Backcountry sports are the most thrilling winter activities imaginable. From snowshoeing and cross-country skiing to alpine skiing and hiking, nothing can match the feeling of adventure and discovery experienced while traveling, literally, off the beaten path. Unsurprisingly, this type of adventure comes with its share of risks. The most common, obvious, and deadly? Avalanches. Yes, you heard that right—Nordic skiing requires a careful study of avalanche warnings.
You might be thinking: I thought avalanches only affected mountains. I thought only downhill skiers needed to worry about them. In fact, an avalanche will destroy everything in its path; it one occurs far enough down the mountain, or if it gains enough speed, it will blow through roads, towns, and valleys. This means your backcountry Nordic skiing—even your trail-specific Nordic skiing—could be at risk.
Take note: I am not advocating for Nordic ski abstinence. In fact, this danger makes the sport even more thrilling. I am, however, advocating for proper education and preparation in case you get caught up on an avalanche while doing some backcountry exploring. Appropriate preparation begins with reading the Avalanche Danger Scale. Before setting off on a backcountry trip—whether you’re planning to just take the day or do a week-long camp—check the Avalanche Danger Scale reporting for your area and date. This tool is used by avalanche forecasters to broadcast the potential for avalanches in a specific area. Avalanche terrain is often defined as a steep slope, but if you see a high avalanche danger reading, avoid that particular area—a steep slope inevitably leads to a soft plateau, and when the snow starts spilling, it won’t matter that you were on flat land.
In addition to reading the daily avalanche forecast, all backcountry explorers—whether you’re doing some alpine skiing, hiking, or Nordic skiing—should have an avalanche pack. No matter your chosen sport, you should always carry a small shovel and an avalanche receiver and probe. If you’re caught up, these tools will allow you to create an air pocket and send out a signal with your exact location. Most importantly, always wear a helmet.
Now, this post is not meant to scare you. It’s not even meant to make you afraid of avalanches. These natural slides occur with enough frequency that they have become a part of backcountry life. I just want you, dear readers and fellow Nordic ski enthusiasts, to be safe, stay prepared, and anticipate danger.