Get off the top of the lift and your gaze will magnetically be drawn to the distance. Just beyond those intertwined tangles of orange and black boundary rope swaying in the wind are untouched swaths of powder that look like they’re just begging for some tracks. You might even see a lineup of shredders hiking out on a bluebird day to get the goods. Before joining the skin track or boot pack, make sure you’re prepared with the knowledge and gear required to safely navigate backcountry terrain. Let’s start with some essential information about inbounds terrain, backcountry terrain and the rope lines in between.
Thanks to advances in lightweight, shreddable gear and convenient resort access to backcountry terrain, the lines between resort and backcountry skiing are more blurred than ever. To be clear, there are only two types of terrain: inbounds terrain and backcountry terrain. Nebulous terms like slackcountry and sidecountry merely mean resort-adjacent backcountry. Inbounds terrain is managed by resorts where ski patrollers perform avalanche mitigation work, whereas backcountry terrain—slackcountry and sidecountry included—is uncontrolled, meaning you need a beacon, shovel, probe, partner and some knowledge before tackling it.
Resort Policies for Accessing Terrain
Utah Resorts control access to both their inbounds terrain and to the backcountry terrain the resorts border, generally with a combination of rope lines and closed signs. No matter which one you encounter, they both mean the same thing: you can’t currently access the terrain beyond a rope or closed sign. Resort terrain may be temporarily closed for reasons like ongoing avalanche control work or current snow conditions, while other areas are permanently closed due to the nature of the terrain. Resorts open and close this terrain as they deem appropriate, so always be aware of where you’re heading, and heed all closed signs and rope lines.
Inbounds Gates Vs. Backcountry Gates
Just as terrain is categorized, there are two types of gates at resorts: inbounds gates and backcountry gates. Inbounds gates are access points to terrain within resort boundaries which has undergone avalanche mitigation work. These gates are sometimes referred to as “avalanche control gates.” If an inbounds gate is closed, it means either that ski patrol is still performing avalanche control measures or has deemed the terrain isn’t safe to ski or ride either due to avalanche conditions, lack of snow coverage or any number of other factors. If an inbounds gate is open, resort staff has deemed the terrain it accesses safe to ski or ride, though skiers and snowboarders are still responsible for assuming the risks inherent with playing in the mountains.
Backcountry gates are something entirely different. They separate controlled, inbounds terrain with uncontrolled backcountry terrain. Commonly, there will be signs on backcountry access gates—bearing a skull and crossbones and a not-so-subtle reminder that “You Can Die”—informing you that you’re leaving the resort. Such signs make for popular photo-op backdrops, but what’s written on them is serious. Backcountry terrain just beyond resort boundaries is often referred to as sidecountry, but that doesn’t make it any less consequential. Like all terrain outside resort boundaries, backcountry/sidecountry slopes don't undergo any avalanche mitigation measures, and often ski patrol will not be able to promptly or safely respond to an accident there. Only venture into backcountry/sidecountry terrain with the proper gear—beacon, shovel probe—a partner and the knowhow to assess and navigate avalanche terrain.
Beacon Check Stations
Backcountry gates are frequently accompanied by beacon check stations—featuring a yellow sign with a flashing light—where you can take out your avalanche transceiver to make sure it's functioning properly. These stations signal you're entering backcountry terrain, and it’s always a good idea to check that your beacon’s working each time you do so. Beacon check stations will have an indicator to let you know if everything’s working as it should, usually a green light turns on or a series of beeps that get faster as you move your beacon closer to the sign.
Gate Control and Openings
Gates within resort boundaries are controlled by mountain personnel, who may open or close them at any time they see fit. Backcountry gates that access National Forest land, however, are permanently open so long as the inbounds terrain accessing them is open as well. This means you’re free to access backcountry terrain in National Forest land any time you’re able to ski or hike to backcountry access gates via open inbound terrain.
At Park City Mountain, for instance, if terrain accessed via the Ninety-Nine 90 Express is open, you can access the backcountry gate by hiking above the chairlift. At Snowbird, things are slightly different. You must check-in with ski patrol to show you have a partner, beacon, shovel and probe to access the inbounds terrain that ultimately leads to the gate accessing National Forest backcountry terrain. No matter the specific resort policy, only leave the resort through designated gates, and only come back into the resort where there is no rope line blocking your path. It’s important to note that open access in no way means backcountry travel is always safe. No matter what the snow looks like or how many tracks you see on a slope, it’s always capable of avalanching. If there’s enough snow to ride, there’s enough snow to slide.
Preparing for the Backcountry
If you’re serious about venturing into the backcountry, get educated and practice using your gear first. The Utah Avalanche Center has a variety of classes for all skill and experience levels. Some Utah resorts also have resources including beacon practice parks and open uphill travel policies that allow you to practice your rescue skills and get familiar with using essential backcountry gear. For more on avalanche education visit our Avalance Safety and Education blog post.
Beacon Practice Parks
Beacon parks have numerous buried transceivers so you can practice everything from beacon search basics to multiple burial scenarios with your partners. Timers let you track your progress and the repetition you receive from back-to-back searches helps refine your technique and iron out the nuances of your gear.
The following resorts all have publicly available beacon parks: