A Season of Ski Kind

What has been the impact of the Backcountry Responsibility Code and why we need more seasons of skiing kind: take the pledge today!

Photo Credit: Rick Jenkinson (On the ancestral lands of the Wabanaki, Abenaki, Pequawket, and other Nations)

The Ski Kind Backcountry Responsibility Code was launched in 2020 as a way to bring a sense of community and humbleness to a ski season that seemed to be in jeopardy from every angle. Conceived as a set of guidelines to promote responsible winter recreation, Winter Wildlands Alliance (WWA) joined forces with Granite Backcountry Alliance (GBA) to bring the Code to the backcountry community all winter long.

Backcountry participation numbers skyrocketed due to resort restrictions and people looking for COVID-safe activities, and our beloved ways of getting outdoors to enjoy nature experienced a surge that no one could have predicted as people have been taking solace in the outdoors and outdoor recreation.

“We kept having conversations last spring about how to address the impact of increased pressure on backcountry trailheads,” said Todd Walton, WWA’s Executive Director. “The concept of ‘Ski Kind’ came from Tyler Ray who runs GBA, one of WWA’s grassroots partners, and through the course of the conversation the basic tenets of this unique campaign arose.”

David Page, Advocacy Director at WWA, worked closely with the team at Recreate Responsibly to integrate a winter version of their efforts. With the goal to have double the impact with double the results, Page worked to also launch Ski Kind in the same fashion as Recreate Responsibly with an open toolkit for users to share and learn from. 

Tangible, Local Impact

Greg Peters is the volunteer board president of Montana Backcountry Alliance (MBA), a statewide group representing human-powered winter recreationists. Like so many other places, Montana is seeing a big increase in backcountry skiing, especially last winter during the pandemic,” he began to explain. “Avalanche classes had wait lists, parking lots were full, and gear shops were sold out of backcountry equipment. We’re thrilled to see interest in backcountry skiing grow, but here in western Montana, access is limited to a handful of spots, so more people were hitting the same spots. It didn’t help that winter was a bit late to arrive this last season.”

“The Ski Kind campaign provided a great set of messages that we shared with our members and the broader community. I think it helped people be a bit more patient with folks new to backcountry skiing and it encouraged more experienced users to be role models for those new to the sport,” Peters said. 

Greg Maino, Director of Communication for Catamount Trail Association (CTA) in Burlington, Vermont, agrees that “Ski Kind was important for our community last season because it embodied the type of awareness, consideration, and mindset required of users, both old and new, that allowed everyone to share our outdoor spaces in a safe and responsible way. It was an easy way to highlight important aspects of etiquette for new users, and served as a helpful reminder to existing users that they have an important role to play in welcoming new users and helping to educate them in a respectful way.”

“We’ve experimented with similar messaging in the past, but it was hard for us to track how that did or didn’t impact the backcountry skiing and riding community,” continued Peters. “Having a ready set of messages and materials made it easy to incorporate this type of messaging into our work more regularly and more directly. With such a big bump in new users combined with a lot of new people moving to Montana, it was important for us to be proactive in both welcoming new skiers and riders and in sharing how we respectfully and safely treat the backcountry and other users. Montana is different from places like Utah, Colorado and California. We don’t have lots of access to high mountain passes, the weather is rough, and the skiing can be difficult (we have a lot of trees, variable conditions, and complicated terrain). With so many new folks coming to Montana generally, and so many new backcountry enthusiasts, the timing was perfect for a more concerted campaign like this.”

The Future of Ski Kind

There is no doubt that the Ski Kind mentality (alongside all of the other advocacy campaigns that came out of the boom in outdoor recreation last year) is here to stay. The real question is how this code of ethics will play into future policymaking and conservation work.

Said Peters: “Ski Kind will continue to play an important role in our outreach. Montana remains a popular place to move and backcountry skiing and riding continue to grow, so maintaining consistent messaging about backcountry ethics and responsibility will remain a key aspect of our messaging. Our follower-base continues to grow and it’s important that we keep sharing messages like this to both new users and those with years of experience. It can be annoying and frustrating when your local stash gets a lot more use than it used to, so we want to keep reminding all of our users that everyone has a place in the backcountry and patience, kindness, and humility are as important to bring to the trailhead as a beacon, shovel, probe and skins.”

Maino agrees: “Doing your homework, being prepared, and showing respect to those you encounter on the trail isn’t exactly groundbreaking. However, last season was a weird year. Everyone wanted to be outside, but you weren’t supposed to gather with others. Additionally, in-person clinics and courses were mostly cancelled making it much more difficult for new users to access resources and information that would assist them in becoming responsible users.”

“Last year we knew we were going to see an influx of users, both new and old, and a concise code of ethics was an easy way to communicate what someone should be thinking about when engaging with our public outdoor spaces,” added Maino. 

With luck many of the people that discovered backcountry skiing last year will stick with it, and hopefully we continue to see similar trends in interest in the outdoors,” Maino said. “That said, if these trends do continue it will take time for infrastructure to catch up with the demand. Being prepared and showing others respect isn’t going to go out of style, and with trends as they are we see this type of advocacy being an important part of our communication goals for the foreseeable future.