5 Tour Planning Tips to Help You Navigate the Backcountry Like a Guide

Learn how to spend less time futzing with maps and more time skiing powder in the backcountry.

Photo: Alton Richardson

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Navigating in the backcountry is about more than just not getting lost when you’re out in the field. Planning out your route, identifying terrain you want to avoid, and giving yourself a few bail options are a few ways you can put in some work the night before to help you make the most of your day in the backcountry; less time futzing with our maps equals more time skiing powder.

However sad it makes our parents, it’s rare to find a skier navigating with a paper map and compass in the backcountry these days. While there’s something to be said about the dying art of true route finding (and it’s certainly important to recognize our limitations should our phone or GPS run out of battery), tons of tools, apps, and devices have allowed us to get familiar with new terrain and be more prepared than ever.

Lani Bruntz, a ski guide and avalanche instructor based in Crested Butte, loves the challenge of putting together a ski tour in a new range. This past spring, she spent a month skiing on Denali with the park service, and two years ago she and ski partner Mali Noyes became the first skiers to traverse the Wastach Ultimate Ridge Linkup (WURL) in the winter. Here are some of the tools Bruntz uses for finding her way in the backcountry, whether it’s her first time to a mountain range or a hidden corner of her own backyard.

Learn how to read weather and snow reports to assess avalanche conditions and risks 

Trip Planning

Mt Toll Google Earth Satellite Image

Start with satellite imagery

If you’re headed to a new zone, doing some research with satellite imagery and topo maps on your desktop is a great place to start to get your bearings. “If it’s a totally new area, I’ll start with Google Earth since it has the best satellite imagery,” says Bruntz. “That’s the best way to scope a new zone and give me some inspiration for what I want to ski. It also helps me find those safe uptracks, low angle options, ridges, and densely forested sections to look at when I need to figure out how to get up something.”

Hone in on topographical details

Once she’s gotten a lay of the land with satellite imagery, Bruntz turns to CalTopo to start building her trip plan. “That’s where I’ll go to measure distances, hone in on the slope angles, and get a picture of how long something will take,” she says. Bruntz utilizes the slope angle shading layer on CalTopo all the time, especially midwinter in Colorado when the continental snowpack keeps steep lines off the table. On CalTopo, you can draw your own route, then export it as a GPX file and open it through a navigation app on your phone for easy reference in the field. You can also upload it back into Google Earth to see your route on the slope and check for accuracy.

Make a Plan B and C

If you’ve got an ambitious tour plan—say you’re hoping to knock out a dream line or ski in some bigger avalanche terrain—put together a few alternatives so you don’t get locked into skiing something high consequence if the weather or stability isn’t lining up. On a trip last winter in the Tetons, Bruntz and her group had been hoping to ski some big terrain during a five-day winter camping trip on Jackson Lake. A surprise storm hammered the whole range with over a foot of snow, nixing pretty much everything they had hoped to do. “We spent a ton of time looking back to our maps to find low angle options,” she says. “It was a tricky zone to find that safer skiing, so we really had to rely on those tools every day.”

In the Field

Using Gaia GPS to navigate while backcountry skiing
(Photo: Alton Richardson)

Upload route info into a backcountry navigation app

Once you’ve got your tour plan mapped out, upload it to an app you can have handy in the field, like Gaia or onX Backcountry, then download the zone you’ll be in for usability offline. “Gaia is my go to for in-the-field navigation,” says Bruntz. “It’s easy to toggle between layers and base maps while I’m skiing, and it makes it really easy to add notes and observations. I can snap a photo of an avalanche or a layer, or anything I want to remember, and it populates in the Gaia app right onto the map.”

Go deeper into backcountry navigation and tour planning with pro skier and mountain guide Mike Hattrup

Track yourself on the go

Both Gaia and onX allow you to track yourself throughout the day, so you can check your work and make sure you’re on route. It’s also helpful to have a recording of where you’ve been, in case a storm rolls in and what was once familiar terrain feels like the inside of a ping pong ball. Navigation tools become crucial in a whiteout, no matter how often you’ve skied there. If you plan to navigate with your phone, be sure to have a backup in case your phone dies. Tracking yourself sucks battery life quickly, and Bruntz recommends carrying an extra battery pack or a paper map when you’re out for a longer trip.

Even in your home terrain, having a route planned out ahead of time is a great way to get a feel for what everyone is hoping to get out of the day. Finding out at the trailhead that someone has a major time constraint or wants to spend the day digging snow pits isn’t an ideal time to have to come up with a new plan.

“When you’re out with friends and just want to enjoy each other’s company, it’s so nice to have a dialed trip plan ready to go, so we’re not doing all this massive back and forth about what we should do,” says Bruntz. “It’s best to make that plan when you’re warm, hydrated, and not hungry.”

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