Backcountry Safety in the Winter
Winter backcountry recreation can be tremendously rewarding, but it’s not without risk. No matter your chosen activity — from hut trips and ski touring to snowmobiling, ice fishing and more — if you plan to head off the beaten path, please do so responsibly. It’s your duty to be prepared, check the weather forecast and for area closures, and have proper training.
Follow these guidelines for safer recreation on our snowy, unmanaged terrain. Your responsible behavior now will not only protect others; it also ensures Colorado Search and Rescue’s limited volunteer resources are preserved for true backcountry emergencies.
Know Before You Go
Traveling into Colorado’s wintry landscape might be a bucket-list item for some, but it shouldn’t be done on a whim (or without proper planning — like checking the avalanche forecast, education and gear).
FIRST, UNDERSTAND THE RISKS:
Possible dangers include, but aren’t limited to, deadly avalanche accidents, injury, getting lost, being caught in a storm, hypothermia — and even freezing to death. You can also face dangerous conditions simply by walking into the backcountry, including those caused by wildfires, like ash pits, falling and fallen debris, and flash floods.
It doesn’t matter what your mode of transportation is either. Be it snowmobile, snowcat, snowshoes, cross-country skis, touring skis, splitboard or simply by foot, traveling through Colorado’s wide-open snowscape is inherently risky.
According to Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s director Dr. Ethan Greene, “On average, six people die in Colorado in avalanches each year. It is more than any other natural hazard [that’s] weather related. More people die in avalanches in Colorado — on average and in total — than any other state.”
During the 2019–20 winter season alone, Greene confirmed 3,896 recorded avalanches in Colorado; within that, 96 people were caught in 85 separate snowslides and six of those people were killed. And 581 of those recorded avalanches were human triggered. The 2020–21 winter season resulted 94 individuals caught in avalanches and 12 avalanche fatalities, doubling deaths year over year.
Greene added, "We also had two weeks in a row in December of 2020 with a record number of human-triggered avalanches as compared to the last 10 years."
The rate of survival, if you’re buried in an avalanche, is about 45 percent.
CHECK THE AVALANCHE AND WEATHER FORECASTS, BOTH ESSENTIAL TRIP-PLANNING TOOLS:
Colorado’s winter weather is unpredictable and changes rapidly. And snowslides can strike even the most prepared backcountry user. If you’re planning an off-piste adventure, getting the forecast — and understanding it — is paramount.
Investigate daily conditions online with the CAIC Forecast and its complementary Avalanche Danger Rating. Check the National Weather Service for daily weather predictions, too, which may include avalanche watch and warning info. And visit OpenSnow.com for its snow, snowpack and avalanche forecasts.
“It is important to pay attention to avalanche and weather conditions for two reasons,” Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s Greene said. “First, not all places or plans will be safe on every day — but there are almost always safe places to go. So, you need to match your plan for the trip with the conditions that you'll encounter. Second, the conditions may change during your trip. By looking at the conditions and the forecast you'll be able to plan ahead for changes in the avalanche danger.”
SEEK BACKCOUNTRY EDUCATION AND TRAINING:
There are many types of education opportunities available to winter-sport enthusiasts — from basic avy-awareness training to professional-level certifications. No matter your interests (skis, snowmobiles, etc.), you should select a class based on your activity and skill level.
If you plan to recreate where there’s a possibility of avalanches, look for a provider that will teach you a process to manage the risks. This includes being able to identify avalanche-prone terrain and choosing a route that’s suitable for the day’s hazards.
“You should look for a provider that wants to engage you in an educational process,” American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education’s executive director Vickie Hormuth said. “Be wary of any that promise to enable you to tackle big lines or bigger terrain after a single three-day experience.”
Want to learn more? Colorado Mountain School, CAIC Education, Colorado Adventure Guides, AIARE, Colorado Snowmobile Association, Bluebird Backcountry, Tyler’s Backcountry Awareness and Colorado Mountain Club all offer backcountry-education opportunities. And, for those thinking about recreating on avalanche-prone terrain, an intro class like AIARE Avalanche Rescue is a must. Other helpful online tools for newbs include CAIC’s Know Before You Go course and its avalanche-resources page, along with the National Avalanche Center’s training tutorial.
