Stanley Mitchell Hut in the Little Yoho Valley

Heading into the backcountry this winter? Here’s what to know

This winter, many people are expecting the backcountry’s wide-open spaces to be more popular than ever – but they’ll also be a little different due to COVID-19.

To help you plan ski days and hut trips, we chatted with Avalanche Canada and The Alpine Club of Canada to find out what’s changing. Learn about avy safety, hut bookings, and other helpful info for new or experienced backcountry users from our long-time community partners:

What’s your advice for people heading into the backcountry this year?

Avalanche Canada (AC): Get the gear, get the training, get the forecast. You don’t need to travel into avalanche terrain to get into the backcountry, but if you choose to, be prepared.

Before you head into avalanche terrain, check your regional forecast so you can plan a safe route. Every person should carry essential avalanche safety gear (transceiver, probe and shovel). It’s important that everyone also knows how to use this equipment and practises often.

This year, we’ll have a new online tutorial called Avy Savvy – it’ll be live on avalanche.ca soon. It’s an introduction to avalanches and how to stay safe in avalanche terrain, with lots of fun and interactive learning tools.

Will forecasting change due to the impacts of COVID?

AC: Avalanche Canada’s regional forecasts rely on data coming in from a variety of sources. One of the most important is InfoEx, a subscription service for professional avalanche operations in Canada. The information provided by these operations is an essential part of our forecasting data; should it be disrupted by heli and cat skiing operations remaining closed this season, our forecasts may be affected.

We’ll know more as fall progresses and we’ll adapt as necessary, but this does mean that the information you share in your Mountain Information Network reports will be more important than ever this winter.

Screenshot of Avalanche Canada app

Are there any changes to avalanche safety training courses?

AC: COVID affects the way Avalanche Canada Training courses will operate. We’re working hard to help our providers make the changes they need to offer courses safely during the pandemic, such as moving the classroom portion of the courses online.

It’s really important that people are able to access Avalanche Canada Training this season, as we’re expecting more new backcountry users than usual. If you’ve never taken an Avalanche Canada Training course, we recommend taking one before travelling into avalanche terrain.

Avalanche Canada tip: If you’ve already taken a course, refresh your skills with a companion rescue skills course. Rescue at Cherry Bowl is a good reminder of how strong rescue skills can save lives.

Instructor teaching a group of young people in the snow

Avalanche Canada Training is an essential part of learning how to use the winter backcountry safely. Photo: Demonstrating a snowpack test to a class of young women, by Agathe Bernard

Anything special for snowshoers to know?

AC: You can get to great places on snowshoes, including lots that don’t enter avalanche terrain. For the first steps on learning what avalanche terrain looks like and how to avoid it, visit avalanche.ca/start-here

If you’re not prepared to perform a companion rescue, choose a route that stays away from avalanche terrain, including hazards above the trail you’re on. If you choose to venture into avalanche terrain, then carry a transceiver, probe, and shovel, and know how to use them. And take a course through the Avalanche Canada Training program. A two-day Avalanche Skills Training is a great start. Find out more at avalanche.ca/learn.

Elizabeth Parker Hut in the Lake O’Hara area

Hut trips are perfect for skiers or snowshoers who are craving healthy outdoor activities along with more personal space than what you find at a ski resort or even on frontcountry trails. Photo: Elizabeth Parker Hut in the Lake O’Hara area by Pebbleshoo.com

What should people expect if they want to book an ACC hut this winter?

Alpine Club of Canada (ACC): There are a few changes to keep everyone safer during the pandemic:

  • New reservation model: Instead of booking by the bed, you now book the whole hut. The ACC took a hard look at our previous shared accommodation model and decided it didn’t fit with what people want during a pandemic. There’s still a strong desire to recreate in the backcountry, but much less interest in spending time in a shared space with strangers. Now guests can create their own groups and control who they’ll be with at the hut, and in some cases, the entire mountain area.
  • Set number of nights: Hut bookings are now set rather than open-ended. You can book for a 2-night stay mid-week (Tuesday and Wednesday nights), a 3-night stay on weekends (Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights) or combine them for a 6-night stay. Huts are vacant on Monday and Thursday nights for cleaning and custodian checks.
  • Online booking: Rather than calling our office to see if there’s space in a hut, you can now track hut availability online. If a date is available, guests complete an online form and our staff will call for confirmation and payment. There’s a pre-screening questionnaire for everyone in a hut party, and we ask for contact information for possible contact tracing.
Inside the Elizabeth Parker Hut

At all ACC huts, sleeping mattresses, stoves, fuel, and cooking and eating utensils are included as part of your booking. Be prepared to pack out garbage, recycling and leftover food. Photo: Inside the Elizabeth Parker Hut by Barbara Budenz.

How is the ACC keeping huts clean and safe?

ACC: In addition to the exclusive booking model, we also made changes to the huts themselves, such as:

  • Reduced capacities
  • Removed extraneous stuff to make sanitizing much easier
  • Replaced fabric bench covers with more wipeable surfaces
  • Added abundant cleaning supplies and hand-sani stations

ACC hut custodians will be in the huts periodically on the off-days to conduct general maintenance, restock cleaning supplies and do the occasional deep clean. At all of our huts, guests are expected to do their own sanitizing on arrival and when leaving – this is taking responsibility for your own safety as well as looking out for the safety and well-being of others.

ACC tip: The number one item for comfort in winter? Hut booties. Other luxuries are cozy layers and a good book.

Asulkan Cabin high in Rogers Pass

Make sure to bring gear to deal with navigation, avalanches, medical incidents, gear breakdowns and communications (satellite device), along with basics like toilet paper, sunscreen and sunglasses. Photo: Asulkan Cabin high in Rogers Pass by Nicole Larson.

What’s your advice for someone planning a hut trip?

ACC: Do your research before booking. It’s nice to want to replicate a photo on Instagram, but it’s much more important to make sure that you understand what’s required to get to that place safely. Proper research includes an honest assessment of whether a trip is appropriate for your group and whether you have the equipment, knowledge, experience and fitness to do it safely.

On the other hand, there are many more beautiful places to be explored than could be fit into one season, or perhaps even a lifetime. The ACC operates 33 backcountry huts and researching lesser-known destinations often leads to the grandest adventures.

Avalanche Canada and The Alpine Club of Canada are some of MEC’s community partners. We support them with funding to help with programs like backcountry huts and avalanche skills training.

Top photo: Approaching the Stanley Mitchell Hut in the Little Yoho Valley. Credit: Pebbleshoo.com

Jumping people on a dock
MEC community partners

Organizations, groups and friends we connect with to help get people active outside.