I've compiled a list of 10 things to consider before venturing out into the backcountry. This is a list that every experienced Wilderness-EMT or new mountaineer alike should consider before traveling through alpine terrain.
1. Understand the angle of repose
This is defined as the steepest angle of descent to which a material can be piled without sliding down. For snow, this is somewhere around 38 degrees. Although this can vary depending on the moisture content and crystal form of the snow. Fresh snow pack on slopes close to the angle of repose can present a slide risk. This is a warning sign that you could be traveling through an avalanche prone area.
2. Understand your terrain
Slopes that are flatter than 25 degrees or steeper than 60 degrees have a lower probability for avalanches. If it's less than 25 degrees, the slope is simply too flat to create momentum at the starting point to cause an avalanche. If it's beyond 60 degrees, the slope is too steep to accumulate any snowpack without it naturally sloughing off. This is generally safe terrain to travel through.
3. Be aware of your surroundings
Avalanche tracks serve as a tell tale sign that terrain may be hazardous. Be on the lookout for debris fields, which are often located in the run out zone of an avalanche. In addition, small, widely dispersed, and broken trees could be a good indication of frequent avalanches.
4. Avoid channeling terrain
Learn how to identify and avoid natural terrain features that create channels. Natural channels can act as avalanche chutes which can condense large amounts of sliding snow into compressed areas. Natural channels could be draws, ravines, or stream beds.
5. Move fast, move early
This is one of the tenets of mountaineering. Since alpine terrain is relatively unpredictable, the faster you move through it, the less you expose yourself to it's potential hazards. In addition, changes in weather throughout the day greatly affect the composition of the snow. By moving early, you mitigate that risk.
6. Know your contributors
One of the largest contributors to avalanches is solar radiation. Metamorphic changes in the snowpack caused by solar radiation can trigger things such as rock and ice fall. In addition, rain can increase the snows moisture content which in turn can create heavier and more unstable snowpack.
7. Have levels of redundancy
Pack light, but avoid having a single point of failure. For example, if your light source is a headlamp, pack spare batteries and/or a small backup light in the event your light takes a tumble down the mountain or burns out. If you are navigating using a GPS, pack a small area map and compass. While you don't want to overpack for your expedition, you also don't want to skimp out on potentially life saving equipment.
8. Have multiple levels of survival equipment
Not only should you spread load your emergency equipment throughout your team, but you should spread load it between your pack and your body. If you take a fall into a crevasse and your backpack comes off or high winds push your equipment off a ledge while you're taking a leak, you'll need to be able to sustain yourself in a survival situation. Keep a space blanket, light source, navigation equipment, and high energy food on your body in the event you're suddenly without.
9. Make a backcountry medical kit
When traveling through the backcountry, don't assume that definitive medical care will be available. Many backcountry accidents occur during adverse weather conditions. Consequently, bad weather can hinder or in many cases prevent rescue until the weather subsides. Be prepared to care for yourself for a period of time until help arrives. Gauze pads, trauma shears, cling wrap, aspirin, cravats, supplies to make splints, and even pepto bismol can greatly improve your chances of survival in an emergency situation.
10. Know how to suffer
Alpine environments can be very austere and harsh. Having the mental toughness to endure during a survival situation is crucial. Your attitude will have more bearing on your ability to survive than any piece of emergency equipment in your kit. The ability to suffer is one of the most important skill sets to have when venturing out into the backcountry.
Below is a link to an Outside Magazine article highlighting some additional things to consider when trekking through the backcountry.