Remember: Don’t venture out unless you know what you’re doing or are with someone who does. Bring an experienced friend, find a mentor or use a professional guide. A local coach can help you hone your skills over time — or hire an American Mountain Guides Association-certified guide who is responsible for keeping you safe. See the Outdoor Recreation Industry Office’s Winter Outdoor Recreation Directory for a listing of education, outfitter and guide resources >>
CHOOSE YOUR DESTINATION WITH CARE:
Just because a favorite backcountry spot is an easy summer hike doesn’t mean it’s going to be safe come winter. It’s important to research your route ahead of time as part of the risk-management process. That includes checking recent trip reports.
Also, you should be willing to stay home or pivot from your desired destination if conditions dictate. Recreating with safety in mind requires flexibility, patience and a team-focused mindset. Always have a plan B in case a trailhead is closed and/or overcrowded, or if you encounter dangerous conditions. And respecting trail closures is a must — they’re closed for a reason. Discover local, state and federal trails and track closures on the Colorado Trail Explorer (COTREX) app.
BE PREPARED FOR WINTER TRAVEL CONDITIONS:
Scan COTrip.org for travel warnings and pass-closure alerts before hitting the road. Be sure your car has winter-appropriate tires or compliant traction equipment. And, if you’re renting a vehicle, it’s best to reserve one with AWD or 4WD before heading up into the mountains.
Stock your vehicle with winter emergency gear, like extra-warm clothing, food, water, a sleeping bag and more. If you find yourself in hazardous driving conditions, often the best course of action is to pull off the highway into the nearest town to wait it out. Follow suggested safe-driving guidelines like maintaining slower speeds, accelerating at a slower rate, not using cruise control in snowy conditions and keeping your gas tank more than half full. Head here for more Colorado travel safety tips >>
INVEST IN PROPER EQUIPMENT:
If you are heading into the backcountry, especially into avalanche-prone terrain, bring an avy transceiver, a snow shovel, a probe, your helmet, a backpack with dedicated rescue-gear storage, navigational tools, a communication device, first-aid equipment, a headlamp, extra food and water, extra layers, a space blanket, a lighter and an emergency shelter.
Remember: It’s not good enough to just have an avalanche transceiver on you if you can’t operate it. You must know how to use it better than your own iPhone and keep up its regular maintenance. Practice with the device regularly and understand its many functions. Participate in trailhead-group checks to ensure the transceiver is sending a signal before you go. Your life, and the lives of those you’re traveling with, depend on it.
Ready to go? Here are four ways you can take care — of yourself and others — while roaming Colorado’s powdery open country.
First and foremost, be nice and respectful of others. This means avoiding excessive noise, giving others space and sharing the trail, controlling your pets, and preventing damage at trailheads as well as in the great outdoors. Also, be sure to tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll call to report that you're home safe, in case something goes wrong. That way, if you're overdue, your trusted friend or family member can contact the sheriff’s office that covers the trailhead.
Know your surroundings and what’s going on around you. Again, your life and the lives of those around you depend on it. High-risk sports that may trigger avalanches include, but aren’t limited to, skiing, splitboarding and snowmobiling. Make sure your activities don’t put other people, roads, homes and infrastructure at risk. Understand that backcountry users may be above or below you on mountainous terrain, and human-triggered avalanches can impact everyone in the area (not just those who are directly involved). Remember: Careless backcountry travel may trigger an avalanche that could harm or kill others.
EMBODY THE BACKCOUNTRY SPIRIT:
This one should be easy! Ask if someone needs a hand, give advice and be friendly to everyone you see — no matter their chosen sport or skill level.
Care for Colorado
The state’s untamed, majestic landscape is a gift to us all. So, please preserve its natural splendor with our Care for Colorado Principles as your guide.
TRASH THE TRASH:
Keep the backcountry pristine. Remove trash, spilled or dropped foods, or human and pet waste.
LEAVE IT AS YOU FOUND IT:
Leave trees, rocks and cultural artifacts untouched so others can experience a sense of discovery.
BE CAREFUL WITH FIRE:
Avoid making fire in areas that may scar the landscape, in parking lots or at trailheads, or in areas where there is little dead and down wood.
KEEP WILDLIFE WILD:
Winter is tough on our wildlife and they need those calories to survive until spring. Travel quietly and do not follow, feed or approach wild animals.