Perceptions Among Backcountry Skiers During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Avalanche Safety and Backcountry Habits of New and Established Skiers
Esteban A. Valle, Andrew P. Cobourn, Spencer J.H. Trivitt, Jordy Hendrikx, Jerry D. Johnson, David C. Fione
Wilderness & Environmental Medicine
Introduction. The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic impacted the ski industry worldwide by closing or limiting access to ski resorts. Subsequently, anecdotal reports of increased backcountry use emerged in the press, with concerns of inexperienced skiers causing or having problems in the backcountry. This study attempted to quantify this and identify motivations for new backcountry skiers. Methods. Self-identified backcountry skiers and snowboarders (aged ?18 y) in the United States and Canada completed an anonymous 29-question online survey distributed by regional avalanche centers, education providers, and skiing organizations (n=4792). Respondents were stratified by backcountry experience, defining “newcomers” who began backcountry skiing from 2019 to 2021, coincident with the COVID-19 pandemic. Percentages of ski days spent in the backcountry were compared before and during the COVID-19 pandemic using paired t-tests and across cohorts using repeated-measures analysis of variance. Avalanche education was compared using unpaired ?2 tests. Results. Of established skiers, 81% noticed more people in the backcountry and 27% reported increasing their own use. Participants reported spending 17% (95% CI, 15.8–17.9) more of their days in the backcountry during the COVID-19 pandemic, with newcomers increasing their time spent by 36% and established skiers increasing their time spent by 13% (P<0.0001). Of newcomers, 27% cited the COVID-19 pandemic as motivation to enter the backcountry and 24% lacked formal avalanche education, which is significantly higher than the 14% of established skiers (P<0.0001). Conclusions. Influenced by factors related to COVID-19, reported backcountry use increased during the pandemic. Newcomers had a lower level of avalanche education and less confidence in evaluating terrain. Because 80% of participants were recruited from avalanche safety or education websites, this likely underestimates skiers lacking avalanche awareness or education and is further limited by the nature of online surveys.
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