Backcountry Awareness with Coast Mountain Guides
To many, it’s a place of mystery and things unknown. To others, it’s an escape from reality. The mountains, forests and streams bring wonder to the imagination and calm to our busy minds. With ever-changing paths through life, it’s easy to forget those moments that bring us joy – the passions that drive us. For Professional mountain guides Guillaume Otis and JF Plouffe, it’s one of the places they call home.
But this “home,” although beautiful and awe-inspiring, comes with many risks. As lead guides at Coast Mountain Guides, it is their job to navigate these risks and to lead others safely through the backcountry. With decades of experience between the two of them, these Québec natives guide clients on a multitude of expeditions, and host courses featuring crevasse rescue, rock rescue, and avalanche safety.
Keep scrolling to learn more about safety, survival, and the importance of great gear.
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Many of us forget that there is much more to planning a trip into the wild beyond grabbing a bottle of water and slapping on our sturdiest boots. There’s weather to consider, terrain to evaluate and extra gear to pack. It’s imperative to consider your own mindset as well as to make a realistic evaluation of your intended teammates.
You can have the best gear in the world but still make bad decisions. Take courses, practice your skills, and go with people who have more experience than you.
We recently collaborated with Coast Mountain Guides to create a “Backcountry Awareness” video series. Watch the first video here!
Throughout the series, both Guillaume and JF share a literal glimpse into their backpacks and share snippets of their vast expert knowledge – all in the hopes that we of the non-professional variety can venture more safely into the backcountry and make informed decisions.
Sound like serious business? It is!
PLANNING FOR A BACKCOUNTRY TRIP
Often as we gain more experience, we find ourselves becoming complacent. Beginners and experts alike should always take the time to adequately prepare for a journey into the backcountry. In fact, before even venturing out his front door in beautiful Squamish, JF plans out his entire trip. Planning is a crucial and necessary part of outdoor exploration and will help you safely navigate your route.
What are the skills I need for this trip?
Every ounce of preparation for your day should lead you towards one thought – “How can I improve my chance of surviving if something doesn’t go according to plan?” Educating yourself with online resources is a great start, but it will never replace the certification that comes through courses like AST, rock and crevasse rescue, and mountaineering classes. Before you head into the backcountry, answer this – “Could I rescue my companion if they were buried in an avalanche? Could they rescue me?”
In addition to needed courses, there are more overlooked skill sets that need to be a primary focus of any wilderness enthusiast. The most important of these is the ability to build fire. In an emergency, a fire provides many outlets for survival. It provides warmth, a means to cook and boil water, it discourages visits from wildlife, and can act as a signal for help.
Where am I going?
Decide if you are using a physical map or an app on your phone. Be honest with yourself – do you know how to properly use these tools? If relying on an app, you’ll also need to consider if it will function given the potential lack of cell service. Do you have a compass and a familiarity with proper orienteering?
What is the weather like?
The first thing you should do is check the weather reports for your intended area of travel. Guillaume also stresses the importance of educating yourself on how to read the weather. Anticipate what cloud formations represent and know how to decipher weather patterns. This will play a large role in planning your day.
If heading into avalanche territory, what is the hazard rating?
Both guides cannot stress enough that this is a big one. Even the most knowledgeable and expert backcountry travelers check the avalanche hazard ratings in their area.
Every. Single. Trip.
Remember, appearances can be deceptive. Calm conditions don’t necessarily mean a safe or trustworthy snowpack. When still learning about safety in the snow, a trusted method is to assume that every area you’re traveling through with surrounding slopes is avalanche territory. JF and Guillaume suggest utilizing Avalanche Canada as a resource when scoping a touring destination. Knowing the avalanche risk doesn’t apply solely to backcountry skiers and snowboarders, but also to snowshoers and snowmobilers. Some days, the risk is too great, and the most experienced outdoor travelers will scrap their Plan A in favour of a wiser and safer Plan B. The goal is to always make smart decisions and to stay alive. Think of a bluebird day or stumbling upon a stash of powder as an added bonus as opposed to your ultimate objective.
