Are You Backcountry Smart?

Snowmobilers make tracks underneath a sunny blue sky

There’s no feeling quite like that of Colorado’s winter backcountry. From the crisp air against your skin and the quiet solitude of the land to the endless opportunities sprawling before you on more than 8.3 million acres of pristine public terrain, becoming immersed in nature is an exciting adventure.

Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, Colorado’s backcountry offers thrilling opportunities to take your skills to new heights and can be tremendously rewarding when you minimize risk by planning ahead. 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, make sure you do so responsibly. Find your confidence in exploring the Colorado backcountry by being prepared and having the proper training, or by exploring with a certified backcountry guide.

Follow these guidelines for safer recreation on our snowy, unmanaged terrain. Your responsible preparation and behavior now will not only protect others — it just might save your life. 

Pro tip: Colorado's volunteer backcountry search-and-rescue teams are available 24/7 for all who need them and they can be activated through a 911 call or a satellite-messaging device.

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 and making sure you have the right education and gear. It’s important to know the risks and how to safely avoid or navigate them.

First, understand the risks

It doesn’t matter what your mode of transportation is — snowmobile, snowcat, snowshoes, cross-country skis, touring skis, splitboard or simply by foot — traveling through Colorado’s wide-open snowscape can be inherently risky.

Possible risks include, but aren’t limited to, injury, getting lost, being caught in a storm, hypothermia — and even being caught in an avalanche. You can also face dangerous conditions simply by walking into the backcountry, including conditions caused by wildfires, like ash pits, falling and fallen debris, and flash floods. However, avalanches are the biggest threat to those in the Colorado backcountry, and these conditions can exist year-round if you’re exploring snowy terrain.

Because avalanches can happen in any season, it’s a good idea to brush up on your avalanche education, especially if you’re new to the backcountry. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) Resources Page is a great place to start. It includes free, self-paced online training classes that will give you a basic foundation of avalanche awareness that even casual hikers and snowshoers should have. 

Learn more about avalanche awareness, as well as observations and forecasts

Check the avalanche and weather forecasts

Colorado’s winter weather is unpredictable and changes rapidly. Avalanches can strike even the most prepared backcountry user, so if you're planning an off-piste adventure, getting the forecast — and understanding it — is paramount.

Investigate daily conditions online with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) Forecast that includes an Avalanche Danger Rating Scale and daily weather predictions as well as avalanche advisory and warning info. 

Planning ahead and keeping an eye on changing weather will ensure the safest and most enjoyable time possible. Your trip experience deserves the best conditions, so pair your plans with an optimal climate and remain flexible. Explore alternative destinations when high avalanche danger or extreme weather is expected.

Seek backcountry education and training

There are many types of education opportunities available to winter-sport enthusiasts — from basic avalanch-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 an avalanche, 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, Tyler’s Backcountry Awareness, Silverton Avalanche School, Mountain Skillz 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 newbies 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 — that includes wandering through a backcountry access point at your favorite ski resort. Bring an experienced friend, find a local coach that 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 or you’ve successfully completed it during past winters doesn't mean it’s always going to be safe on any given day. It’s important to research your route ahead of time and check recent trip reports as part of the risk-management process. The more prepared you are, the more relaxed your trip will be, especially when plans start to change.

Colorado’s environment will keep you on your toes as conditions develop quickly. Things won’t always go to plan, and 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 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. 

Invest in or rent proper equipment

If you are heading into the backcountry, carry a backpack with dedicated rescue-gear storage, navigational tools, a communication device, first-aid equipment, a headlamp, extra food and water, additional layers, a fire-starting tool and an emergency shelter. 

If you are heading into avalanche terrain, bring an avalanche transceiver, a snow shovel and a probe, and be well-practiced in using them. If you’re skiing, boarding or snowmobiling, remember your helmet and a satellite-communications device because cell phone service isn’t reliable in the backcountry. As you pack, ask yourself if you would be able to survive overnight in case of an accident. 

Remember: It’s not good enough to just have avalanche equipment with you if you don’t know how to use it. Practice with your gear regularly, preferably with your travel companion(s), and understand its many functions. Participate in trailhead-group checks to ensure the transceiver is sending a signal before you go. You and your travel companion should also do a transceiver check at the trailhead each time you go out to make sure they are working. Some trailheads in Colorado have signage that will check your transceiver for you.

Recreate Responsibly

Ready to go? Here are three ways you can take care — of yourself and others — while roaming Colorado’s powdery open country.

Be considerate:

First and foremost, be nice and respectful of others. This means avoiding excessive noise, giving others space, 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.

Be aware:

It’s easy to lose yourself in the moment while shredding through powdery peaks, but keep in mind that your activities could be putting other people, roads, homes and infrastructure at risk. Know your surroundings and what’s going on around you. Activities that may trigger avalanches include, but aren’t limited to, skiing, splitboarding, snowshoeing and snowmobiling. 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.

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.

This story was developed in partnership with the Colorado Search and Rescue Association and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.