Breaking New Ground on Your Sled: Finding New Riding Areas

November 1, yyyy

BCA Sled Ambassador, Mike Duffy, talks about finding new terrain safely and methods to prevent an unwanted night out. 

Are you tired of riding in the same old place—and want to find fresh powder or bigger challenges? Here are some tips on how to find new areas and not spend years trying to figure it out.

Quickest way:

Hire a guide and make sure your guide has current advanced avalanche training. Don’t all guides have avalanche training? Believe it or not, it varies between National Forests and even within the same state. Some areas still do not require avalanche training for guides. Choose wisely.

A guide will show you where the goods are. Their job is to find your powder and good terrain. I can guarantee some guides will take you into a new area in the most roundabout way possible, so you won’t share it. There’s an art to it. Don’t lose the guide’s trust by sharing the stashes. That way they’ll show you even better places next time.

The other way: doing your own research.

Spend some time doing research and you’ll find places that no one else is touching. Untracked powder for hours.

Here are a few options on how to do it:

1. Get a trail map, get a topo map, and start poring over Google Earth. See what the terrain looks like and what interests you.

  • Look at the steepness of the terrain and the consequences.
  • Mark on the map where you want to go and head that way.

2. Plan a route to the area. There are apps that will help: namely Google Earth, Gaia, and Avenza.

  • Look for good terrain using apps, then find a good route taking into consideration the steepness and avalanche conditions.
  • Plot a route on the app. This is really easy to do on Gaia. There are video tutorials on YouTube that will help you.
  • Follow the route to get to your new potential powder stash.
Tip: Download the map onto your phone, so you’re not eating up the batteries and can access without cell service. Have a way of charging your phone and keep it warm. Use a portable charger or the USB port on your sled.

3. Simple exploration and navigation. Follow the main trails to get to a predetermined area (well away from the crowds). Keep it simple, for example: If the trail runs east-west, head north boondocking and exploring. If you run out of time or terrain, just head south and you’ll run into the trail. Check topo maps or your GPS before dropping in. How steep is it and what is your plan B if it is? I have been riding in areas for well over 10 years and keep finding new spots on every trip. Just head through the trees and see where it takes you, but know when to turn back.

Tip: Prevent getting lost.

  • As you’re riding, look over your shoulder to see the perspective for backtracking.
  • Have multiple people navigating.
  • Use a real GPS (in addition to a smartphone app) to track your route right from the trailhead. You can always backtrack if lost.
  • Have turnaround times. “If we don’t make it by this time, we’re turning back.” It’s much harder to navigate in the dark.
  • I never rely solely on a phone for navigation or communication. The phone is a weak link with limited battery life in the cold and cell service can be nonexistent in the mountains.

4. If you’re staying at a lodge, speak to the manager and employees. They’ll hopefully give you some suggestions. Then plan a route to get there. This can be as simple as marking the location on a paper map.

Tip: Prevent spending the night out.

  • Know when to turn back. 3:00 pm isn’t the time to explore new gullies. Be ready for anything.
  • If uncertain, don’t drop everyone into a drainage at the same time. Have a lead group with radios drop in while others wait to hear if it’s a go or no go. That way everyone doesn’t end up spending the night out. Riders up top can wait and hike in to help the lead group, if necessary.
  • Be ready to spend the night out. Being able to start a fire is crucial for survival. Have the gear.
  • Carry a GPS satellite messenger. This makes for a faster rescue and should prevent multiple nights out.
  • Ride with a strongly skilled group.

5. Explore terrain in the offseason. Many of us will look for new terrain in the summer using 4WD and dirt bikes. This is an excellent opportunity to see what lurks under the snow and to locate new terrain. Jeep roads can be hard to locate under 6 feet of snow, so I’ll plot the routes on my GPS in the summer. This also helps in whiteout conditions.