The Dos and Don’ts of Backcountry Skiing during Coronavirus

The Dos and Don’ts of Backcountry Skiing during Coronavirus

We’ve seen a huge uptick in backcountry users due to the current situation with COVID-19. Now that all California resorts are closed, more skiers are slapping on skins and heading to the skintrack. As we watch our favorite backcountry ski areas become more crowded, we want to remind you of some of the do’s and don’ts of backcountry skiing, especially as it pertains to the current Coronavirus pandemic.  

Tahoe Mountain Sports does not condone high-risk outdoor activities at this time. Backcountry skiing is an inherently risky sport that could result in accident or injury thereby placing additional strain on healthcare resources and potentially exposing first responders to COVID-19. Before engaging in any backcountry use, read this community message from Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue. Please adhere to the California state-wide shelter in place mandate.

Do choose your partners carefully

“Safety in numbers” only goes so far when it comes to backcountry skiing. Groups of 3-4 people are ideal but any more than that and group dynamics become complicated and can quickly lead to dangerous risk management decisions. Many accidents could have been prevented by recognizing and avoiding the common heuristic traps backcountry skiers often fall into.   

Levels of coronavirus infection are expected to be high in California which means that it is our responsibility as backcountry skiers to manage any risk factors within our control. 

Remember that every decision you make – partners, terrain, gear, etc. – has the potential to ripple through our community. If you or a member of your party gets injured, you could expose your local SAR team to coronavirus, necessitating a 14 quarantine for those first responders and taking up resources from our already strained medical system.

Don’t go big

We know, we know. You’ve been waiting for snow all season and March finally delivered. But consider this: 

If you get injured in the backcountry you are taking resources and medical care away from someone else who desperately needs it.

SAR teams across the country are pleading with skiers to tone it down in the backcountry. Along with our local Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue, the Inyo County Sherriff’s Office recently issued a statement requesting that people do not take part in high-risk outdoor activities like backpacking, climbing, peak bagging, and backcountry skiing. 

Do you need to give up backcountry skiing? Maybe not, but you should be especially conservative and save your tick list and backcountry kickers for next year.

Do “know before you go”

Now is a great time to brush up on avalanche education and take a deep dive into the resources available through the Sierra Avalanche Center. Check the forecast daily, read through recent observations, and explore the many resources on their education page.

Remember these important basics: 

Carry safety gear – If you don’t have a beacon, shovel, and probe in your pack, you shouldn’t be in the backcountry. These are essential safety tools that will keep you and your partners safe should an avalanche occur. 

Learn how to stay safe in avalanche terrain – Maybe it’s been a while since you took AIARE Level 1 so why not use the shelter in place mandate to refresh your avalanche education? Here are some places to start:

Be prepared for when things go wrong – Carry a well stocked first aid kit, an emergency communication device such as a Garmin InReach, and know how to self rescue. Read this brochure from Inyo County Search and Rescue on general mountain safety: it could save your life.

Don’t take up all the parking spaces

Sharing the trail with other backcountry users starts at the parking lot. More people than usual are heading into the backcountry and for many of us, this time outside is vital to our mental and physical health and well being. So consider your fellow skier and rider next time you arrive at a trailhead – back into spaces that way other skiers have room to park. 

Basically, don’t be like these guys…

On-street parking is strictly monitored at popular backcountry ski areas in Truckee and Lake Tahoe and local officials have been ticketing cars that are parked illegally. Always check parking regulations before heading out. 

Do give skiers 6 feet of space

It’s time to get serious about social distancing. Just because you’re outside does not mean that you can’t transmit coronavirus; It can be passed through the air with a cough or a sneeze. 

It’s impossible to tell who is at risk, immunocompromised, or who comes in direct contact with someone in a high risk group. So don’t make assumptions. Now more than ever, we need to respect each other’s space and err on the side of caution. If you are stopped on the skintrack, please move off and give passersby’s at least 6 feet of space.

This sobering account of a splitboarder in Washington should serve as a warning to backcountry skiers and riders who don’t take social distancing seriously.

Don’t go on a backcountry ski trip – to Truckee, Tahoe, the Eastern Sierra, or anywhere outside of your hometown.

Please shelter in place and avoid traveling to mountains outside of your hometown. Mountain communities are especially vulnerable to widespread outbreaks due to limited infrastructure and resources. 

The Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee, for instance, has only 25 acute care beds and 36 long-term care beds for a service area that covers six rural counties, two states and approximately 3,500 square miles (source: Tahoe Forest Hospital). 

The North Inyo Hospital in Bishop has 25 beds

Mammoth Hospital has only 17

Over the past two weeks, we have noticed an increase in backcountry use at every popular backcountry trailhead. For those who insist on backcountry skiing during a global pandemic, these dos and don’ts should serve as best practices. That being said, please, stay home. Truckee does not have the infrastructure to support backcountry rescues while providing medical care to COVID-19 patients.  When this storm has passed, the mountains will be there and we’ll be ready to shred them with you.

Stay safe and be well,
– the Tahoe Mountain Sports team



Siobhan is the Marketing Director of Tahoe Mountain Sports. She's always down for a sufferfest, as long as it ends with ice cream. Favorite activities include backcountry skiing, trail running, and backpacking.


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