What kind of gear do I need?
Once you’ve determined the risks, it’s time to create a packing list. This should be based on the type of activity you have planned, the expected weather, and how long you intend to be gone.
Who is coming with me?
Whether travelling with a single companion or in a larger group, you need to know your team. Understanding their level of fitness compared to yours is imperative in planning a trip that is safe, but also enjoyable for everyone in the party. Remember, group etiquette dictates that “you are only as fast as your slowest person.” All members should be up-front about their level of experience, as everyone in the group will depend on one another, especially in the face of an emergency.
Have I told someone where I’m going?
One of the easiest but most responsible things you can do when planning a trip into the backcountry is to let a trusted individual know what your route plan and destination is. Decide on a date and time you intend to return, and in the event that you do not contact them by the set time, this person will be the one to call in a search and rescue team. (Hopefully you’ve prepared yourself to survive through a night with proper packing and gear!)
When you’re traveling in the backcountry, Guillaume emphasizes that proper communication is something that should never be overlooked.
Communication is the first aspect that collapses when there is an accident.
One of the smallest communication pieces you can carry is a whistle. There’s no simpler way to alarm your friends if there’s something to be made aware of. Ideally, everyone in your party has a radio so that you can communicate as a group about the surrounding conditions and the decisions that need to be made. The backcountry is a big place, and cell phone coverage should never be relied upon. For this reason, a satellite device is key. Communication within your group and face to face is necessary, but one also needs to be able to communicate with the outside world and potential rescue organizations.
Additionally, group members need to feel secure in speaking up if a scenario makes them uncomfortable. It’s quite common to step outside one’s comfort zone in the backcountry, but to push the limits of your safety boundary can put both you and your teammates at risk. Remember, you’re relying on each other – each of you represent a lifeline which connects the entire group.
Don’t be afraid of speaking up. You’ll come back home with smiles on your faces.
backcountry PACKING tips
Your backpack could arguably be one of the most important pieces of your gear. It is the item that condenses and holds all of your necessary objects. Referring to a packing guide can ensure ease of access to important items and comfort. (Not to mention remembering all of the essentials!) If heading out for a day of ski touring, a beacon, probe and shovel should be the first items that come to mind. As life-saving pieces of equipment, they need to be easily accessible.
Coast Mountain Guides refer to these 10 Essentials for every trip. In addition, here are four items that people often overlook that can make or break any backcountry trip:
- 3 pairs of gloves – 1 small pair for uphill travel, and 2 larger gauntlet-style HH gloves for protection from wind, snow, and unforeseen events.
- A 10’ x 12’ tarp – Preferably of a light material like silk. This is used as an extremely quick shelter in adverse weather conditions. It can be as easy as simply passing the tarp over the people in your party.
- Spare Base layer – Even if you’re only heading out for a day trip, you should always bring an extra base layer. These are perfect for transitions and also very handy in the event of mishaps. Find your perfect HH base layer here
- Blister Pack – Blisters. The bane of the back country. JF recognizes that these nasty little fiends can happen to anyone – novice and experts alike. Always carry a blister kit at the very top of your backpack for easy access because a one of these small bothers can uproot your entire day.
The backcountry is an exciting place, and it provides a different adventure each time we set foot in the mountains and forests. But to venture out into it, we need to be prepared each time and in several different aspects. Trust is paramount in the wild. Trust in yourself, in your teammates, and in your gear. Assume responsibility for your actions, especially if acting as the leader of a group. Be prepared and refresh your knowledge at the start of each new season. Brush up on your transceiver skills, practice packing your backpack and ensure that your gear is still in good working condition.
If you still feel uncertain or would like to advance your skill set, consider hiring a guide or taking additional courses. We just happen to know two pros who would love to take you out into the mountains!
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To learn more about JF and Guillaume, or sign up for a backcountry course, visit
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Tune in to the “Backcountry Awareness” series every Tuesday on our Facebook page!
Photos by Michael Overbeck