Poll: Should We Stop Using the Term ‘Sidecountry’?

Words count. They connote, they suggest, they color the world and prejudice the user. And in so doing, they can kill — if not directly, then by leading to improper decision making that can result in death. And the specific word that I’m thinking about is “sidecountry,” the out of bounds terrain adjacent to ski areas.

In the last five years, sidecountry has become the most-used new word in the sport, both by skiers and snowboarders and by an industry eager to capitalize on a growing category. Conceptually, it’s flawless — it perfectly captures the ethos of using chairlifts to access nearby O.B. and the strips of terrain that abut area boundaries.

The problem is that “sidecountry” is erroneously suggestive of something else, too — safety. Proximity to a ski area leads many to believe, whether consciously or absorbed subconsciously through cultural currents, that sidecountry terrain is somehow less risky than true backcountry, that because the patrol’s just on the other side of the rope, avalanches are less likely and tree wells less deep.

In fact, sidecountry doesn’t exist. If it’s not in a ski area, it’s backcountry. If it’s not patrolled and not controlled, it’s backcountry. Even if it’s just one foot on the other side of the rope, it’s backcountry, where the hazards are every bit as real and objective as those farther afield. And, in my opinion, the continuing use and marketing of the word sidecountry spreads a dangerous and inappropriate message that suckers adventurous but ignorant skiers and experienced backcountry travelers alike.

That’s why it’s Adventure Journal’s policy not to use the word. But that’s just us. The question today is whether we the people of the ski world should proactively work to eliminate the word sidecountry from the lexicon. Should we stop using it ourselves and, more impactfully, discourage companies from using it to sell gear? What’s your take?

This week, one poll participant will receive a Smith Optics Outlier sunglasses. We’ll pick the winner via random number generator (and announce it here) — all you have to do to enter is vote and leave a comment so we have your email to contact you. Must have a U.S. or Canadian address. Contest ends Sunday, January 20, at midnight PST.

Congrats to Kaitlyn Gary of Livermore, California, winner of the Outlier shades!

Photo by Steve Casimiro

{ 107 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Jeff Pint

    Bridger Bowl is a perfect example that has areas that define “side country”.
    Areas still considered Bridger where beacons, partners and shovels are mandatory.
    Re: Ridge and Schlasmans. Keep the term and encourage education.

  • peter

    The problem is not the name….People will mistakenly think just over the rope is safer than “backcountry” no matter what its called…the dire worded warnings signs are there, the avalanche education professionals are consistent in their message…some people won’t listen or learn and will die…its unfortunate, but probably inevitable.

  • Chase

    Absolutely we should stop using sidecountry, for all the reasons stated above. It’s lift-accessed backcountry, and should be treated as such.

    But the term “Out-of-Bounds” needs to be kicked too. With many, if not most, resorts sitting on Forest Service or other public lands, the area beyond the resort is a place where everyone has the right to tread. It is not the do-to-enter exclusion zone that many resorts and the media still label it. Outside the Permit Area? Sure. But as a citizen, and hopefully one with backcountry knowledge, tools and experience, that’s YOUR lands you are entering at your own risk.

  • David

    Yup, completely agree. When I’m skiing out of bounds from a chairlift (sidecountry) I have to stop myself for a moment change attitudes….if that makes sense. The problem is most people are so focused on the skiing they are losing sight of whats really going on.

  • Steve

    What to call the terrain outside a few PNW
    areas that is occasionally controlled and patrolled and has historically
    been called “backcountry” but is not?

  • Andy

    I think of the term as something that GU-fueled holier-than-thou backcountry purists use in a derogatory way. I count myself in their ranks and thus don’t hear the term thrown around the resort. Don’t people still talk about backcountry gates and the like? I suppose “sidecountry” could be tricking gapers. An interesting question to be sure.

    As for personal responsibility, skiing needs more of it. The in-bounds-out-of-bounds avalanche fatality at Vail last year is a perfect example. The safety of the resort is only within the ropes; if you’re out of bounds then you’re on your own. Also, if you duck ropes then ski patrol will be pissed.

  • Brandon

    2nd Andy’s POV. Skiers/boarders needs more personal responsibility. I’m not suggesting I know how, but somehow the concept of danger needs to be better instilled into our culture. Danger doesn’t mean no-fun, but it does mean respect.

  • Matt Freeman

    My concern is that with the safety implication, it dilutes the very real dangers out there. It makes people lazy, and gives them the impression that if it’s lift-accessed, it absolves them from the responsibility of avi education and safety.

