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

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One of the most crucial parts of any ski tour is the planning you put into it before you get to the trailhead. In this section we’ll go in-depth on how to best plan a tour, including everything from how long it’ll take and what routes are safe to reading an avalanche report and having a backup plan.

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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Avalanche Reports

Backcountry Basics They Didn’t Teach You in Avy 1 avy report 5 day

Even before the morning of your tour, follow the avy report for the last week or at least the last several days to understand the trends. Even better, subscribe to the avy report, so it’s delivered to your inbox daily. Here are some things to consider:

    • Weather. What’s happened overnight? What is the forecast? Is it contributing (or will it contribute) to instability?
    • Terrain. How steep is safe today?
    • Snowpack. What are the avalanche problems I’m looking for (wind slab, storm slab, persistent weak layer, etc.) and where am I likely to find them? What tests will help me find them and determine their strength?
    • Other concerns: difficult snow, thin snowpack, cold temps, and wind chill
      • Open/closed terrain. Put all of the above info together to close (avoid)  certain terrain based on aspect/elevation/steepness. What aspects/elevations are likely to have the best skiing?
      • Human factor. How many people? Fitness level, skiing ability, risk tolerance, experience level. Which facets are in the group?

Remember the avalanche reports cover a huge amount of terrain and what happens in one zone may be quite different from what happens just a ridgeline or two away. What types of tests or things am I looking for to prove or disprove my hypothesis? Well, for instance, if the report says there’s been steady northwest winds overnight, you’ll want to look for evidence of that and see if there are wind pillows developing on southeast ridges.

Avalanche Report Examples

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Choosing an Objective

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The problem with choosing an objective first, is that it might not fit into the parameters that you’ve deemed safe for the day, so you start to justify why it’s OK to make an exception. That’s when you get into trouble. For instance, perhaps the zone fits within your slope angle requirements of under 35 degrees, but there’s been a moderate southwest wind all night with 6 inches of new snow over the last 48 hours. That means there’s snow available for transport, and the slope you want to ski is northeast facing, and the top is exposed.

Remember the avalanche reports cover a huge amount of terrain and what happens in one zone may be quite different from what happens just a ridgeline or two away. What are the things you want to learn that aren’t available in the avy report? How windy is it? Direction? Moving snow? What tests will be useful?

A run list is a great way to help keep yourself organized, and keep yourself honest, when trying to determine where to ski. Download this run list spreadsheet as a template, and use it as it is, or tailor it to meet your needs. Here are the components a good run list should have:

  • Run name
  • Incline/steepness
  • Aspect
  • Elevation range
  • Total vertical gain/loss
  • Map quadrant/range
  • Notes: exposed entrance, rocky entrance, etc
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Setting Up a Tour

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Utilizing Gaia GPS

Gaia GPS is part of your Outside+ membership, so take full advantage of the valuable tool (all year long). If you’re unfamiliar with Gaia GPS, here’s a helpful link to get you started, and below are some of our favorite tools and tips within the app.

  1. Backcountry Basics They Didn’t Teach You in Avy 1 Gaia GPS Setup
    (Photo: Alton Richardson)

    Gaia Topo: Detailed go-to topographic map — shows you exactly what you need at each zoom level without cluttering up your screen. With it’s small file size, you can easily download an entire state or sprawling wilderness areas so you’re never caught without access to a map.

  2. Satellite Topo: Combines the best features of the Gaia Topo base map with ESRI world satellite imagery on a single, easy-to-use layer. Great for seeing tree cover and possible avalanche slide paths, rocky outcroppings or other terrain features.
  3. Slope Angle: More easily identify areas with slope angles prone to avalanches to help plan a safer route through the backcountry. This tool should be used as an indicator, but will not be accurate when zooming in tight on specific terrain. It’s still important to measure slope angle in the moment and not rely on this map as a source of truth.
  4. Avalanche Forecast: Official, up-to-date avalanche forecasts from the American Avalanche Association and USFS National Avalanche Center. View the color-coded North American Avalanche Danger Scale for your region so you know the risk of potential avalanches on your planned route.
  5. Snow Depth: Based on data predictions that are best for checking seasonal snow-cover rather than exact snowfall totals. It is most useful for getting a general sense of coverage in early or late season, but local snotel sites are more reliable.
  6. Snow Forecast (24, 48, & 72-hour): Color-coded shading shows expected snow accumulation straight from NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center. Knowing the snow forecast is helpful for make decisions about where and when you want to get out.
  7. Snow Stations (Daily): Tap into hundreds of remote SNOTEL and Canadian weather sensors that measure how much snow fell over the last 24 hours in mountain zones around the west. Updated hourly, this map also gives water density readings so you know if the snow is light or heavy.
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Calculating Tour Time

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The Münter Method

Calculating tour time is important for the simple reason of knowing how long your tour should take and how early you need to start to be back before dark. But depending on the time of year and snowpack, it could be critical to making sure you get to the desired slope when it’s corn instead of rock hard or already sloppy and dangerous. Here’s a recap on how to use the Münter method. And, be sure to download this spreadsheet, which already has the formulas created, to dial in timing for your next tour.

  • 1 point for every 100m gain and 1 point for each kilometer
  • Divide by four for climbing and by 10 for descending

What affects the time calculation?

  • Add time for breaks and transitions. For instance, a 4,000′ day when you’re climbing and skiing one peak will be faster than a 4,000′ day that’s broken into four 1,000′ slopes and requires 7 transitions.
  • Snow. Are you breaking trail through 16″ new or skinning on frozen corn?
  • Navigation. Is navigating difficult and in complicated terrain, or is the route simple and visible with good weather?

Actual vs. Estimated

Take note of how long the route actually takes you vs. estimated to zero in on your time calculation; are you faster than projected, slower? Note what things may have sped up or slowed you down.

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Route Navigation

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Contour Lines

Just because Gaia GPS shows the slope you’re planning to ski at 30 degrees, doesn’t mean there aren’t steeper sections in your zone. With 40′ contours, a 39′ cliff won’t show up. So you could have a 38 degree section on your route that you didn’t know about. Those are the types of things that you need to be aware of when you’re out in the field.

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Having a Plan B

Plan A/B Descent Routes

When the wind is howling, everybody is tired and cold after a long day of touring, and you’ve finally gotten to your planned descent but realize that the entrance is wind loaded and you don’t have another way in, this is no time to start thinking about an alternative route. Have a plan B mapped out beforehand, so you’re not trying to figure this out on the fly and tempted to ski something that’s not safe.

Take pictures. Not just for your Instagram feed, but you can take pics at various spots on your route and Gaia GPS can save them. This is super helpful for future tours and identifying terrain, snowpack, etc., so when you go back at another time of year, etc. you’ll know what to expect.


This is where a lot of learning takes place. Get together with your partners, preferably right after the tour and discuss the following:

  • Where were you in the most danger?
  • What would you do differently next time? Add any notes to your Gaia route.
  • Look at your actual route vs. your track and see where they differ. Why? Was there a terrain feature that you didn’t see on the map that influenced where you went?

Remember, it could be years before you do that route again, and having notes and pictures will be super helpful.

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