A surge in backcountry skiing and snowboarding has been bolstering an otherwise flat snowsports participation bell curve for the better part of the past decade. And now with the global COVID-19 pandemic resulting in a spike in uphill-oriented equipment sales during 2020, experts are becoming increasingly concerned that a perfect storm of accidents and injuries is brewing this coming season when a glut of new enthusiasts seeking social distancing venture off-piste in unprecedented numbers.
The surge started in earnest last season when resorts throughout the country abruptly closed in March as a result of the pandemic. “People weren’t finished with winter yet … and we saw increased traffic and accidents in the backcountry,” said Nick Sargent, president of Snowsports Industries America, which hosted a virtual Town Hall discussion, “Selling the Backcountry Responsibly,” in October. “There was a significant spike in backcountry traffic, which was great, but there are also a lot of areas where we need to really be cognizant and aware.”
The discussion was moderated by Vermont native Adam Howard, a freeski coach at Smugglers’ Notch Ski and Snowboard Club who also is president and CEO of Height of Land Publications, which produces Backcountry Magazine, among others. Mike Donohue, owner of Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vt., and Kim Miller, CEO of Scarpa North America, were joined on the panel by Nikki Champion, avalanche forecaster at Utah Avalanche Center; Katie Ertl, senior vice president of mountain operations at Aspen/Snowmass; and Brendan Madigan, owner of Alpenglow Sports in Lake Tahoe, Calif.
SIA put the discussion together because the numbers are telling. Over the past three seasons, sales of backcountry skis, boots and bindings increased 137 percent, with accessories (beacons, shovels, poles) rising 69 percent, according to market research by The NPD Group. Since COVID-19, those numbers have spiked even more.