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Backcountry Basics They Didn’t Teach You in Avy 1: Backcountry Safety

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We’re all looking to have fun in the backcountry, but we can’t have fun without being safe. That safety often comes down to how well prepared you are for unexpected situations. So in this section, we’ll help you learn how to handle some of those unexpected situations, so you can focus on the fun.

If you’re just joining us, make sure you start at the beginning to get the most out of this course.

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To Bring It, or Not to Bring It?

Backcountry Basics They Didn’t Teach You in Avy 1 what to bring
(Photo: Alton Richardson)

The key with all safety gear is to bring enough gear to keep you safe, but not so much that it bogs you down. If you loaded all the safety gear some people recommend into your pack, you’d hardly be able to move. Not only would you be deathly slow—and, in the mountains, speed is safety—but you’d be exhausted by hauling all that stuff around, and you’d be more likely to injure yourself skiing. So finding that balance between enough, but not too much, is the trick.

The list of requisite safety gear is different for everyone, and for every mission. I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum.

The first time I tried to ski Mt. Rainier, my pack was so big, I could hardly lift it. Seriously. At first I thought I must be stepping on a strap that was keeping me from lifting my pack. When I realized I wasn’t, it was pretty disheartening. My sleeping bag was so big I could have slept on the moon. I had alpine skis, bindings and boots, which already amounted to 25 lbs on its own. We went to bed about the time we should have been waking up, and shortly after we started, the corn was perfect and rocks were whizzing by our heads. Needless to say, we didn’t summit.

Later in my touring career, I went on a week-long tour and didn’t even bring a sleeping pad. I flaked out the rope, laid my skins down on top of that, then my shell. I wouldn’t recommend that, either. Eventually, I found a nice balance between bringing everything but the kitchen sink, and bringing just enough.

The good news is that each person in your crew doesn’t need to have everything. Of course, everyone needs their own beacon, shovel, probe, but your first-aid kit, repair kit, bivy, and gear for an emergency sled can be distributed amongst the group.

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Prep for an Emergency

I think of prepping for an emergency this way: What do I need to bring in order to get out of here if something goes wrong? What’s going to prevent me from moving? Obviously, certain injuries or medical emergencies fall into that category. Most of the others are equipment failures. What what equipment failures will keep you from moving? A lost pole basket is a nuisance, but won’t keep you from moving, so don’t waste your weight and space by bringing one. But if your skin fails, or a binding rips out, you better have a solution.

For the most part, you want to be self-reliant. Partly because you don’t want to put somebody out every time you have a problem. And partly because it’d be a pain to have to call in help anytime something goes south.

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Building an Emergency Shelter

There are a number of things that can force you to spend the night out in the backcountry—equipment failure, injury, or getting lost, to name a few. The likelihood of having to spend the night out in the backcountry is low, but the consequences are serious. Plenty of people have frozen to death or lost digits to frostbite because they had to spend the night out in the winter. So knowing how to build a quick and emergency shelter is a key survival skill. The good news is, it’s pretty easy. The one I’m going to show you takes a minimal amount of equipment and can be built fairly quickly.

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Pro Tip: Roof Thickness

If you’re worried about making the roof too thin, dig your pit deeper in order to keep the roof thicker.

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Building an Emergency Sled

“When am I ever going to need to build an emergency sled?” The answer hopefully is never. But if someone in your party can’t ski and they’re in a dangerous area (below avalanche slope, rock fall, etc.), you need to be able to move them.

I always bring the gear to build an emergency sled and hope that I never have to use it. You can spend several hundred dollars on a sled and add a couple extra pounds to your pack. But because the likelihood of needing to build an emergency sled is low, I try not to bring any extra gear. And you don’t necessarily have to in this case. That’s my goal with all of my backcountry tools: to buy and bring tools that I can use for more than one purpose. Because of that, I can build an emergency sled using most of the things that I already have in my pack. The only additional items I carry are four bolts with matching wingnuts, and a few cordelettes.

Gear you’ll need to build an emergency sled

  • 5 meters of 5-6mm paracord
  • 4 bolts (about 1.75” long and .25” in diameter, though length and diameter will depend on the size of holes in your ski tips and tails as well as your shovel) with fitting wingnuts
  • 2 ski straps
  • 1 avy shovel (with holes in the corners of the blade)
  • 1 pair of ski poles
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Creating a Repair Kit

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Most of what is in my repair kit is intended to fix things to the point that I can get back to the car. That way it’s not too big. As I mentioned, I don’t carry a pole basket, for instance, because losing a basket is merely a nuisance. It won’t stop me from moving. Some of this depends on how long you’re out. If it’s just a day tour, you don’t need that much. If it’s a weeklong tour, you’ll need a bit more. For instance, if your boot buckle breaks on a day tour, you’ll be able to make it back to the car. If it breaks on the third day of a weeklong trip, you’ll want a solution. Not all of this stuff is in my actual repair kit. Some of it I’m likely to use more often or it’s simply easier to carry it elsewhere. For instance, my multi-tool, I may use to cut food, so it’s accessible. I put duct tape on my poles so it doesn’t take up room in my pack and I can use it as a handle. As you just heard, heere’s what I have with me.

Backcountry Basics They Didn’t Teach You in Avy 1 repair kit
  • Drill bits for boring hole in skis for emergency sled
  • Plumbers epoxy for fixing a ripped out binding
  • Multiple screws–for common touring bindings
  • Heel-a-coils
  • Zip ties
  • Voile straps
  • Duct tape
  • Cuff rivets
  • Multi-tool
    • Pliers
    • Scissors
    • Saw
  • Driver tool
    • Torx 20
    • Posi-drive #3
    • Drill bits for sled
  • Skin solutions
    • Voile straps
    • Cordelette
    • Pine bows and accessory cord or duct tape
  • Communication
    • Backcountry Basics They Didn’t Teach You in Avy 1 communication
      (Photo: Alton Richardson)

      External communication should be a last resort, but it’s a critical piece of your safety net. Cell phones are great if you have coverage. But often you don’t have coverage. Maybe you can get coverage right at the top of that hill, but what happens if you don’t have the ability to get to the top of that hill? I really like carrying a Garmin inReach satellite messenger, and some handheld GPS units like the Garmin 66i have a satellite communicator built into them.

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