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Defining the backcountry

Andrea Stockton, staff writer

March 4, 2011 — Avalanche experts say recreating in the backcountry is like swimming in a pool with no lifeguard. Why can the backcountry be so dangerous?

The backcountry is appealing because it's free and undeveloped
The backcountry is appealing because it's free and undeveloped

It's a term that's used often when describing a dangerous terrain for outdoor sports. And while recreating in the backcountry can be fatal, what does it mean exactly?

After meeting with an avalanche official in B.C., The Weather Network's reporter Oga Nwobosi says, it's an area not within ski hill boundaries and it's where most avalanches occur.

“When you step into the backcountry, you're stepping into the stone age and that's what's exciting about it,” says Niko Weis, Avalanche Safety Expert. “It's a fun place, free of people and development, but the stakes can be high.”

2011 has been a deadly season for avalanches. So far, 11 people have died in B.C. and Alberta, and all were in the backcountry.

When conditions are ripe, the avalanche risk is often bumped to considerable or even high and on the weekends when activity increases among outdoor enthusiasts, avalanche potential is likely. Although the backcountry may seem appealing because it's undeveloped, there is no avalanche control.

“There may be no avalanche forecaster and using the pool analogy, there's no lifeguard either,” explains Weis.

Backcountry users urged to follow markers and stay within bounds
Backcountry users urged to follow markers and stay within bounds

Signs and fences are in place to keep people safe. There are areas within boundaries that are grooved and stabilized by avalanche control measure. So essentially, when someone ventures out of bounds, they're likely heading into the dangerous backcountry.

“Some areas of the backcountry can be avalanche free and there's lots of great examples of places where people can recreate with almost no risk at all,” says Weis.

Still, if you choose to hit the backcountry, Weis warns that it requires proper preparation and skill level.

“It requires high end and specialized equipment to reach the true backcountry and high alpine areas. Those areas depending on weather, depending on conditions can be quite hostile.”

Find out more on surviving the avalanche season. You can also monitor the Ski Report for an up-to-date look at the conditions in your area.

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