Backcountry skiing and splitboarding is an exhilarating way to enjoy the beauty of the New Zealand winter. But before you head out into the hills, you've got to be prepared.
Get the training, check the weather and avalanche forecasts, and have the appropriate rescue equipment and know how to use it,
New Zealand used to have a large problem with people getting caught in avalanches. Since the implementation of avalanche forecasting, increased availability of training in avalanche awareness, and technology aiding rescue, the situation has greatly improved. But this improvement hinges on people taking advantage of these essential resources.
Prepare for your trip
What are the hazards?
There are a few key hazards and issues that commonly present themselves in backcountry snowsports incidents and SAR callouts.
- Getting lost - Particularly when visibility is poor or terrain has few easily recognizable features (Mt Ruapehu is common for these types of issues). This is often a problem for folks venturing just outside the ski area boundary rather than people heading out on planned backcountry trips.
- Falls - There have been numerous cases of people skiing/boarding over cliff drops unintentionally. This has resulted in numerous minor to severe injuries. Make sure you understand the terrain below you and when in doubt, scope it out first before committing.
- Hypothermia - This often results from one of the above incidents occurring, and as a result, spending longer than planned out in the cold without moving. Make sure you have plenty of warm layers and waterproof outers to keep you dry and warm. Also, carry plenty of food and water to keep your body's engine humming.
- Avalanches - Avalanches have the potential to kill skiers or boarders that are caught in them. If someone is buried in an avalanche, it's important that the other members of the group are equipped and trained to get straight to work on a rescue.
What should I take?
In the event of an avalanche, the difference between the life and death of a buried victim can come down to mere minutes. You cannot afford to waste any time trying to figure out how to use your gear! You need to be well practiced and efficient with the functions of your gear and your search and rescue techniques.
- Avalanche transceivers should be worn by every person entering the backcountry.
- Shoveling is an extremely important aspect of avalanche rescue. A proficient and strategic shoveling technique can save you minutes, which is critical for the buried person.
- A probe is what will actually find the person, and thus is a critical piece of gear.
- For more info visit avalanche.net.nz
- Other recommended gear includes a distress beacon, inclinometer, map, compass, helmet, and other clothing, food, and supplies suitable for the weather and amount of time you'll be away.
Questions to consider before you head out
- What route are you planning to take? What are the key decision-making points?
- Do you and your group have enough experience for this trip?
- Is it within the ability of everyone in the group, and does everyone have the required equipment?
- How long will it take you?
- Have you factored in enough time in case it takes longer than expected?
- How will you manage fatigue, particularly on the way home?
- What does the avalanche forecast say?
- How will you test the snowpack when you get there and what signs of instability will you be looking for?
- Has your group discussed human factors/heuristic traps? Do you have a plan to recognise them and counter their effects?
Out in the field
Stay aware of your surroundings
Continue to check the conditions and be self-aware along the way. Make a plan before you leave about what information on conditions you'll look for when in the backcountry. You can always turn back if conditions aren't on.
Be aware of human factors/heuristic traps
Things like commitment, familiarity, and the need to feel accepted can easily cloud our judgment and cause us to ignore warning signs. Be aware of these social pressures and constantly consider whether they are beginning to drive your decision-making.
Employ strategies for identifying and managing fatigue. Ensure this is considered as part of any pre-trip planning and pay this element the due respect it deserves during your trip. Allow time for adequate breaks to rest and take on food/water. Most importantly ensure the culture surrounding your trip allows for topics such as fatigue management to be part of your conversations and communication.
Prepare for the risk of avalanches
You can find more about alpine and avalanche safety skills in our Learn section
If skiing in bounds as part of your trip, remember to adhere to the Snow Safety Code:
Know Your Limits
- Ride to your ability, control your speed
- Be aware of the conditions
- Take a lesson
Find Your Space
- Stop where you can be seen
- Give others room
- Look ahead
- Obey all signs and closures
- Tired, take a rest
- Wear a helmet
Your guide to outdoor New Zealand. The Walking Access Mapping System has all the information you need to find publicly accessible land. Search to find where you are or want to go. Use different layers to display roads, marginal strips, reserves, territorial boundaries and conservation land.
It is common for ski-tourers or split-boarders to access the backcountry via ski areas. These ski areas will have policies for using the ski area in this fashion, and it is important to follow these for everyone's safety. If you're planning on accessing the backcountry in this way, check out our Backcountry Access Policies page first.
This book is your essential guide to the best backcountry touring and ski mountaineering in New Zealand. Whether you’re new to the world of backcountry snowsports, an enthusiast looking for inspiration, or an international traveller sampling what New Zealand has to offer, this guide will help you plan your next adventure. Read it here >>
Ski Touring NZ
If you are ever short of ideas or places to go and ski the Ski Touring NZ website is a great site where people can go and enter trips they have done, complete with maps of where they went and photos of the terrain.
What to do next
Continue your preparation with our online resources, there is still plenty to learn to ensure for a safe and enjoyable trip!
Explore our resources
- Try Online Avalanche Course | Here you can learn about avalanches and how to keep yourself safe
- Watch our Videos | Learn about basic route finding, avalanche awareness and much more to get you started
- Get the skills | in Navigation, Avalanche Awareness and more essentials in our Skills Section
- Attend a course | Find a suitable provider near you