I recently got the opportunity to go cat-skiing for the first time. There was 4 feet of totally untracked powder just waiting for us to dive into. It was so exciting that I almost forgot we would need to be very aware of the avalanche danger. It was my first real experience in the backcountry, thus my first time wearing a beacon and wondering about the snow stability under my feet. Skiing and riding in the backcountry is a beautiful thing, but it takes planning and proper precautions. As the recent incidents at the Canyons and Vail have proven, avalanches don't just happen outside ski area boundaries.
When in the backcountry, here are some things to keep in mind:
Most avalanches occur on slopes between 35 and 45 degrees.
Slopes covered with windblown snow and more dangerous.
Look for collapsing snow. Listen for a "whomp" sound. This sound means that snow is extremely unsafe. Move out of the area immediately, and stay off of steep slopes.
Watch for rapid changes in weather.
Look for cracks in snow. The longer the crack the higher the danger.
Use slope cuts.
Travel one at at time.
If you get caught in an avalanche:
Try and swim before you start to sink. This will help keep you above as much snow as possible. As the avy starts to slow and before it comes to a rest, try to clear as much space around your head for an air pocket. Push a hand upward to try and have a visual marker. Once settled, the snow will become like concrete. Try to stay calm and slow your breathing. And struggling at this point is generally fruitless. Wait and listen for rescuers.
It's very rare that avalanches occur in bounds but it's always a good idea to be educated. Stay smart and have fun!