Tour Planning 101: Backcountry Skiing

Getting lost and coming home late from a day in the mountains can be a real headache.  The only thing worse is getting home too early, especially when there’s still good skiing to be had!  Who wants to get back to the car only to realize there was plenty of time left for one or two bonus laps through untracked powder?  

The Importance of a Plan

If you often find yourself heading out to ski, climb, or hike without a good guess of how long it will take, then it is time to step up your tour planning game.  Since we are getting into one of the best times of the year for skiing in the Front Range, let’s look at tour planning from the ski tourer’s perspective.

Skiing in the backcountry is fun, but proper ski tour planning is necessary
How to Create a Plan

Let’s look at the components of the tour planning process in its simplest form:

  1. We start with the objective for the tour.  This may be a particular peak or ski line.  It may also be a more general area that you plan to ski several laps in.  
  2. Decide on a time you want to return to the trailhead/car park.  Factors you may consider:
      • Evening plans with your lovely significant other
      • Sunset time
      • Closing time of the nearest establishment serving beer and pizza
      • Timing of traffic on I-70
  3. Look at a map. Digital mapping tools such as Caltopo allow you to utilize advanced features such as slope shading layers to identify and avoid dangerous slopes and terrain features. Determine the best line of travel.  If you aren’t sure which slopes to avoid, consider taking an avalanche training course.
  4. Identify key landmarks to track progress against (i.e. lakes, ridgelines, summits, logging roads).  We call these landmarks waypoints.  Estimate the time needed to travel between each waypoint.  We will discuss some methods for estimating travel time below.
  5. Using time estimates for each leg of the tour, back into the start time for your day.
  6. Write down your plan and bring it with you into the field.  

Examples of Tour Planning

A detailed tour plan looks something like this:

Example of a detailed ski tour plan.

This type of tour plan contains a row for each waypoint and includes the distance, elevation change, and compass bearing to the next waypoint.  Also included are the time for each leg and total elapsed time.

Planning out a tour to this level of detail will be incredibly useful in unfamiliar terrain, especially if expecting difficult navigation conditions such as poor visibility, deteriorating weather, or extended multi-day trips through remote terrain.

Most days, however, my tour planning format is quite simple:

An example of a simple, brief tour plan.

Using a simple notepad tool (i.e. Notes app on an iPhone or similar), I include all the necessary information I need to make key decisions and track progress throughout the day.  I note key elevation points and time estimates for each leg. Also noted are necessary turn around times. The preparation put into either type of plan is more or less identical.  If venturing into unfamiliar terrain, I may spend several hours studying a map of the area and plotting out possible routes. I then get my estimated time to complete the objective, determine a targeted end time, and back that into a start time for the day.  Using modern tools such as a smart phone with a few free or low-cost apps, I have everything I need in one place. Let’s look at an example tour plan from start to finish.

Mapping the Route and Choosing Waypoints

Caltopo or other topographic mapping apps or print-outs can help you determine the right route for your tour legs.

The red lines are my planned up track. Red dots are waypoints. Blue lines are ski descent lines.  Putting the tour legs together would look like this:

  1. Skin from trailhead to bottom of basin (1)
  2. Skin up from bottom of basin(1) to summit (2)
  3. Ski from summit down to bottom of basin (1)
  4. Reascend skin track from bottom of basin (1) to top of exit pitch (3)
  5. Ski back to trailhead

Notice that my planned route avoids any steep, dangerous terrain (any areas shaded orange or red).  Additionally, by studying the terrain and using the slope shading layer, I am confident that almost the entire SE facing bowl feature where I plan to ski is relatively safe terrain.  There is one potential avalanche start zone area located about mid-height and between my planned up track and intended ski line. Knowing this ahead of time, I can be alert to it and easily avoid it once I am out in the field.  

Estimating Travel Times

Once I have my tour legs planned, I can click on each line and select ‘profile’ to see the horizontal and vertical distance covered on each leg:

Using tools like Caltopo can help you see elevation gain of your tour legs.

For the first leg, from the trailhead to the bottom of the basin, I know I have to travel 2.13 miles and gain 1,300’ of elevation.  There is a commonly used calculation method known as the Munter Rate which derives an estimated travel time given the horizontal distance and elevation gain.  Since I don’t like doing math, I use an app called Guide’s Pace that allows me to quickly punch in some numbers and get an accurate time estimate.  I can adjust the rate if I expect to be either faster or slower, but the standard rates are easy to see right in the app window.

