November 22, 2023
Looking to buff up your skills or start learning about safe travel in snowy environments? We asked the pros at Avalanche Canada about the best ways to get set for the season.
What are your top 3 backcountry travel tips?
Avalanches might not be the first thing on your mind when you're exploring mountains, but you don’t have to ski or snowboard in big terrain to be at risk. Lots of hiking and snowshoe trails are in avalanche terrain and knowing how to stay safe is an important part of travelling in the winter environment.
- Take an Avalanche Canada Training course. Avalanche Skills Training 1 (AST 1) is a must for everyone recreating in the backcountry. You’ll learn how to recognize avalanche terrain, understand forecasts, plan trips and perform a companion rescue. It’s also a great way to meet adventure partners.
- Check out our online tutorial, Avy Savvy. It’s a free, interactive introduction to avalanche safety. It’s also a great refresher for those with some education.
- Being prepared for the season starts long before the trailhead. We never head out until we’ve checked all of our gear, replaced batteries in our transceivers, and most importantly, done a few companion rescue practice scenarios with our group.
Photo: Jennifer Coulter, Field Program Supervisor at Avalanche Canada
Are there other good resources people might not know about?
Rescue at Cherry Bowl is a gripping story of a real avalanche rescue, and a great reminder that keeping your companion rescue skills sharp can save lives.
The Ice Climbing Atlas is a resource that outlines the avalanche terrain and lists historical observations for popular climbs in the Canadian Rockies. It’s spearheaded by our Avalanche Ambassador, Sarah Hueniken. It’s a must-have tool for anyone planning to ice climb this winter.
Avalanche Canada Forecasters’ Blogs are useful for in-depth analyses of the snowpack, discussions about conditions for specific areas, incidents and avalanche rescue technologies – any topic forecasters want to talk about either directly or loosely related to avalanches.
Tell us about the webinars
Avalanche Canada hosts a free webinar series on Wednesdays at 7pm PT. You need to register to secure your spot for the live sessions, but you can access the recorded webinars anytime. Topics for the 2023-24 season include recognizing avalanche terrain, trip preparedness, skiing in out-of-bounds areas and advice from Search and Rescue specialists.
Photo: Avalanche Canada, Avalache Canada mobile app
How does someone check an avalanche forecast throughout the season?
Forecasting begins November 24, 2023. Forecasts are issued every day at 4pm (a little later in Newfoundland) for the following day and include an outline of expected trends for two days after that. This three-day forecast allows you to plan ahead.
Visit avalanche.ca (for info from forecasters in Quebec, visit avalanchequebec.ca) or use the Avalanche Canada mobile app on iOS or Android. The app is also available from the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store. Make sure to check for the Avalanche Canada logo to download the right one. Use the site or app to find a region on the map or by searching a place name, then open the forecast for that specific region. We use a flexible forecasting system, so the regions change with conditions and the map may look different from day to day. Check out this video tutorial and FAQs to learn more.
You can also use the Mountain Information Network (MIN) to get updates as users add them.
Tell us more about the MIN – how does it help?
The Mountain Information Network is a free service for getting and sharing real-time, location-specific information. It’s an important tool for recreationists and forecasters to share info about riding, ice, avalanche, snowpack and weather conditions plus incidents in real time. You can post and view info on our website or through the app.
Sharing information helps others make better decisions about where and when to ride safely. It also helps forecasters provide better public information in areas where data sources are scarce, such as the northern Rocky Mountains and parts of the southern Purcells.
“You don’t need to be an expert to post on the MIN, often a simple description of the conditions and an image make an incredibly helpful report."
Photo: Avalanche Canada, K8 Mountaineering Club of Alberta during AST-1
Other than the big 3, any other safety gear you recommend?
If you’re in avalanche terrain, you must carry the right gear and know how to use it. Everyone in your group needs essential rescue gear (avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe) and the training to use it effectively in an emergency.
Other safety tools to consider:
- Avalanche airbags can help reduce the severity of the effects of being caught in an avalanche by reducing burial depth or even preventing burial. It’s important to remember though that they aren’t a “silver bullet” for avalanche safety.
- Emergency communication devices, though not a substitute for companion rescue or self-sufficiency, being able to communicate in an emergency is valuable. GPS-based devices that rely on a commercial satellite network allow you to communicate short text messages and/or location coordinates to friends and family or send emergency calls for help.
What’s the biggest myth you want to bust?
There are so many backcountry safety and avalanche myths – we could write an entire blog post about them. Probably the most important one: if your group got back safe, don’t assume you didn’t make any mistakes. We all get lucky sometimes. When you debrief at the end of the day, it’s valuable to discuss where the group might have made poor choices and got away with it.
We also want to remind people that avalanche terrain doesn’t need to be in front of you. Overhead hazard can be easy to overlook when planning a route, especially when you’re not planning to enter avalanche terrain directly.
Favourite snacks for a backcountry trip?
Our team has lots of opinions about backcountry snacks, but our go-to choices include dried mango, peanut butter and crackers, and chocolate covered almonds. They’re easy to eat on the skin track and provide lots of quick energy.
On particularly chilly days, consider bringing a hot beverage. Nothing hits the spot on a cold day quite like a flask full of hot chocolate, tea or coffee.
Must-pack items (beyond the obvious) for a ski trip?
There are so many things to make your trip safer and easier (e.g. extra layers, spare gloves) it’s hard to narrow it down. But we’d highly recommend a first aid kit and a gear repair kit. If you’re staying in a lodge or hut, earplugs are a small addition that can change your entire trip experience!