Off Piste Safety: Got Your Back?

By Phil Smith, Snoworks Ski Courses

No sane skier or snowboarder would ever venture off piste without avalanche safety gear and a local guide or instructor. Of course you wouldn’t! Waking up to a bluebird powder day you grab your rucksack and pack your gear – transceiver, shovel, probe… check. Quick breakfast and you’re off with your big fat new skis to join your group and put tracks in those white blanket slopes. You’ve covered everything, right? 

Not necessarily…

Before the excitement takes over, ask yourself: “Am I really prepared?” Yes, you’re with a mountain guide or instructor who will take the lead on safety judgements. But when you’re skiing in a group safety is everyone’s responsibility. You’ve got to have your friends’ backs as much as they have yours – it’s just not enough to follow like sheep. Ask yourself:

  • Are you familiar with the 5 point avalanche scale and what this means?
  • Are you familiar with slope aspects, steepness, terrain traps, islands of safety and spacing?
  • What happens in the event of the leader being no longer capable of leading the group for any reason?
  • Do you know how to make an emergency call and the number for the local pisteurs?
  • Are you familiar with the area?
  • Do you always know exactly where you are on the map?

Avalanche safety

Before you even think about heading off to that powder field, the first question you need to answer honestly is: “When was the last time you used your transceiver?” It’s good practice to make sure everyone simulates a rescue by finding a buried transceiver before each time you go out. However desperate you are to make those tracks, it’s far from a waste of time to check that you’re fully prepared if things go wrong. Are your batteries fully charged and do you have extra just in case? Is your probe easy to reach and not right at the bottom of your bag beneath your lunch?

Bluebird powder days are what those of us living in the mountains long for, but also dread. Because it’s those evenings when every once in a while the tales of heroics and over-the-head powder are replaced with sadder stories – another statistic, another off piste incident.

Skiing off-piste comes with risks, but those risks are different for each individual. Even well trained, experienced skiers can fall foul of the mountain when risk-taking overrides caution. For those untrained and unexperienced, the risk rises with poor decision-making, inadequate preparation, lack of safety equipment, lack of knowledge, ego or just plain ignorance.

Every course run by Snoworks contains an element of safety but this season we’ve introduced standalone Off-Piste Safety Courses. They don’t qualify you to ski off-piste by yourself or without a guide or instructor. The idea is that you’ll come away much better able to be a safe member of a properly-led group, where everyone plays their part, manages themselves and enhances off-piste safety for all involved.

Skiing off piste is fun and exhilarating. We all need to keep it that way so that the stories in the evening remain the ones we love to share with one another.


Snoworks’ Off Piste Courses run throughout winter, with the Off Piste Safety Courses at the start of the season. Snoworks are partners with Salomon ski gear and BCA safety systems.

Book a place at

Off piste safety

Katie Downs

EDGE Magazine is your guide to a ski holiday, working or living around Tignes, Val d'Isere, Bourg Saint Maurice, Les Arcs, La Plagne, La Rosiere, Peisey Vallandry & Sainte Foy. Our website is packed full of useful live information, regularly updated features and interviews with something for everyone...snow-lovers, starter snowboarders, seasoned skiers, serious apres-skiers, seasonaires and locals. Pick up a copy of our magazine from December in loads of places in each resort including bars, restaurants, shops, cafes and airport transfer vans too. For more information and to request a media pack e-mail We'd love to hear from you!

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