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Backcountry Awareness Tips: Route Planning

Route Planning is about finding the most efficient way to carry out your tour while maximising your outcomes.

Time spent planning your route can save you time otherwise wasted standing around in the field discussing or disagreeing about the way forward.

It is essential that you study the map so that you can assess the terrain you will encounter & identify vertical gain, loss & distance travelled.

What is your endurance, do you know how long it takes you to cover a set distance & how long it takes you to climb each 100 vertical metres of rise?

Infield I am continually calculating distance & vertical rise & fall over time, this is a very powerful skill to gain as a backcountry tourer.

Be prepared to adjust your plan as ground truthing reveals some real time differences in your proposed route i.e. fresh snow will make breaking trail more difficult, an icy start may mean you can save time by skating across flats & not skinning, white out conditions means navigating & slower descents, the approach maybe below the snowline & you could be hiking with skis on pack!

Don’t gear your trip too highly, allow extra time for what ifs & if all goes to plan you have some time up your sleeve as a safety buffer.

Include details for a contingency plan, maybe the viz in the alpine is terrible but the conditions in the subalpine are ok?

Go left to go right? Look at the terrain & use it to your advantage; maybe it’s easier to make a climbing traverse away from your next bearing to gain higher ground & then de-skin & make a long downhill traverse to your next waypoint? This may also be the case if a terrain feature such as a valley, gully or rocky outcrop lies between you & your next destination.

Keep assessing your progress throughout the day & match it against your plan so you can adjust accordingly. Perhaps you can get a few extra laps when you find the nicest snow or maybe you need to cut a leg out of your journey to keep on schedule.

Some considerations when route planning:

  • Available time, return time

  • Total distance

  • Ascent/descent

  • Know your or your groups endurance

  • Approach conditions, is it snow all the way?

  • Equipment suitability/needs

  • Weather conditions

  • Contingency routes

  • Breaks/transitions

  • River crossings

  • Enviro considerations

  • Altitude check points

  • Where is the good snow, what direction has the wind been

  • Identify likely camping spots

Divide your tour into legs or sections

What is the distance of each leg & how long will that take

Is the leg a descent or ascent

For ascents consider the vertical rise in metres as well as the distance

For descents consider the slope angle & the distance & estimate a time

Add time for breaks, transitions & a safety margin

Unlike bushwalking & snowshoeing descents can be very quick on skis & snowboards. It’s not too hard to estimate time taken for descents but give more consideration to how technical or complex as opposed to uncomplicated the descent is.

Example of a simple Route Plan with snow cover all the way, we are travelling at 5kph & our climb rate is 300 vertical metres (vm)/hr, we also have a creek to cross.

Wombat Pass to Spindrift Peak:

  • Wombat Pass 1800m - Copperhead Ck 1700 = 1km / 100 vm descent = 5 mins

  • Copperhead Ck 1700 - Spindrift Peak 2000 = 5km / 300 vm ascent = 1hr distance + 1hr for vertical gain = 2hrs

  • Spindrift Peak 2000 - Copperhead Ck 1700 = 5km / 300 vm descent = 30 mins

  • Copperhead Ck 1700 - Wombat Pass 1800 = 1km / 100 vm ascent = 12mins distance + 20mins for vertical gain = 32mins

  • Total travelling time = 3hrs 7mins

  • Now we add 20mins for 2 x 10min ck crossings + 30mins breaks + 30mins for 5 transitions (changing from uphill to downhill mode) = 1hr 20mins

  • 4hrs 27minutes all up without any safety margin!

It is always best to include grid references of the start & finish of each section so you have a reference point in featureless terrain i.e. in the alpine, in white out conditions. It’s also handy to include slope aspect & bearing, build your route plan in anticipation that you will be in a whiteout! There is plenty of info on the web to help you calculate your itinerary. The Munter Time Calculator is an excellent route planning tool for backcountry skiers/riders.

Debrief after your day & compare how you went against your route plan. Were you taking too many or longer breaks than scheduled, was the skinning difficult, did you overestimate the endurance of your group?

Having a clear route set out can increase the potential of risk reduction, it helps to identify potential hazards & how to prepare for them.

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