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Sustainable Vail: Leave No Trace When Backcountry Skiing in Colorado

In the winter, if you decide to venture into the backcountry, we ask that you understand and follow important safety principles before heading out — and consider going with an experienced guide. It’s critical to take an avalanche course (especially as a novice) if you’re going to ski in Colorado’s backcountry. You should also review and practice avalanche protocols and brush up on backcountry skills, along with checking your gear to make sure you are ready to explore beyond ski-area boundaries. It’s also important to think about how we protect the backcountry experience while enjoying the outdoors. Learn more about being backcountry safe in winter.

Winter backcountry exploration — whether on skis, a splitboard or snowshoes — is often a bucket-list experience for Colorado visitors. As you think about exploring less-tracked terrain this winter, consider what it is to “experience” the backcountry versus just getting a great Instagram shot. Take in the moments that you have — breaking trail, seeing and identifying animal tracks and maybe even seeing wildlife on your tour — and, consider your impacts on the creatures who share the forest. Just as the Skier Responsibility Code is the “rules of the road” within ski-resort boundaries, keep in mind Leave No Trace Principles from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics when taking to the backcountry — winter or summer.

All seven principles are important, but the following three are easy to remember and can make a big impact when venturing into the snowy high country.

Plan Ahead

This is key for the safety and enjoyment of yourself and others. Help keep Colorado Search & Rescue teams out of the backcountry by planning ahead this winter. Take appropriate winter backcountry avalanche courses, brush up on rescue skills and make sure your equipment is working, charged and up to date. Think ahead and plan for your experience. Don’t go “big” with people you don’t know. Plan to carpool, which cuts down on emissions and allows others to use valuable spaces at the trailhead. Know where you are traveling. Be aware of avalanche conditions, trail closures and general trail quality. Consider following already packed routes versus breaking trail in idyllic, untouched backcountry settings. Leave the untracked meadow for someone else to enjoy and experience as well.

Respect Wildlife

It’s rare to see wildlife during the day in winter, however, you might run across a pine squirrel, a mouse or a snowshoe hare and, of course, birds of prey if you are lucky. Be aware of tracks in the snow, especially large ones. If you see animals like elk, moose or coyote, stay as far away as possible. It’s not only dangerous to try and get a selfie but, more importantly, it stresses out the wildlife. Respect trail closures as well since they are in place to protect animals and trail conditions during this time of year. Learn more about Colorado wildlife.

Be Considerate of Others

With the winter landscape blanketed in snow, you may find a heightened sense of quiet along with the beauty and serenity of where you are. Respect this opportunity for yourself, your friends and others. Except for the occasional whoops of joy, save the valley noises for après-ski happy hour.

Exploring With Your Dog

Lastly, something that impacts all three of these principles is the inclusion of dogs in the backcountry. We all love exploring with our four-legged friends but know the rules for dogs on leash in wilderness areas. For example, the Eagles Nest Wilderness requires a leash, and the Holy Cross Wilderness requires voice command.

Think through weather conditions, depth of snow and general animal behavior before taking your dog into the backcountry this winter, too. Consider how your dog might impact others’ experiences along the trail or stress out wildlife if encountered along the way. Also, make sure to plan for dog waste — pack it out! Be mindful of human waste as well and remember: No yellow snow on the trail!

The Importance of Going With a Guide

If you are new to winter backcountry touring, consider hiring a knowledgeable, professional guide. Companies like Paragon Guides offer group and individual backcountry-touring opportunities in the winter. Just as ski instructors give you the lay of the land and help you Know the Code when on in-bound terrain at ski resorts, a professional guide can enhance your winter backcountry experience and help you Leave No Trace.