Getting into the backcountry for the first time can be an intimidating experience. There are many scenarios where it pays to go with a guide, especially in variable winter conditions.
To help you get the most out of hiring a guide, we asked Exum, one of the foremost mountain guiding services in the country, for some tips.
Jackson Hole-based Brenton Reagan, a lead guide for Exum, set these expectations for maximizing your first (or next) guided outdoor adventure.
Don’t let the gear guide you.
Don’t get overwhelmed by all the necessary gear for the specific trip. That’s what a guide is for. A quality backcountry service will help you understand what to buy and what you can get away with borrowing the first time.
For example, for the winter backcountry mountain treks that Exum typically leads, Reagan recommends purchasing those all-important AT boots but borrowing an avalanche beacon and probe from the guide service. He also advises buying hiking boots and anything else that goes on your feet.
You can also ask about demoing big-ticket items like skis during the trip. That way you can see if you love the specific adventure before investing in the gear to do it better or more often.
And definitely try to break in any brand-new gear before showing up for a guided excursion off the grid.
“I’m a huge nonfan of new things,” said Reagan, who always prefers a broken-in pair of gloves on the mountain. “So put on your brand-new ski boots and throw them down on the carpet, try on your layers, and carry a backpack around town.”
It makes the guide’s life easier too.
Think of guiding as education first.
To get the most out of your first or next foray into the backcountry, soak up information from the experts rather than just letting guides do all the work.
“You’ll have way less decision fatigue if you’re with a pro who knows the area, even if it’s just for the first couple days,” Reagan said. “Plus, taking a class versus getting guided has a different emotional connotation.”
But to make sure you’re getting a good guide in the first place, check that the service is accredited by the American Mountain Guides Association. That’s still the gold standard for mountain guides.
Then go into the adventure like it’s an outdoor classroom. Reagan calls what Exum guides do more of a mentorship. Guides love to teach and give people the tools to eventually adventure on their own.
One of Reagan’s favorite “classroom” supplies is a good old notebook and mechanical pencil. “I take one every day I go to the backcountry,” he said. “It always works, and I don’t have to take my gloves off, especially in a winter environment.”
The practice isn’t uncommon. For example, most avalanche course instructors encourage new students to use a notebook to record snow stats.
But Reagan advises channeling your inner outdoor geek even when going with a guide. Write down anything that could inform your next experience in the mountains. That could be weather observations or pertinent personal information that could help in planning another tour.
“Maybe it’s just, ‘Wow, the sun was really hot on the southeast face, and maybe it will have snow crust the next day.’ Or what not to do, like, ‘I don’t want to go above 10,000 feet the next time,’” Reagan said.
Hire a guide with a group.
Reagan said he’s seen an uptick in small groups of friends booking together. Most want to achieve the same thing in the outdoors: proficiency.
For example, after a few women recently called hoping to learn how to navigate the backcountry on a snowboard. So two female Exum guides put together a first-timer splitboard group.
According to Reagan, a guide provides good recommendations on completing that first goal together and where to safely plan your own group outing next time.
Going with a group also saves money. “There is so much more of a yearning for higher education from people who aren’t super wealthy,” Reagan said of the stereotype that sometimes comes with hiring a guide.
In a private three- to four-person format, it’s really pretty affordable, he said. And the intimacy can help take entry-level outdoor enthusiasts and advanced skiers alike to the next level.
But it doesn’t matter what level you’re at or how many times you’ve been off the grid. A guide is a catalyst to help tackle what before seemed impossible — and maybe do it all over again.
“It’s not that you are paying someone to drag you around,” Reagan said, “but rather how much you can learn from that person.”