Rosemary Langford, Pascal Haegeli and Reto Rupf
Research report prepared for Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, Simon Fraser University Avalanche Research Program, Burnaby BC, p. 172.
Publication year: 2020

Executive summary

Winter backcountry mountain sport operators, outdoor mountain recreation industry experts, and researchers in Europe and North America commonly report that participation in winter backcountry recreation in mountainous terrain has increased tremendously in recent decades. While increasing numbers of backcountry skiers, mountain snowmobile riders, snowshoers, ice climbers, and mountaineers venture into the backcountry, these activities are not without risks. The primary hazard faced by winter backcountry recreationists is snow avalanches. Every winter over the last decade, between 125 and 150 backcountry recreationists have died in avalanches in the mountainous regions of central Europe, Scandinavia, and North America.

To be most effective, avalanche-warning services must be based on an in-depth understanding of the size and the characteristics of the winter backcountry recreation community. Meaningful estimates of the size of the community are important for estimating overall and activity-specific accident and fatality rates. An evidence-based understanding of temporal trends of these rates is critical for assessing the effectiveness of existing avalanche awareness initiatives and identifying particularly-at-risk backcountry user segments for new campaigns. Furthermore, an in-depth understanding of recreationists’ needs, strengths, and weaknesses in information seeking, decision-making, and risk management is essential for the development of avalanche warning products and services that resonate with recreationists and allow them to make meaningful decisions about backcountry travel.

While there has been considerable growth in human dimensions research in the avalanche safety community, not all the needs listed above have been addressed adequately. Hence, a coordinated effort is required to develop a comprehensive understanding of the winter backcountry user community. However, there is currently no country implementing a comprehensive system to effectively monitor and characterize winter backcountry users as a whole. Fortunately, there are several research fields that have well-established methods for estimating participation rates and population sizes. These research fields include the management of protected areas and wildlife protection, public health research measuring participation rates in sports and recreation activities, and tourism- and recreation-related economic impact studies. Many of the monitoring methods developed in these fields have the potential to be applicable to winter backcountry recreation contexts and provide useful insights for avalanche-warning services.

The objectives of this report are to

  1. explore the applicability of existing visitor monitoring methods and technologies for winter backcountry recreation, and
  2. propose possible approaches for estimating overall winter backcountry use in a country or region.

To examine the usefulness of existing visitor monitoring methods for winter backcountry recreation, we conducted an extensive literature review. In total, we evaluated 22 established monitoring methods grouped into manual observation methods, automated observation methods, mobile tracking systems, voluntary self-reporting, compulsory registration, surveys, and other methods. While the main body of the report includes concise summaries of the strengths of the 22 methods and their suitability for providing insight into winter backcountry user numbers, the complete evaluations are included in Appendix A2. In these evaluations, the nature of each monitoring method is described in detail and application examples are provided. Our evaluations describe general advantages and disadvantages, list tips for effective use, and discuss additional considerations for winter use if applicable. In addition, we qualitatively characterize the type of personal information collected, the type of spatial and temporal information collected, the reliability of the method, potential impacts on study subjects, the cost of the method, and the method’s technical suitability for winter backcountry monitoring. We conclude each monitoring method’s evaluation with our thoughts on the strengths of the method for collecting meaningful information on winter backcountry recreationists.

While the evaluation of the monitoring methods highlights many possibilities for gathering information about backcountry use, none of the methods alone can offer a spatially comprehensive and temporally continuous overview of backcountry use at the regional and national level. Hence, to be of use to avalanche-warning services, it is necessary to combine several methods with complementary strengths to create a meaningful overall perspective. In this report, we present five possible approaches for monitoring winter backcountry use comprehensively:

  1. National cross-sectional participation survey
  2. Extrapolation from targeted direct counts
  3. Extrapolation from indirect counts
  4. Extrapolation from citizen science counts
  5. Extrapolation from online engagement

For each of these approaches, we outline the steps for implementation and discuss the research required in support of the approach. While the national cross-sectional participation survey is the most direct path to backcountry user numbers, the proposed extrapolations from various other counts might offer useful and potentially more economical alternatives. The feasibility of each described approach depends heavily on the available resources, opportunities for working with national and local stakeholders (e.g., outdoor clubs, national parks), and possibilities for collaborating with partners in related fields (e.g., public health, other outdoor recreation associations).

Due to different circumstances and resources, it might be necessary to implement different monitoring approaches in different regions or countries. However, to ensure comparability, it is important that the international community agrees on some fundamental aspects of the monitoring campaigns, such as preferred backcountry use measure (participation or exposure days) and whether the focus should be on absolute or relative backcountry user numbers. Additional possible considerations are described in the report.

Implementing a comprehensive backcountry monitoring strategy requires a substantial investment of money and time. While this report does not offer a turn-key solution, we hope that it provides the necessary information for having informed conversations and making meaningful first steps.

Click here for a copy of this report.