Simple Off-Piste Safety Tips To Stay Safe in the Backcountry

Unfortunately, skiing accidents in the backcountry, resulting in both serious injury and death, still remain common despite continued outreach and education about the risks of skiing off-piste.

Accidents happen every season, and the tragic accident in January 2017 which led to the death of two high school students and a foreign tourist in Les Deux Alpes stands as a sharp reminder of the danger of off piste skiing.

Such regrettable loss of life might lead many to a blanket condemnation of off piste sports. However, rather than rue the risks of skiing overall, it is better to take a fresh look at a few simple tips to keep in mind when enjoying off-piste runs.

Here are five simple tips for staying safe in the backcountry, in light of recent accidents.

5 Simple Ways to Stay Safe While Skiing Off-Piste

1.  Respect mountain advice. 
Most resorts do not prohibit off-piste fun, but rather offer clear explicit advice, which you should follow. If corridors are sectioned off, respect signs and nets.  These are not put up by party-poopers. They are set up by knowledgeable expert skiers who know their mountain like the back of their hand.  Conditions in high-altitude area change daily; trust those who keep a close eye on off-terrain conditions and make sure you stay updated with reports in your area. Remember that conditions can change very quickly.

Never assume an area is safe just because it was yesterday, or even this morning. Be vigilant and don't take safety for granted. 

2.  Equip yourself adequately. 
Many resorts list the minimum safely equipment required to tackle certain risky runs or basins.  These items may include rope, beacons and shovel.

  Again this is practical advice being offered by people who love these hills and fresh powder as much as you do, so follow all guidelines. If you are confused about your equipment, why you need it, don't know how to use it, or think you can leave it at home, think again about whether or not you're ready to ski in the backcountry. If you don't truly feel prepared, don't convince yourself that you're capable. Instead, take a avalanche safety course, sign up for a backcountry skiing camp or lessons, or ski with a professional guide before you venture into the backcountry.

3.  Make your own terrain choices and do not influence friends, peers or skiers in your group. 
We cannot eliminate all risks from our lives, and off-piste skiing is perhaps no more dangerous than owning a motorbike or even driving a car. Moderate and rational risk-taking is after all the spice of life.  Taking risk, however, should always be an individual decision.  Do not encourage others to follow you or to share your risk, especially if you are in a position of authority, are likely to appear to others as an expert, or simply if others look up to you. This is why the teacher and group leader in the Deux Alpes incident will now be facing manslaughter charges, not because of his choice of terrain.

Even if you don't hold an official position of authority, be mindful of how you speak to others about their decision to ski a certain area. Don't peer pressure anyone into skiing any terrain they may be unsure of.

4.  Get to know the mountain. 
Venturing off piste should never be a rash decision taken on the first day of a short break in a new and unknown resort.  It should wait till you’re familiar with the mountain’s challenges, weather and other idiosyncrasies.  Get to know this old friend before you try non-traditional routes and descents. Even better: get to know the locals.  No better way to enquire about the safety of powdery runs than at the bar over a drink with someone that was born or grew up on the spot.  

5. Be happy with a happy medium between the "backcountry" and the "groomers."     
If you aren't genuinely prepared for the backcountry, be patient with yourself.

Your life can depend on it. Ease into the backcountry by improving your skills within the resort bounds.

Conquering moguls, steeps, and glades will all contribute to your ability to ski the backcountry, though keep in mind skiing off-piste is as much about learning to handle the environment (understanding avalanche risk and different types of avalanches, extreme temperatures, high altitude, lack of cell service, lack of available food and water) as it is about handling the terrain itself. Keep in mind you can can experience some backcountry fun at a resort, too. For example, many resorts keep certain trails ungroomed and maintain natural terrain, but still monitor and control for risks such as avalanches, trees, cliffs and rocks. This provides an opportunity for the adrenaline rush and thrill of going off the beaten tracks, without a serious safety risk.

Suggested For You: Skiing the "Sidecountry" 

Keep Reading: Backcountry 101: The Basics of Off-Piste Skiing

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