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Be Prepared for a Crowded Backcountry This Winter

With resort restrictions in place, it's looking like backcountry skiing will see record numbers of participants this year.

By: Kyle Frost + Save to a List

Let me start by saying this: if you have *any* plans to access the backcountry at *any* point this winter, you need to start with an AIARE Level 1 course. No excuses. Do not pass go. Get the right gear, get educated on how to make decisions, and then consider hitting the skin track.

With reservations at EPIC pass resorts, and general uncertainty about COVID, travel, and ski resorts in general, it seems altogether likely that there will be significantly more people in the backcountry this season. We saw the early affects of this last spring when resorts closed early. Brands and retailers that sell BC gear saw large purchasing spikes in March -- and a similar wave of outdoors-related buying translated into bike shops being back-ordered or sold out all summer.

This season, I think it's not unlikely that retailers (both online and brick and mortar) will be sold out of BC specific gear by the new year.

There's a very real concern that the influx of participants will lead to crowded backcountry areas, and an additional variable for skiers to consider -- inexperienced backcountry travelers. Last spring when resorts closed, places like Berthoud Pass (already a popular BC area) became unmanageable as would-be riders parked anywhere and everywhere (including on the road) just to get their turns in. Normally quiet zones were suddenly full of cars at 8am.

It seems likely that there will be more inexperienced and/or unprepared folks out there as well, which presents an increased hazard even for experienced riders. Even if you're skiing less consequential terrain, avalanches can be triggered from above by less conservative skiers, sweeping down over wide areas and affecting "safe" terrain.

Colorado already sees the nations highest average avalanche deaths per year (at 6). Last year, the COVID-related influx happened at a time when the snowpack was starting to stabilize and large avalanches become less common. An influx of inexperienced skiers in the peak of winter (when the snowpack is far more unstable) could lead to many more tragic accidents.

How can any of this be mitigated?

It's tough to say. Resorts haven't yet announced their uphill policies, which could provide a place for some to get their turns in. Hopefully brick-and-mortar retailers will encourage education as they are selling gear to an influx of customers. And even if folks make the right decision to get educated, it's unclear the affects that COVID-related social distancing policies will have on AIARE class instruction or whether there will be enough classes to meet demand.

Here in Colorado, there's a bit of a bright spot with the new resort Bluebird Backcountry, which is a backcountry-only resort outside of Steamboat. With a ski patrol, education opportunities, and backcountry rental gear, this could be a great place for the backcountry-curious to learn in a more controlled environment.

The backcountry community is already a mish-mash of skiers with different levels of risk tolerance, skill level, and often some pretty exclusionary vibes/opinions. One can only hope that the community can band together to respect local policies and try to encourage others to recreate safely.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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