While backcountry skiers can avoid crowds and access fresh powder, skiing in an uncontrolled environment means that you are solely responsible for assessing risk and managing emergency situations. In the backcountry, even a sprained ankle can become a life threatening injury if you aren't prepared to survive overnight in the snow. And of course, there is a real danger of getting injured or killed by an avalanche.
Backcountry Ski Gear
It is imperative that backcountry skiers are skilled in mountain travel, trained in wilderness first aid, carry avalanche safety gear and most importantly - know how to use it.
For tips and suggestions on how to choose backcountry skiing gear such as skis, boots, bindings, skins and backpacks, check out this resource page on Skiing the Backcountry.com.
Learning how to stay safe in backcountry ski terrain is a lifetime process that requires in-depth study and constant practice. Backcountry skiing without a guide is NOT an appropriate activity for most recreational skiers, families on vacation, or anyone who is "fitness-challenged". Think twice before you duck under the ski area boundary rope! There are many resources for skiers who would like to venture into backcountry terrain.
A good introduction to the sport - BACKCOUNTRY SKIING: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering" was published last year. Bruce Temper's "Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain" is a thorough introduction to avalanche safety.
However, most people need hands-on experience before they are truly ready to head out of bounds. Level 1 Avalanche Safety Courses are available throughout the country to introduce recreational skiers to backcountry skiing. Click here to find a course near you.
Avalanche Safety Gear
It's always possible for even the most knowledgeable and cautious backcountry skiers to get caught in an avalanche or come across another group that has been in an avalanche. For this reason, all backcountry skiers should always carry avalanche safety gear. This includes:
1) an avalanche beacon (also known as a transceiver)
2) an avalanche shovel
3) a probe
4) a backcountry skiing partner who also has rescue gear and training. Skiing alone in the backcountry is never a good idea.
Many avalanche professionals suggest also wearing an Avalung, which is a device to help you breathe if buried by snow. Even better, there is a product called the Snowpulse Avalanche Airbag that is proven to prevent most avalanche burials and protect your vital organs from trauma. This product has undergone extensive testing in Europe, and is scheduled to be available in US stores this year.
Avalanche Safety Gear Guide
For tips and suggestions on how to choose avalanche safety gear (beacon, shovel, probe, etc), check out this resource page on Skiing the Backcountry.com.