Apps can provide you with a good way to estimate your travel time.

I tend to round my numbers up a bit to account for additional time taking snack breaks, dealing with unforeseen equipment issues, or just taking in the views.  This is a bit of a dark art and with time and practice you will find yourself getting more accurate.

Example Timing

Let’s simplify the tour leg descriptions and add in the distance, elevation, and time estimates for each:

  1. TH to Basin – 2.13mi/1,300’ – 02:00 (munter rate: 4)
  2. Basin to summit – 1.4mi/1,200’ – 01:30 (munter rate: 4)
  3. Summit to Bottom of Basin – 1.0mi/1,200’ – 00:30 (munter rate: 10)
  4. Reascend to 12,400’ – 0.75mi/800’ – 01:00 (munter rate: 4)
  5. Ski out – 2.2mi/2,200’ – 01:00 (munter rate: 10)

Writing It Down and Taking It Into The Field

This gives me a total tour time of six hours.  If I know I want to be back at my car by 2:00pm, or 14:00, I know I need to start the day at 08:00. Taking this into account, I can now include my ‘clock’ times for each leg of the tour:

  1. 08:00 depart TH
  2. 10:00 Bottom of basin
  3. 11:30 Summit
  4. 12:00 Bottom of first run
  5. 13:00 Top of exit pitch
  6. 14:00 Return to TH

This is the format I can now use as the basis for my tour plan.  If I want to add in notes/comments on specific features (i.e. terrain features to avoid or key elevations to begin a traverse), I just add notes onto each leg.  I can also include photos and Google Earth imagery. Below is how I might input my plan into my iPhone Notes. If using Apple products, this is a great tool as you can do all of your planning and data input on a computer and then sync notes to your phone via iCloud.

Using a "Notes" application is a great way to plan and track against your plan.

Other Planning Considerations & Tools

In addition to my tour plan, I also include my weather forecast, avalanche hazards, and any field observations I take during the day.  One critical use of the tour plan is noting actual times. As I reach each waypoint on my tour, I note the actual time and include comments to explain any deviation from the plan (see example tour plan above).  Over time, this provides important data and trends that I use for planning future tours. By referencing a particular tour in my records and knowing the conditions and group for that day, I can get a better estimation for my travel times given similar circumstances and terrain (ie, adjusting the munter rate).

Mapping & GPS Tools

Using this sort of simplified tour plan format requires you to also have powerful mapping and GPS tools at your disposal.  There are several options available, I tend to use two complementary solutions. GaiaGPS works well for in-the-field navigation (i.e. choosing a waypoint and navigating toward it using a bearing).  Gaia is also nice to have if you need to alter your route plans in the field. While a bit more difficult and time consuming than a fully featured desktop or web tool such as Caltopo, I have plotted tours right in the app.  The Gaia app can be purchased for about $20, with options for more advanced mapping layers at an additional cost.

Since I prefer to do my route planning on a computer using Caltopo and then export to my phone, there is a free app called Avenza that I use frequently as well.  Avenza can be downloaded for free, and additional map layers can be purchased as add-ons.  However, you can print geospatial (GPS enabled) maps right off of Caltopo, using the layers of your choice, and import these into Avenza.  The app limits you to only a few maps at one time, but I find it works well as long as you delete one anytime you import another.

Tying it All Together

The bottom-line takeaway on tour planning is that having a plan, and keeping track of your progress against that plan throughout the day, gives you the information you need to make decisions in the field.  Are we ahead of plan? Do we have time to ski a few extra laps? Are we falling behind on the first few legs? If so, are we going to continue to be slower than planned for the rest of the day? All of these questions are pretty easy to answer if you have created a solid plan and are able to track it throughout your tour.  Additionally, putting the time in to create your tour plan before leaving the house is one of the most critical elements of safe mountain travel.

Knowing what terrain you are likely to encounter allows you to effectively avoid and manage risks related to weather, snow conditions, and skill. Taking a path toward improving your tour planning will reward you with less stress, more fun, and increased safety for all of your days spend in the mountains.  As with any other skill, practice is critical! Additionally, consider working with one of Colorado Mountain School’s professional guides to help refine and improve your mountain navigation and tour planning skill sets. Investing a little bit of time now will yield a lifetime of better days in the mountains!


Written by Colorado Mountain School guide and avalanche training instructor Eddie Schoen