Backcountry Basics With Dave Downing

Seven Steps For Your First Trip Out-Of-Bounds

I started snowboarding in Big Bear, California, so backcountry riding may as well have taken place on another planet. I’d see photos of Craig Kelly riding waist-deep powder and all I could do was dream-I was shredding man-made snow in a T-shirt. Then it dumped five feet in a single week at Big Bear and dreams became reality. My first backcountry experience was a short hike off the chair at Bear Mountain, riding a tree run through untracked powder. Fifteen years later, I’m truly addicted to riding on my own terms in the backcountry.

Everyone is scared of the unknown. Initially, I was freaked out at leaving the general population and security of a ski resort, so I started learning and venturing into the backcountry a little at a time. Today, I’m still learning. Over the years, backcountry access has been a free ticket to some of the best snowboarding runs of my life! I’m not going to lie and say backcountry runs are easy to come by. It’s hard work, but that’s what makes it so rewarding and special. Here are some simple tips to make your first day in the backcountry a safe, enjoyable experience, rather than a frustrating one. Remember, becoming knowledgeable in the backcountry is a long-term commitment-just take it one step at a time.

Before leaving a ski area boundary, you should first be comfortable riding powder and challenging terrain within the resort.

Always carry avalanche-safety gear: an avalanche transceiver, probe, and shovel. It’s not good enough just to have this stuff-you need to learn how to use it and continually practice.

Check the local avalanche-forecast center in your area ( and the avalanche report at your resort. Also, check the local weather. If it’s your first day out, you don’t want to venture out in a snowstorm with poor visibility.

Travel with another person or a small group of people comfortable using their avalanche-safety gear and who ride at an equal level.

A great place to start is at a ski resort with a backcountry-access gate from the ski lift. This way you can hike out, and return to the safety of a resort. Don’t just ride off into the unknown. Look to see where you’re going and have a plan as to where you’ll reenter the resort.

Wear quality outerwear, gloves, boots, and goggles. Also, have an extra pair of gloves and goggles in your backpack. Cold hands and snowpacked goggles will ruin your day.

Bring along food and water. If you’re accessing backcountry from the resort, an energy bar and water bottle will do the trick. You don’t want to carry too much crap in your pack-keep it simple.

Next month we’ll explore more ways to make your backcountry experience safer, easier, and more enjoyable-D.D.


Recommended Reading

Staying Alive In Avalanche Terrain By Bruce Tremper. Director of the Utah Avalanche Center Bruce Tremper offers a wealth of valuable information in a readable, easy to digest format complete with many photos and illustrations.


Free Riding In Avalanche Terrain: A Snowboarders Handbook by Bruce Jamieson & Jennie McDonald.

A snowboard specific avalanche handbook produced by the Canadian Avalanche Association. A short read at only 74 pages, and a great start toward further education.


The Avalanche Handbook by David McClung & Peter Schaerer. An outgrowth of the US Forest Service’s Avalanche Handbook published in 1976, the revised and rewritten edition is a highly technical piece referenced by avalanche professionals. It contains much detailed info for riders frequenting the backcountry.


Avalanche Centers On The Web

The site links directly to avalanche centers throughout the U.S.

Sierra Avalanche Center

Colorado Avalanche Information Center –

Utah Avalanche Center

>Northwest Weather And Avalanche Center

Canada Avalanche Info