New App Aims to Help Backcountry Skiiers Avoid Avalanches

SkiTracks helps users identify risk and check conditions.
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SkiTracks helps users identify risk and check conditions.
avalanche conditions

SkiTracks helps users identify risk and check trail conditions to improve avalanche safety. (Photo by kcxd/Flickr)

Backcountry skiing and snowboarding can sometimes have dire consequences, but researchers at Montana State University are making an effort—via a smartphone app—to make decision-making safer when it comes to analyzing conditions.

Jordy Hendrikx, the director of the Snow and Avalanche Laboratory at Montana State University, is working on the project that helps people check conditions and analyze risk via their smartphones.

“If we were all making decisions 100 percent based on science, then we would all behave the same under the same conditions…” Hendrikx said. “However, we know that this is not the case. Different groups use the terrain very differently under the same conditions—some of which leads them into avalanche accidents.”

The app—called SkiTracks—collects GPS data and gathers detailed information from skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers about trail conditions.

Hendrikx has used crowd-sourcing throughout the past two seasons to collect data, and says it has since gained a lot of momentum. He says he would like increased input so he can better the app and expand the information.

“When you crowd-source data, you need as many different types of groups as possible,” Hendrikx said. “One of the important things is geographic locations. The types of decisions you’d make in Salt Lake City is different than in Alaska.”

Data already shows that age, gender and group makeup are big factors in decision-making. Hendrikx says all-male groups use “much steeper terrain” and that those with more experience and education tend to push the boundaries.

The project will continue through next winter, and Hendrikx says he hopes to get federal funding to aid in expanding his research.

Backcountry skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers are invited to download the SkiTracks app and complete post-trip surveys to aid the project and help fellow backcountry travelers analyze conditions.