Backcountry Skiing Equipment Guide: 12 Essentials for Your Backpack
Backcountry Skiing Essentials Quick List
- Avalanche Survival Kit
- Food and Water
- Maps (Knowledge of Area)
- Ice Axe and Crampons
- Hiking Poles
- Extra Charge
- Weather Forecast
- A Buddy
- Mountain Survival Gear
The State of the Backcountry
After a few winters of lackluster snowfall on the west coast, the 2016-2017 season brought us storm after storm, blessing skiers and snowboarders with record levels of snow. In fact, some mountain resorts are still getting snow well into the summer months, providing enough base to last through most of summer. Visit Timberline Lodge at Mt. Hood (Oregon), and you’ll find a a base depth of 144”, with 648” of total snowfall this season. In California, Mammoth Mountain has announced that they’ll be open daily, well into August. Everywhere you look, it sounds like there is going to be a ton of that sweet, sweet corn snow to shred for the duration of the off-season!
Even though it’s the time of year when the majority of resorts will be closed, leaving most of us without any have lift access, that doesn’t have to stop any of our shredding. Many of us skiers and riders are heading into one of our favorite times of year: STRUGGLEFEST! Strugglefest is a time for those of us who just can’t get enough to earn our turns. With our backpack full of backcountry essentials, along with the knowledge, the how-to, and the insatiable urge to slide on snow, we’re ready for a very successful touring season. With the amazing snow levels in the region, it won’t come as a surprise that shredhounds—far and wide—will be off in the backcountry, touring this spring and summer.
A group of friends and I recently set out to explore, summit, and ski/snowboard down Mount St. Helens (Washington). What we learned from the experience boils down to this: Ignore any article with that suggests there are “X Things You Should Bring With You in the Backcountry.” When it comes to backcountry and avalanche survival, you should NEVER limit the number of items you take with you. Each situation and scenario is unique. For instance, when backcountry touring, you’ll face the risk of avalanches, unmarked terrain, and snow conditions that are nothing like what skiers and riders find within resort boundaries . Sometimes you’ll need 27 things, sometimes you’ll only need 6 (you may not even use those!) Here’s a list of what we brought with us, along with some additional items to consider packing on your next backcountry skiing trip.
Backcountry Skiing Essentials
1. Avalanche Beacon & Survival Kit:
Bring: Avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe. These items are the bare minimum for skiing or snowboarding in the backcountry. Period.
Avalanche Beacon: Having an avalanche beacon(also known as an avalanche transceiver) is highly recommended (and generally required) if you plan on exploring the backcountry. There are a handful of different manufacturers to choose from nowadays, which can make beacon-shopping overwhelming. Searching for guidance online is an option, but it would be most beneficial to go to your local gear rental shop and talk to an expert. They can help you find the beacon that’s right for the type of touring you’ll be doing. Carrying a beacon can potentially be the difference between life and death. Choose the former; get a beacon.
Pro tip: Practice your beacon skills by teaming up with a friend and playing beacon hide-and-go-see—One of you buries the beacon while the other tries to find it. Make it a timed challenge for added friendly competition.
Shovel: A shovel is beneficial for a number of reasons: If you have a friend who is buried, a shovel can help with that. If you find yourself in a survival situation, you can easily dig yourself a snow cave.
Pro tip: If you find a sweet stash, you can build a jump and session it all day.
Probe: A probe is the tool that you absolutely need, but hopefully you’ll never have to use. If your friend gets buried in an avalanche, someone is potentially going to have to poke around in the snow and find the body—that’s what a probe is for. It is a situation that no one wants to talk about, , but it’s a situation that’s necessary to be aware of when dropping into unpatrolled areas. Probes take up very little space. Keep one on you.
Pro tip: The average burial depth is 140cm; keep that in mind when purchasing your probe. Don’t buy one that is too short, or you may not be able to locate your partner.
Unless you want to haul everything in your arms, or you have a MILLION of the best pockets in the world, it is probably a good idea to have some sort of backpack to carry your gear. Choose a backpack that will hold all the gear (including skis/snowboard) and food you’ll need for the day. Built-in water reservoirs make it that much easier to pack your H2O. Our good friends down at TREW Gear have created the Truce Air Rescue Drop Liner: a durable, waterproof bag that is sure to keep your belongings safe and dry. This limited-edition bag is especially durable, as it was the material was originally designed for Air Rescue drysuits for the US Coast Guard!
You may also want to consider a pack with a built-in, deployable airbag. If you find yourself caught in an avalanche, the airbag will keep you afloat on top of the surface of the avalanche, in the same way the biggest potato chips stay at the top of the bag of chips, while the crumbs sink to the bottom. Powder magazine did this helpful review on the most popular packs out there. Get an avalanche airbag. Be the big chip.
Pro tip: Adjust your pack to fit your body size, to make hiking more comfortable.
For long journeys, dense calorie foods and snacks are best. Foods like protein bars, trail mixes, dried fruits, and jerky provide an adequate amount of calories, but do not take up as much space. Don’t forget to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! This cannot be emphasized enough. While we all know it’s important to stay hydrated when you’re doing any sort of physical exertion, it is ESPECIALLY important in the backcountry. While higher altitudes mean more snow, it also means fewer oxygen molecules and lower atmospheric pressure. In the mountains, water evaporates at a higher rate, which not only makes you more prone to dehydration, but also affects how your body processes fuels. It’s imperative to keep yourself properly fed and watered.
