Outside Business Journal

The backcountry has become dangerously, irresponsibly crowded

As ski resorts close and quarantine measures tighten across the nation, people have taken to the backcountry in record numbers. It's not a good idea.


Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.

Skiers and snowboarders, we get it. You want to be outside right now. You weren’t ready for the season to come to such an abrupt end, as it did in Colorado and virtually everywhere else. You’re tempted to pull out your backcountry setup and keep the fun going yourself. Plenty of space for social distancing in the backcountry, right? Win-win.

Think again. Backcountry skiing is not a good idea right now.

Just look at what happened on Colorado’s Loveland Pass last weekend. Hundreds flocked to the area and jammed the road for miles. Dangerous and irresponsible behavior, like parking in the middle of an avalanche path and flagrantly ignoring the rules of social distancing, was captured on film by passersby.

Sure, most of you reading this who backcountry ski, hike, or bike probably do so in a safe, responsible way; in any normal situation, these activities would pose a manageable amount of risk. But these are not normal times.

“People aren’t thinking through the nuances of the situation,” Jeff Sparhawk, president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association told SNEWS this week. “With increased use in the backcountry, the number of calls for search and rescue is going to go up, and right now we can’t operate at full capacity. If someone does need to be evacuated, we have to send in smaller crews, we can’t approach people until they’ve been assessed for the virus, and we can’t perform some of the medical checks we usually do. All this makes response and evacuation take longer.”

It’s even more complicated than that. The majority of search and rescue workers are volunteers with full-time jobs, and many of those job are—you guessed it—in healthcare.

“We absolutely cannot be putting doctors and nurses at risk in the backcountry right now. It’s not in everyone’s best interest,” Sparhawk says.

As of Thursday morning, more than 200 million people in 21 states, 47 counties, and 14 cities have been ordered by state and local governments to stay at home and come outside only when absolutely necessary. In most cases, however, exceptions are specified for outdoor recreation. In Colorado, for example, a statewide stay-at-home order notes that residents may leave to “engage in outdoor activity, such as…walking, hiking, nordic skiing, snowshoeing, biking, or running.”

While the language of these order affords some interpretive wiggle room, that doesn’t mean people should use them as license to backcountry ski—or hike, bike, or climb— as they normally would, Sparhawk says.

“We need to look at the bigger community picture. This is a difficult balancing act of risk versus reward. I do think people need to get outside, but we need to do it in an extremely low-impact way—that means as little risk as possible for emergency responders and healthcare workers. These things have ripple effects.”

He’s right. Imagine this scenario. You’re an experienced backcountry skier who’s never been injured on the snow. For that reason, you decide it’s safe to go out this weekend. But lots of other people had the same idea, too—some of them less experienced than yourself. One of those less experienced skiers ends up injuring you, and you have to go to the hospital for some minor care. While there, you take up a hospital bed, a doctor’s attention, a nurse’s time. Those resources are diverted from coronavirus patients. You risk infecting yourself with the virus, and when you’re discharged, you risk infecting those around you.

The chain of events that might result from any individual choice or action is hard to predict right now. The formula for upholding personal responsibility is thus quite simple: eliminate as much risk and uncertainty as possible. Like it or not, venturing into the backcountry to ski, hike, bike, or climb is risky, no matter your experience level. Accidents happen, even to professionals.

Some counties have begun fining people and towing cars parked along backcountry access roads. These methods will likely prove effective, but ultimately the responsibility rests with individuals to consider the bigger picture.

“This is probably going to be the norm for a long time,” Sparhawk says. “Ultimately, we can’t patrol everybody. This has to be a community effort.”

To sum up: Now is not the time to try something new or to put yourself in situations that pose unnecessary risk. Yes, you’ve been backcountry skiing for years. Yes, you’re good at it. But right now, the consequences of our actions have the potential to ripple far beyond ourselves if something does happen to go wrong. Go for a walk in the woods instead. Bike on a flat, safe trail. Get out in the fresh air and exercise, but keep it inbounds and low-risk for now. The backcountry will still be there next year.

promo logo