Senior Editor

The Inertia

The backcountry is an immensely popular playground these days. Lots of peeps are getting out to play in wild snow. But who, and how many, and where? Those are numbers many groups are trying to pin-down, from avalanche forecasters to industry insiders pedaling goods to the masses. Nearly seven million backcountry skiers and snowboarders got out in 2017 according to the Winter Wildlands Alliance (citing SIA). But any details we can get about those seven million participants are important.

I just happened to be on the horn with the Utah Avalanche Center about some random business this a.m. when I started digging for info on who’s signed up for its successful Know Before You Go campaign. Quick review: the UAC basically posted a free avalanche course online for people like you and me to take (if you hadn’t heard, it’s here).

“We launched Know Before You Go (KBYG) in 2004 to reach out to younger backcountry riders that were not getting the traditional avalanche safety message,” says Trent Meisenheimer, an avalanche forecaster and education specialists with the UAC. “The program was super successful and we did a revision in 2015 with the help of athletes like Travis Rice and Jeremy Jones as well as the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Sherpas Cinema, and Redbull Media House. We wanted to bridge the gap between avalanche awareness and education so the next step was getting it online. Basically, you can sit at home in your pajamas and take a free online avalanche education course.”


Since the program was launched November 17, lots of people have been signing up for the course in their PJs, almost 5,000, according to the UAC, from all over the world. So, estimating from analytical data on visits to the UAC’s registration page, half its students are from the U.S., while 10 percent are in Canada with the rest coming from European countries. Of the U.S. students, approximately 26 percent are from Utah, 15 percent hail from Colorado, 11 percent from California and 10 percent are from Washington with all other states comprising the rest. Remember, these are rough estimates, but interesting nonetheless.

Nothing groundbreaking, here, and admittedly rather obvious, but the hefty Utah participation probably has to do with the program’s roots. But definitely shows that the message still has a lot of room to be shared with the backcountry community at large (so do it).

“One thing that caught me by surprise was the breakdown by experience and ability level, it’s pretty uniform,” said Paul Diegel, special projects director with the UAC. “We expected to get a lot of newbies, but we looked at the pie chart and it’s pretty even from, ‘never been out,’ to ‘been out a little bit,’ to ‘been out a lot,’ to ‘experienced professional.’ A lot of people are using it as a refresher course.”


One more interesting tidbit from my conversation with the UAC was that they and other organizations within the state no longer look at the backcountry as a niche but basically as a separate ski area in terms of the amount of people out there.

“It’s definitely not a niche anymore,” says Diegel. “From our studies, backcountry skiers versus resort users, the total number of backcountry users in the Wasatch per year is about equivalent to what one of the seven resorts sees here in a season, like Alta, or Snowbird. Lift skiing and snowboarding have been declining for 15 years while backcountry riding has increased anywhere from five to 15 percent a year for the last 15 years.”

Making courses like Know Before You Go that much more important.

Get started on the course, here.





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