Beyond Boundaries: Changing Behaviour in BC’s Backcountry

When I became a mom in the wee hours of Nov. 23, 2007, I knew one thing for certain; the adorable mass of baby goodness cradled in my arms would one day reject all words of motherly wisdom. In fact, it’s already started. My girl is six, so we’re not at the “don’t do drugs” stage yet, but even gentle reminders to wear a hat already elicit heavy sighing, prolonged eye-rolling and the now standard response, “seriously mom?”

I’m not so old that I can’t remember my own rebellions. No matter how smartly my parents packaged good advice, I would inevitably break the rules. Being told something is good (or not good) for you doesn’t always sink in. And now karma is paying me a visit.

The Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) is grappling with the very same thing, only on a much grander scale. It’s seeking answers to big questions like: What’s the most effective way to keep young people safe beyond boundaries? And how do you deliver the message so that it actually results in behavioural change?

Heady stuff, I know. That’s why the CAC has sought the expertise of social marketer Randi Kruse, a specialist in the science of behavioural change and principle of Kruse Consulting. Her job is to figure out what will motivate 20-somethings to play it safe in the backcountry — in other words, she has to make it cool.

Her research and subsequent campaign will not only be used by the CAC, but other supporting U.S. organizations including, SnowSports Industries America (SIA), the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the Utah Avalanche Center and the Northwest Avalanche Center.

I had the chance to chat with Kruse this week to learn more about the ground-breaking project. Read on for the details. And as a side note…a special thanks to Randi for putting up with periodic interruptions from my daughter, who always finds an emergency when I’m on the phone, and by emergency I mean Netflix was on the fritz.

The positive power of peer pressure

Beyond Boundaries_ Changing Behaviour in BC's Backcountry

A resident of Whistler and the mother of two children, ages 6 and 10, Kruse has homegrown motivation for changing behaviour around backcountry safety. While her kids are too young to duck the rope now, their close proximity to some of the world’s best terrain makes it a good bet they one day will.

“Riding behind the line has definitely developed a whole different meaning for me,” laughs Kruse, who’s an avid skier herself.

It was Kruse’s connection to the Whistler/Blackcomb community that first led her to the CAC and discussions around increasing the effectiveness of its avalanche awareness programs. While the centre already runs a yearly avalanche awareness campaign, provides support for classrooms and has introduced a mentorship program that matches youth with seasoned backcountry trekkers, the nagging question remains whether more can be done.

“The problem with just raising awareness — to use climate change as an example — is a lot of people are aware of climate change, but that doesn’t really help. It doesn’t move the needle,” says Kruse. “Information alone doesn’t lead to action. Social marketing really takes the target audience into account first. It uncovers the benefits of the behaviour change to the audience and promotes that. People don’t buy what you do or sell, they buy why.”

Kruse will conduct focus groups in Canada and the U.S. over the next few weeks to suss out exactly that kind of data. The target is men in their 20s, who represented about 22 per cent of winter activity deaths in B.C. between 2007 and 2013.

Possible “peer” benefits to being properly prepared for an avalanche include: Being perceived as a trusted friend who knows how to assess risk and dig his buddies out; being able to safely explore a wider variety of terrain with advanced training and gear; being part of an elite group of skiers and boarders with a special skill set; and fewer injuries or lost days on the mountain.

The goal isn’t to prevent people from riding big backcountry lines. The goal is to make riding those big lines UNSAFELY a socially unacceptable thing to do – akin to making bike helmets or seatbelts cool.

“The best way to change any behaviour at all is to make people think they’re violating a social norm,” says Kruse. “We aim to create a new social norm.”

Because the upcoming focus groups will drive the content of the multi-media campaign, Kruse can’t say exactly what it will look like yet, but early ideas include working with skiing, and snowboarding filmmakers.

“The final content needs to come from people who look just like the group we’re targeting. We all look to friends and peers to influence our choices,” says Kruse. “We already know film plays a big role – how it shapes those ambitious, big rides in pro-riding movies. But what you don’t see right now is the prep work that goes into them. You don’t see the snow pits, the forecasters, the beacons. That’s something we hope to change.”

The first pieces of the new campaign should start rolling out by mid-February. It will serve as the foundation of what will be a long-term project.

“Meaningful change doesn’t happen overnight; we didn’t all start wearing our seatbelts the day the law changed,” says Kruse. “No one’s really interested in being the first out of the gate, but they definitely don’t want to get left behind.”

Get ‘em when they’re young

IMG-20110220-00028Youth run through an AST course west of Revelstoke in 2011. (photo courtesy of Brent Strand)

Underpinning the CAC’s push for behavioural change is good old-fashioned avalanche education. Since 2004, the centre has had a dedicated youth coordinator who works directly in classrooms and oversees a library of online materials to support related programs and volunteer groups.

In mountain communities, the outreach begins in Kindergarten and builds all the way to Grade 12. Starting them young is considered a key to success.

“We’re getting in on the ground floor, making kids aware early on that avalanche safety is an issue for people who live in and visit mountain towns,” says Mary Clayton, CAC communications director. “Recognizing we’re a not-for-profit organization, we’re doing our best to be a hub for educators and provide as much support as possible.”

For kids in Kindergarten to Grade 3, the message starts off simple; always be with an adult and stay inbounds. For Grades 4 to 7 the subject of backcountry — what it is, what it means — is introduced. In Grade 7, tougher topics, like accidents and fatalities — the potential consequences of traveling beyond boundaries — are up for discussion.

By Grade 8, around the ages of 13 and 14, the subject of riding the backcountry invariably comes up. While the message is still “stay inbounds”, teens that duck the rope are encouraged to only do it with the right gear, the knowledge to use that gear and in the company of an experienced parent or adult mentor.

In Grades 10 to 12, the more technical aspects of avalanche education are explored, namely what you need to know to assess avalanche risk and where to get the right training. Avalanche Skills Training (AST) courses are available at age 16. A Companion Rescue Skills course can also be used as a stepping stone to AST courses, or as a general refresher for those who’ve already completed them.

By graduation, most kids have had 12 years of repeated avalanche safety talk. The CAC hopes by then that youth are wise enough not to venture out-of-bounds without proper preparation. That said, kids are kids. For those inclined to make bad decisions, it’s hoped peer pressure will carry some weight.

“It’s like anything – some get it, some don’t. Some will always think they’re invincible,” says current CAC Youth Education Coordinator Bridget Daughney. “But if that person is talking “superman style”, their peers will often make them think twice. They’ll say, ‘You’re crazy, I’m not doing it. That can make the difference.’”

Higher education

Have a child who skis, rides or sleds? Live in a mountain town or plan to visit one? The CAC has great online education resources that offer something for every age group.

Youth Forum: A one-stop-shop for programs aimed at kids and teens. (Also has great sections for parents and teachers.)

Get the Training: You can take an AST course as young as 16 if you’ve got what it takes.

Behind the Lines: A CAC Facebook page dedicated to helping youth ride big lines safely.

Know Before You Go: Check CAC bulletins for the latest on avalanche conditions across B.C.

Forecaster’s Blog: A first-person look at what goes into an avalanche forecast.

Take it with you on Twitter: Follow the CAC via @avalancheca.

Be prepared: @EmergencyPrepBC has great tips for staying safe in the backcountry.

Avalanche Awareneness Days: The CAC has a list of events January 18 & 19. Check EmergencyPrepBC for YouTube footage.

Don’t be the next statistic

Infographic: Backcountry Safety