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A Guide to Backcountry Skiing + Splitboarding Amid a Pandemic

By Katherine Donnelly on

After a halted 2019/20 season due to the arrival of COVID-19, we're all lusting after some on-snow redemption. 

Sure, we know a bit more about this virus than we did back in March and we have all adapted to a new 'normal'. We wear masks now, we're really good at washing our hands (never thought this would be a brag...), and we have hand sanitizer in our pocket wherever we go. But despite there being better testing options, promising new treatments available, and the possibility of a vaccine coming in the new year, COVID should not be underestimated. This is a very real threat to many people, and even those who aren't considered high-risk should remain vigilant to maintaining a safe space for everyone - both in and out of bounds.

The lowdown on resorts

It's been a summer full of news updates and alerts from resorts both large and small reporting their upcoming strategy to what is sure to be an interesting Winter. From closing down gondolas and trams, rethinking parking lots, adding day-of reservation systems, halting lodge amenities, and limiting on-hill capacities, we think it's safe to say that we're in for a snow season like nothing we've ever experienced. 

Learn more: What to Expect at US Ski Resorts This Winter

A growing backcountry community

Many folks still plan to hit up their local resort this season but for many others who have typically called in-bounds home, the allure of the backcountry (and slack/sidecountry) has piqued their interest. Maybe you are one of these people making the switch, or maybe you've left the lift lines long ago; regardless of your experience level in the backcountry - whether you're a first-timer, a dabbler, or a long-time backcountry aficionado - it is crucial that everyone does their best to maintain a safe and healthy atmosphere when embarking on a tour this winter. 

This is not an article about avalanche education and backcountry training, although we never miss an opportunity to urge every single person to take a course, keep practicing your skills, and stay alert. Instead, this article is all about navigating the Winter backcountry scene while COVID-19 still runs rampant. Another title to this article could be, "Steps to being a good person in the backcountry this season," or something along those lines...

A preface: don't give in to 'powder fever'

As you read this, you may find yourself thinking, "well, yeah. Obviously." Many of the items we touch upon here are in fact quite obvious to a lot of outdoor enthusiasts. But in our time and experience with backcountry travel, we've found that many people seem to loose their common sense practices when a powder day approaches - or what we like to call 'powder fever'. We get it, powder is awesome. Getting first tracks is awesome. But there's a lot at stake here and this winter, more so than ever, we all need to be weary and cautious about our actions. 

So as you make plans to head into the mountains, please be prepared, try to stay calm despite that 'powder fever' setting in, and make logical and smart decisions. This goes for the entire process of backcountry skiing and splitboarding, from route planning, picking and communicating with your partners for the day, making the day-of morning call, traveling to the trailhead, navigating traffic, parking, and the decision-making throughout it all. We will elaborate more in the following text, but don't let the fear of missing out on fresh snow lure you into making poor choices.

1. If you are sick or have been exposed, stay home.

This is the most simple bullet on this list, and should not require much explanation. If you are not feeling well, are exhibiting symptoms, or have been knowingly exposed to someone infected with COVID-19, stay home. Get better, give yourself the proper time to recover, and then we can talk....but for now, JUST STAY HOME! This is extra important advise with colder temps and Flu/Cold season looming, as getting a cold or the flu will further compromise your immune system and lead to even greater risk of getting the virus.

Also, if you are at a greater risk of infection from preexisting conditions, we highly recommend taking even more precaution and staying home. Better to be safe than sorry! 

2. Be smart about carpooling

Per suggested best practices during this pandemic, do not carpool - to the trailhead or to anywhere else - with anyone outside of your housing situation. Pack up the kids, your spouse, that roommate who moved in a few months back and just won't seem to find their own place...just stay away from picking up friends on the way, as being in a closed, confined space with new germs is not recommended at this time. 

3. Consider both your route and your destination

As we approach winter and the colder temps begin settling in, we're already seeing COVID cases spiking throughout the country - and the world as a whole. Stay close to home when possible. You should be prepared for closures, stay-at-home orders, and other mandates that may affect your plans. 

Consider both your final destination and the towns and communities you will be traveling through to get there. At the rate that cases are rising, healthcare systems will likely begin feeling the pressure of limited resources, beds, and personnel. This is even more likely to happen in smaller towns and rural places, many of which are home to our favorite trailheads and backcountry routes.

Please please PLEASE take a long moment before loading up your skis and venturing out to take these factors into account. Do your research, keep informed on county and township regulations, and if need be you might have to postpone a trip of use a detour to reach your destination.

4. Be prepared for emergencies

Think about how you would handle any sort of situation that could arise during your adventure, and be prepared. If you don't already have your own first aid kit, it is likely time to make or buy one - both for your car and for when you set off on your tour. Be ready to solve problems yourself without assistance, and do your best to avoid situations you are not comfortable with or equipped for.

This isn't meant to scare you, but rather instill a sense of responsibility in you and ensure that you are ready for whatever may come your way. Because when something goes wrong, you're not just putting yourself in harm's way - you're also running the chance that you will pull valuable care and resources from someone else who needs them more than you.

If you are reading this and getting nervous about your ability to handle emergency situations on your own, then consider this a not-so-gentle nudge to stay closer to home and enjoy your local natural spaces instead. 

5. Pack smart

When packing for the day, do your best to source everything you need from your own home or from your local shops. This bullet could have been consolidated with 4. Be prepared, but in hopes of really getting both points across we felt that separating them - even though redundant - would be most effective.

Calculate your fuel intake, bring all of the food and drink that you might need - and then pack extra just in case. You won't be able to borrow your touring partners water or share snacks if you run out, so pack accordingly. Like I mentioned before, stock up on first aid items. Bring your water filtration kit. Pack emergency items. Have a camping setup in case you need to spend the night somewhere. Just be ready for anything before you pull out of your driveway.

