders with diverse abilities, rescue skills, and an avalanche knowledge base wider than Bigfoot’s snowshoe. Makes for great conversations and even better rescue backup plans!
3. The Buddy System
Watch your buddy’s back (and their sick lines) to ensure no one gets swallowed by the snow or lost in the great white yonder.
Keep the lines of communication open with your pals, whether it’s through walkie-talkies, hand signals, or rock-n-roll arena-worthy hollers.
5. The Plan
Successful groups have one thing in common: they plan their routes together, scout escape routes and know what to do if someone’s having difficulty. Always be prepared, scouts!
6. Ride One by One
In avalanche prone terrain, ride each section solo. This reduces the weight on any unstable slabs, and means only one person is buried in the event of a slide. A common rookie mistake is riding in tandem, leaving nobody to rescue you!
7. Moral of the Story
Gather your motley crew of snowbound misfits and prepare for an adventure. When riding in groups: safety first, epic pow-slashing second, group huddle (followed by schnapps) when it’s all done.
Conclusion: Ride it Like You Stole it!
Well, folks, it’s been a wild ride, but like all good things, it must come to an end.
Hopefully, with these nuggets of wisdom in your pocket, you’re more equipped to conquer the snowy backcountry.
From getting in touch with your inner bodybuilder to picking a spot that doesn’t double as an Everest training ground, we’ve covered it all.
And in times of uncertainty, remember the golden rule: if in doubt, don’t go out!
So, here’s to you as you embark on the backcountry journey less traveled. Keep your head high, your board low, and your schnapps in check.
Now go conquer the slopes!