Staying Safe in the Backcountry

(Continue reading below for English)

Nagano Prefecture is home to some of Japan’s foremost ski resorts and the picturesque mountains of the Japanese Alps, making it a popular destination for backcountry skiing, snowboarding and winter mountain climbing.

Entering the backcountry—whether on skis, snowshoes or winter boots—can be both exciting and beautiful, but there are risks lurking just below the surface. To enjoy your time in the backcountry safely, preparation, practice and good judgment are essential.

These are basic safety precautions to keep in mind for entering the backcountry. But they're no substitute for knowledge and experience. Always travel with an experienced backcountry skier or snowboarder who knows the area well. When in doubt, hire a certified guide for your trip.

Before Venturing into the Backcountry

Know the Dangers of the Backcountry/Winter Mountains

As close as they may seem, ski resorts and backcountry areas are completely different worlds. While patrols check and maintain ski resorts to ensure the safety of skiers and snowboarders, the backcountry is left as-is. Once you step outside of the ski resort, your safety is in your own hands.

Risks in the Backcountry

Backcountry skiers and snowboarders should be aware of the risks of the winter mountains and know how to deal with them. Risks include:

If you are inexperienced in dealing with such risks, we recommend that you enjoy riding powder in the bounds of the ski resorts. Many of Nagano’s ski resorts have ungroomed powder areas.

Know the Rules of the Ski Resorts

Whether you choose to enjoy powder in the bounds of the resort or plan to head out into the backcountry, it is important to follow the rules of the resort for the safety of yourself and other skiers and snowboarders around you.

While in the resort:

For those planning to enter the backcountry from a ski resort:

When purchasing a lift ticket, you are entering into a contract with the ski resort. In other words, when you enter the ski resort, you have a responsibility to abide by the rules of the ski resort. There are many reasons that an area may be roped off, and entering into such an area can be dangerous for you and those around you.

A backcountry gate at Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort

Examples of Backcountry Gates

Backcountry gates at Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort
Backcountry gates in the Hakuba Valley

Bring the Right Backcountry Gear

Backcountry skiing gear

Backcountry skiing and snowboarding requires specialized gear. Navigating snowy mountains may require specialized ski boots and skis, snowshoes or crampons. Appropriate winter wear will keep your body warm in case of inclement weather. And safety gear is essential in case of an avalanche. You should prepare the following gear before heading out into the backcountry:

*In the event of emergency, a mobile SIM card is required to contact the police. Data-only plans will not work.

The importance of avalanche safety gear can't be overstated. An avalanche beacon is used to search for those buried in avalanches, a probe confirms their location, and a shovel is used to quickly dig them out. These three pieces of equipment should be carried by every member of a touring group and their use should be practiced every so often.

Heading into the backcountry is the same as heading into the winter mountains. Even if it’s only a day trip, bring an emergency blanket, rations and a headlamp.

Educate Yourself and Practice Your Skills

Your gear is only as useful as your experience and knowledge allows. Be sure to practice with and become comfortable with your backcountry gear.

If you are inexperienced or unsure about your ability, contacting a specialist guide is recommended, such as one from the Japan Mountain Guide Association (email:

Plan and Submit Your Route

Gather information on the mountain and create an itinerary for your backcountry trip. Don’t forget that the conditions in the mountains change greatly from the beginning to the end of the season.

Backcountry Itinerary Forms

You can fill out your itinerary using a ski resort’s form or use an online itinerary-making tool to create and submit your plan. The Hakuba area reports avalanche information, so use it as a resource when planning your route. If you use the online itinerary planner Compass, you will be alerted whenever Hakuba’s avalanche information is updated. See here for more information on backcountry/trekking itineraries.

Submitting a trekking itinerary is paramount for fast search and rescue operations. Share the itinerary with your family, acquaintances and accommodation. Ask them to contact police if they haven't heard from you them by the end time of your itinerary.

While in the Backcountry

Stay Aware of Your Surroundings

Leading up to your outing and during your outing, staying aware of changing conditions is vital. Keep your eyes and ears open for signs of unstable snowpack, especially:

Take Steps to Reduce your Risk

The most effective way to reduce avalanche risk is to choose low-angle terrain instead of steep slopes. There are many other ways to reduce your risk by obeying principles of safe skiing, such as:

You will be able to avoid most accidents this way. Also, remember that there may be other groups of skiers above or below you on popular routes. Your decisions may affect them—and vice versa.

In Case of Emergency

In case of an avalanche, the lives of your companions are in your hands. First, begin search and rescue with whoever is available at the scene. You may contact the police after the initial operation has ended.

Contacting the Police

Call number 110 to contact the police in case of emergency (English is okay). It is not possible to contact the police with a data-only plan. You should also note the phone number of your home country’s embassy in Japan (see here for a list of embassies in Japan with contact information).

Search and Rescue Fees

In Nagano Prefecture, the police work together with private search and rescue teams. When a private search and rescue team (including ski resort personnel, mountain hut staff, experienced mountain guides, etc.) is sent out, a search and rescue fee will be billed to the rescued party.


The 7 Steps to Avalanche Safety
A straightforward and easy-to-remember set of steps to safety precautions in the backcountry.

Japan AvSAR Council
The Japan Avalanche Search and Rescue Council is made up of Japan’s major mountaineering organizations, which cooperate to standardize avalanche search and rescue operations and publish educational materials.

Hakuba Safety Tips
The 10 ski resorts of Hakuba Village, Omachi City and Otari Village cooperated with mountaineering experts to create clear guidelines for enjoying the ski resort and backcountry areas of the Hakuba Valley.