  • Bod

    When I lived in Jackson, no one used the term ‘sidecountry’ as in “What did you ski today?” “I skied the sidecountry.” You just said where you went. Sidecountry is for joeys, unfortunately they are the one’s with no pack asking how to get out of Rock Springs. I love Jackson, but they also put Rock Springs and Cody on their trail map which is inviting trouble, despite the dire warning signs. Don’t be an asshole, ski within yourself, and there won’t be any problems.

  • Brent

    I agree that “sidecountry” should not be used to describe areas that are not controlled or patrolled as such areas are “backcountry” pure and simple. There are many ski areas, however, where there are gates which access “sidecountry” which required hiking yet is controlled and patrolled. We just need to distinguish between the two very clearly.

  • joe

    I’m a Man Without a Country…

    OB should be referred to as backcountry, no matter how far away you are from the ski area

  • Kevin

    In the Northeast, a lot of folks say upcountry if they are heading to the mountains, maybe these words are just regional in effect

  • stormin'

    I recently discussed this very topic with a mutual friend of ours who has a very big dog in this fight. I agree that the term “sidecountry” or worse “slackcountry” implies that an area is somehow safer than “real” backcountry. But unfortunately the cow is out of the barn and I’m afraid it will be very difficult to reel the term “sidecountry” back in. That said, I feel the answer is education. A better educated skier/rider makes better decisions and that benefits everyone. Thanks for the soapbox. Stay safe people.

    • steve casimiro Post author

      Cows can be herded, Norm. If we agree that sidecountry causes more harm than good, it can be shouted down. A few squeaky wheels in the right places…

  • laavy

    No. Who cares what it’s called at some point people(i’m mainly talking about americans) have to bring back common sense, be prepared with the appropriate knowledge/skills and be responsible.

  • laavy

    No. Who cares what it’s called at some point people(i’m mainly talking about americans) have to bring back common sense, be prepared with the appropriate knowledge/skills and be responsible.

  • Tina

    I don’t think the name makes much of a difference, but if “backcountry” makes more people sit up and listen when it comes to avy danger, I’m all for it.

  • Bill

    a lot of awareness (dare i say respect?) seems to be lost with a quick lift to the top opposed to the timely skin up. also with the proximity to the resort the sense of “whoa, were really out here on our own” may really be gone, which provides a false sense of psychological security. from that, the word sidecountry is more dangerous to me. i say keep it separate.

  • j

    the word should go. in this day and age it shouldn’t take to long to get that message out either.
    in the past Canadian ski areas that I used to patrol at posted full avi and BC travel conditions daily. it was part of the opening procedure. still haven’t seen that in the US to this day.
    the resorts themselves need/have to do more.

  • Henry

    Call it backcountry. I see so many people heading out the access gates without any avalanche gear or training. If we treat it like everywhere else (which it is), I think it will inspire safer practices.

  • Chris

    I just read a post on a local forum, in which someone confessed to carrying a plastic shovel and a 2-meter probe, but only when skiing in the “slack-country.” I’ve asked him, “Why? Is there a direct relationship between the distance you are from the boundary to the size of the avalanche, and the depth it will bury you?” I’m still waiting for a reply.

    I think all of us, with any ties to backcountry riding and winter travel, have an obligation to hammer this point home: There is in bounds, and no bounds. There is the resort, and the backcountry. The backcountry is wild, lawless, and you are ultimately responsible for yourself. When you step outside the rope, you’re accepting that responsibility. There is no grey.

  • whispering

    When it was was correctly termed ‘out-of-bounds’ I feel like only those who were more prepared ventured. There was a certain stigma with it. Sidecountry does seem attract people to go and at a higher rate than they used to.

  • GOOG

    I equate the sidecountry mentality with not wearing a seat belt while driving around town. It’s branded as “easier” or “more accessible” which puts a false sense of security in the user’s mind. Considering the consequences, off with its head!

  • Hayduke

    Sidecountry should not be used. And slackcountry is such a horrible word, it just evokes images of red bull chugging morons in baggy florescent clothes triggering avalanches.

  • John Deans

    I agree that words do matter and that both “out of bounds” and “sidecountry” do not convey the right message. Will word changes alone keep people safe? No, but it’s a combination of factors and this one is important. We also need to color “backcountry” with a greater sense of danger and responsibility.

  • Don

    I agree that the warning signs and resort regulations indicating the danger of side country use should be sufficient to make ignorant skiers aware and backcountry experts being experts should recognize the dangers.

