Whether you’re backcountry skiing in March or cruising up a volcano in May, if you’re unsure of the snowpack, you need to avoid certain terrain features as you climb. On the way up, it’s always best to stick to ridges, staying off open slopes as much as possible. On a mountain’s lower flanks, make your way up through the trees, avoiding gullies that tend to funnel slides. As for the pitch, modern touring equipment lets you set much steeper skin tracks. Always keep in mind, though, that the point of climbing is to ski, so save some energy for the way down. A track that flows—as opposed to one that constantly forces you to adjust your heel lifts—lets you conserve energy, and indicates that you’re following mellow (read: safer) terrain. A great tip for setting a fluid track is to consciously avoid making kick turns, which will force you to pick a more gradual path. There are no hard rules, however: Don’t hesitate to pick a steeper line if it’s safer.
And don’t ignore downhill route-finding, either. If there’s no easy side exit to a slope you’re about to ski, or no island out of harm’s way, the risk escalates. Before you commit, look for obvious safety zones (including ridges and trees), but keep on the lookout for the subtle features as well: Can you duck under a band of rocks or grab a boulder on the side of a couloir? Is there a less slide-prone area where the snowpack is thin and you can see grass or small shrubs sticking through? Taking a moment to study your surroundings can save your behind when everything goes south.