Trip preparation is key to any good mountain trip. If you get things right at this stage, chances are you'll have a great trip and go home safely with a smile on your face. Preparation helps you think about and ready yourself for the unexpected, and ties together important aspects of backcountry travel like weather and snowpack analysis, terrain assessment, human factors, and search and rescue.
Even before you start calling your buddies to get them stoked for an epic mountain trip, you should give some thought to your skill set. Do you have avalanche training? How about first aid training? Have you been practicing your beacon searches? There's a lot to learn about safe backcountry travel, and formal courses are a good way to start building your skills. However, courses are only a start, and practical field experience will help you hone those skills. So, if you haven't already done so, sign up for an introductory recreational avalanche course and a wilderness first aid course. If you're going into glaciated terrain, consider a glacier travel course. Also consider an advanced recreational avalanche course that will help improve your route-finding and terrain decision making skills.
Assuming you're trained and keen to get out in the snow, the next stage of trip planning starts at the kitchen table with a few key ingredients: maps, guidebooks, computer and phone. The more time you spend at the table, the more likely your trip will go smoothly. I start by looking up weather and snowpack information, even before I figure out where to go. Choosing the area with the best snow and weather conditions is often better than committing yourself to a destination and then seeing if the conditions there are any good.
Weather information about the three main weather factors for avalanches: precipitation, temperature, and wind can be obtained at The Canadian Avalanche Centre and Meteorological Service of Canada. You should check the public avalanche bulletin for forecast regions in western Canada at www.avalanche.ca or 1.800.667.1105. Where available, bulletins for your local area are more useful than regional forecasts for entire mountain ranges. Other sources for avalanche and weather conditions include informed locals, ski patrollers, information centre staff, hut custodians, and web discussion groups. If your region doesn't have a public avalanche bulletin, you'll need to rely on your skills and information from others even more. Most avalanche forecast centres archive their bulletins so that you can track the weather and snowpack; this is especially good for figuring out which buried weak layers are lurking in the snowpack.
Research where to go and possible routes by looking at maps and guidebooks. Oblique and aerial photographs can also be very helpful, and are included on some popular ski touring area maps. It's best to select an area with some non-avalanche terrain, especially if the avalanche danger is rated considerable or higher. Identify potentially hazardous or crux areas, safety zones, and one or two alternate routes or areas in case the weather or snowpack is not co-operative when you wake up in the morning. If you pick an area where most routes are exposed to avalanche hazards, you've reduced your options and increased your risk even before stepping out the door.
The next thing to consider is who is going on the trip and what their capabilities are. Things to consider include group size, individual experience, fitness levels, and purpose of the trip. Limiting the group size to three or four people will make communication and decision making easier, and help avoid the dreaded "herding instinct" (people tend to be bolder in larger groups). Even if there are people with different fitness levels, plan to keep the group together since splitting up sometimes leads to accidents. Everyone on the trip should have similar expectations so, if the objective is peak bagging, make sure everyone is happy with this. If it's a leisurely stroll with a 20-degree cruiser run back to the road, Joe Extreme better be happy with this. If not, perhaps Joe should go with another group.
Now that your group is all in order, the focus should turn to equipment. You should always run through an equipment check before departing. Some people do this in their head; others find a checklist works better. You should also ensure that everyone knows how to use their gear.
The more serious and longer the trip, the better planned it should be and the more serious are the consequences of forgetting something. Try to plan shorter, low-consequence trips for the first few times out each season since it's easy to forget something in the mad scramble to assemble gear. The right gear must, of course, include an avalanche beacon, collapsible shovel, and probe. Check that all your equipment works, preferably before you reach the trailhead. Other important group safety equipment includes repair (tools, duct tape, etc.) and first aid kits, extra food and warm clothing, foam pad or bivy sack (or both). Depending on the type of trip, you may also need a map, compass, altimeter, and GPS unit. Cell phones and radios can be useful in some areas. Most importantly, take along a functioning brain and the skills to use emergency equipment in case something does go wrong.
With plans and equipment all in order for your trip, a couple more things can help you out. Before you go, leave a detailed trip plan with a responsible person.
Finally, watch for the city-versus-mountain-time trap. Avalanches don't care that you have to be back at work on Monday. If the weather or snow conditions don't agree with your plan, be ready to change them or cancel your trip. By putting some thought into your trip before you head out the door, you'll greatly increase your chance of having a safe and fun trip.
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