  • Paul

    Where did the word come from? Sounds like something from a ski company but was it first used by safe skiers unassuming of its potential, however misconstrued, implications?

  • Tony Fitzsimons

    I like “slackcountry” as a term for this terrain as is implies backcounrty without the effort but still insinuates the risks to a certain degree

  • J

    heres my non-expert opinion / made up definition
    sidecountry – a place where people may be (likely) skiing above you
    backcountry – a place where it is unlikely you will see anyone ie just you and your partner to a whole mountain
    wouldn’t my non-expert opinion / made up definition make sidecountry more dangerous?
    so i say keep the word

  • Paul Diegel

    Dropping the word “side country” is like agreeing to not use the word “breast cancer” or “unwanted pregnancy” because they are topics that scare us and we don’t have a good solution for them. Let’s focus on solving the problem, not arguing whether we should use the name.

  • BJ Marraccini

    absolutely. sidecountry implies a level of control and thus perceived safety that simply isn’t there. True sidecountry is inside the gates, not outside.

  • Anthony

    slackcountry has always been a bad name IMO. just because its beside the resort doesn’t mean the dangers aren’t there.

  • Mike

    Sidecountry is an accurate description of the way the terrain is accessed and should be used IMHO. BUT more effort should be given to teaching people that the two terms are not mutually exclusive and that in fact, sidecountry can be more dangerous than backcountry.

    The term slackcountry however should not be promoted or used because it can lead one to assume the terrain is safe so they can relax/or slack off.

  • AJ

    I agree that its a misconception of lurking dangers and the like. It has more to do with the gear designation. Most ‘sidecountry’ setups would suck to haul up a big peak, but some monkey can go into a shop and describe the type of skiing they do and be pointed toward a burly ski with a ‘kick ass’ duke on it that most wouldn’t take to the backcountry. I don’t use the term but I’m guessing the shops will hold on to it.

  • julian

    Absolutely. There should be a clear distinction and no grey area. One side of the ropes inbounds the other backcountry. Keep It Simple Stupid.

  • Josh

    How about ‘slide country’??? Maybe that’ll get the point across. There’s no doubt that skier compaction reduces the amount of avalanches in an area but it doesn’t reduce the amount of people in the same area. It always amazes me that when a slide does occur in ‘side country’ areas, more people don’t get buried.

    It would be great if someone had the time to look at the comparison between fatal accidents in the backcountry and side country. Though I haven’t seen the statistics, and I would bet they don’t exist, it seems likely that there are more deaths per human triggered slide than in the backcountry- mostly due to people not carrying safety gear (beacon, shovel, probe) and people not knowing how to use it if they do have it.

    Anyone looking for a senior project……

    I also agree with AJ’s point.

  • Josh

    From the Utah Avalanche Center:

    ….messaging [education] should acknowledge that not only is Sidecountry different than backcountry, but it is potentially MORE dangerous because users tend to be less educated and equipped, access is easier, users don’t get the stability clues that backcountry users get on a skin track, and there is more potential for large group social dynamics and incidents.

  • Brett

    I think eliminating the term sidecountry could help mitigate danger in the lift-accessed backcountry zones, but what would help more is if resorts with this access had a consistent and common sense way of managing it.

    Currently, it’s a joke because it’s completely different from resort to resort.

    Some resorts bomb and control these LABC zones, some don’t. Some have ‘gates’ that open and close from time to time, others don’t. Some require ‘permits’ to access this terrain that anyone can get if they simply sign a liability waiver, then never check to see if people even have a partner, probe, beacon, shovel.

    It varies so much from resort to resort that skiers aren’t sure exactly how LABC is patrolled or bombed. If it’s ‘closed’ sometimes due to danger and then ‘open’ does that mean it’s safe to ski?

    I think having all resorts adhere to the same policy is probably an impossible task, but if LABC policies were more clearly communicated and explained with some common sense in mind it would for sure help. Info could be better explained when skiers purchase lift tickets, and at the gates leaving the resort boundaries.

    The term we use for this lift accessed backcountry is all part of the puzzle.

  • Mike DeMino

    Your either in bounds, or in the back country. In Europe your on piste, or off piste. Off piste can even be within the ski area boundary. Just like ducking under a rope into a closed area of the resort. In the first you have snow safety and ski patrol, and the latter your responsible for your self. Side country is marketing term that encourages unprepared skiers and riders to venture into a place where they’re not prepared for the consequences.

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