Every time you have to stop and stock up on anything, not only are you pulling from a communities resources, but you run the chance of spreading/catching the virus. Do your best to avoid situations like this to make the least amount of impact on those areas you are traveling in or through. And if you do have to stop, take every precaution to minimize your contact with others and, of course, practice good hygiene in every step. Wash those hands, folks!

P.S. This should go without saying at this point, but bring a face covering with you everywhere you go and wear it when you are in public places or in close proximity to those not from your household. Being outside and in the mountains definitely proves to help mitigate spread, but erring on the side of caution and wearing a face mask/covering at all times (and at trailheads/in parking lots) is not a bad idea. 

6. Take it easy and mitigate risk

Being skiers and snowboarders, we inherently approach risk differently than many; risk is something that we often play with, and in many cases the risk behind something only adds greater satisfaction and fulfillment. But in a time like this, we need to be more cautious about what we do and how we do it. 

Now is not the time to check off those bucket-list lines, attempt that gnarly couloir, or prove to your friends that you're the best skier on the mountain. Keep those goals in your pocket for another day, and get out on your boards for the sake of spending time outside. If anything, this is a great exercise in revisiting just what skiing and snowboarding does for our souls and truly appreciating the great outdoors. 

We as backcountry skiers and splitboarders are all familiar with the idea of mitigating risk, especially when it comes to avalanche terrain. But in today's world, we need to apply this same mindset to everything - from the drive to and from the trailhead and the way we approach our ascents and descents, to how we interact with our friends and peers while in the mountains. The global terrain stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic is full of convexities, concavities, terrain traps, wind slabs; apply your education and training to your daily lives, even when your skis are hung up and you're 'safe' at home. 

Take advantage of your AIARE training and take additional steps to ensure both yourself and those with/around you are recreating in a safe manner. Communicate openly and clearly with your group, make sure they are aware of the additional risks at hand, and come to an understanding that your day will be on the mellow side. This is not the time to skimp on your normal safety routine in the mountains, but rather enhance it for even greater conservative thinking.

An even better idea: Now's a great chance for you and your companions to take it easy on the shredding and instead work on skills. Stick to low-angle terrain and dig a pit, analyze the snowpack, mess around with your equipment, play beacon search games, or practice that anchor technique that you've been reading about. There's plenty of ways to get out for a fun day in the mountains while keeping your risk - both for yourself and anyone else out there - to a minimum.

And even without the mountains, you can run rescue scenarios with your gear in your backyard or basement. Practice your probe assembly, hide beacons in your backyard, have a transition race to go from ski mode to walk mode fastest with your roomies - now's the time to get a little creative!

7. Keep your distance

This is where things begin to get slightly iffy. There's information and numbers being thrown around all over today's media landscape, and it's hard to know what is what. How do we know who we can go near, and how close can we get? How effective are masks really, and when you're outside on a sunny day will the UV rays kill the virus? We're sticking to Colorado's original take on the situation and will be practicing "ski feet away" - an easy and fun way to keep at least 6 feet, or approximately a ski's length, between you and anyone you encounter on the hill.

To be extra safe, though, it couldn't hurt to keep more than 6 feet between yourself and anyone not from your household. Just saying...

8. Don't be an a*hole driver

We apologize for the language, but this one really gets to us. 

More and more people are getting out into the mountains to enjoy some fresh air and social 'distance', which has led to crowding at some of the more popular and easily-accessible locations. This isn't anything new, but with the addition of COVID on top of everything else, it really has become a big issue. 

Drive safe. Be courteous. Stay calm. 

'Powder fever' can make people act pretty crazy. Again, we get it. But that doesn't give you the right to create a new parking spot on the side of the icy road just so you can go on that adventure you've been lusting after. Follow the rules, pay attention to signage, and don't get angry with parking attendants or public land employees who are just out there doing their jobs.

If you pull up to a trailhead and find it packed, don't park, don't get out, and don't start a tour. If you have another place in mind that you think will be less crowded, give it a go -- but don't add to the chaos and join the crowds. It is only socially distancing when you are not surrounded by people. 

9. Practice kindness

We're all in this together, this is a crazy time to be alive, and we're all at least a little bit on edge (whether we want to admit it or not).

It is easy to let yourself unravel when something doesn't go your way, but it is important for you to keep a level head throughout everything. It doesn't matter if you are walking your dog around the neighborhood or skiing somewhere far away in the mountains, you need to treat everyone you meet with respect and compassion. Keep your temper in check, and don't take your fear or anxiety out on others. Be kind, smile, and laugh. Make the best of your situation, whatever it may be, and do your best to keep morale up. This is a great chance to practice kindness and spread the love (from at least 6 feet away)!

So in summation, let's all remember to take deep breathes and have perspective. This Winter will be interesting to say the least, and while it might feel like missing a powder day or having to cancel your annual ski trip is the end of the world in that moment, it really isn't. There will be more powder days, more ski trips, and more adventures to come, just maybe not this year.

There are thousands upon thousands of people out there who are struggling, and to go into the backcountry (and even be thinking about skiing or snowboarding) right now is an incredible privilege. At the end of the day, it's important to show kindness and empathy to our peers, and be grateful for what we do have. 


We welcome everyone to share their thoughts in the comment section below, including tips and tricks of their own for getting out amid the pandemic.

If you have any questions, concerns, or disagree with me on anything included in this article, let's talk! Just email me at and please keep an open mind, as I will do the same. We're all just trying our best to get through these trying times, and I am 100% open to discussing with you how we can best guide our community in this while practicing what we preach.

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