Pro tip: Cook hard boiled eggs or pasta ahead of time, and pack it in a ziplock bag for a gourmet backcountry lunch.
Carrying a GPS unit can be helpful, but our battery-operated devices will only last so long (batteries die, things get wet, we lose stuff… Always have a map and compass with you (you might not need them, but if you do need them, you’ll REALLY need them). Topographical maps are usually available from the forest service, and can prove to have a multitude of purposes for the backcountry skier. Most importantly: know your terrain, or ski with someone who does. Some ski resort gift shops also sell topographical maps of the surrounding areas.
Pro tip: Don’t forget, you’re skiing in the age of technology. Take advantage of this and in addition to a physical map available, use the Snowledge app to track your days in the backcountry. With detailed topo maps of your current location, approach, descent, vertical feet skied and top speed, you can collect all the stats from your day on the mountain, as well as tag the friends you toured with.
Snow that may start as corn slush when you begin your tour at the lower elevations, can easily become bulletproof fields of ice when you reach those higher elevations. Keep yourself safe from unnecessary slips and falls with an ice axe and crampons (which attach to your footwear).
Pro tip: Learn how to self-arrest.
Poles are great to help you with balance while skinning or hiking uphill. Find a set that are both lightweight and adjustable in length for the next time you head out on an alpine adventure.
The wrong clothing can make your backcountry ski trip one to remember, but not in a good way. No one likes to be wet and cold in the middle of a snowfield. Wear moisture-wicking base layers (wool is great for this, like any NuYarn layers), and make sure your outerwear is warm and waterproof. If you end up with wet or damp clothes while you are out in the the elements, you run the risk of developing hypothermia. Dress appropriately and in layers; you can always remove extra clothes if necessary.
Pro tip: Bring an extra pair of wool socks and gloves; these are game-changers when your feet and hands get wet or cold.
While we discourage the overuse of electronics in the wilderness, having enough charge for your devices can be clutch for staying safe and connected. Bring a power bank and extra batteries so that you’re able to do all those things that are absolutely essential for your survival, listed here in no particular order: finding your way, seeing the trees in front of you, snapchatting your friends, and calling for help. Bonus points for USB solar chargers, if you’ve got the goods and/or space to bring one.
Pro tip: Definitely have backup battery life for your essential equipment, because. no one wants an avalanche beacon with a dead battery.
Is a storm coming into the region where you’re planning to tour? Did the temperatures raise or lower recently? It would be awful to travel hours to your destination only to get stormed out because of some unexpected weather rolling in last-minute. For instance, if it is clear in the morning, and a storm comes through in the afternoon, conditions might not be ideal by the time to reach your destination. Instead of putting yourself into a potentially harmful situation, know the forecast ahead of time and prepare accordingly.
Pro tip: The Northwest Avalanche Center website is a great place to find out about current avalanche dangers, snowfall amounts, and weather.
People sometimes forget this vital equipment piece. Have a friend with you…and one who is backcountry savvy. If you end up in a dangerous situation, having a friend who can respond immediately in a crucial moment can save your life. Snowledge ambassador and backcountry aficionado Jed Kravitz summed up the buddy system best: “If you plan on skiing in the backcountry—or even outside the resort boundaries—make sure that you always have someone else with you. Skiing alone is very dangerous because if something happens,there is no one out there to help you.”
Pro tip: Practice backcountry skills with your buddy, so you know that each of you are skilled to have each other’s backs in a real time of need.
There are plenty of other items to consider bringing with you (especially in a survival situation). Make this your mantra: “It’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.” That said, you may want to consider any or all of the following:
Skins or Snowshoes: These can make your uphill travel less physically demanding than boot-packing/post-holing.
Light: Bring a headlamp or flashlight if you are starting your tour during the wee hours of the morning, or if you find yourself in an overnight situation.
Fire Starter: Waterproof matches are best for backcountry. Lighters function poorly in wet or windy conditions. It’s also a good idea to carry an easy-to-start kindling pack. An old toilet paper roll stuffed with dryer lint can make for a quick and easy firestarter in a pinch. Just make sure you pack it away in something waterproof!
Knife: Your best and most basic survival tool.
Rope: If you fall into a crevasse, you are going to want someone with a rope to pull you out. Bringing a rope will make you very popular when all your friends fall into a crevasse—hopefully you never need it.
Firstaid Kit: No one ever plans to get hurt. At minimum, you should be prepared for scrapes, cuts, and minor injuries. A basic first-aid kit will suffice.
Poncho: These take up very little room and hardly weigh anything; tossone in your pack in case you end up in a rainstorm.
Sunscreen: The air is thinner at higher elevations. Listen to your mom and protect your skin from harmful UV rays.
Multi-Tool: If something goes wrong with your ski or snowboarding gear, bring a tool along for repairs or you might find yourself downhill hiking instead of downhill skiing.
Shelter: There are a multitude of lightweight, emergency shelters to choose from, ranging from sleeping bags to bivy sacks and emergency tents. These items are small enough to stuff in your backpack and weigh next to nothing.These will shelter you from the elements should you find yourself in an overnight situation, or if you need to hunker down for an extended period of time to let a storm pass. If you don’t mind putting in the effort, you also have the option to construct yourself a snow cave in these situations.
Of course, you’re going to need proof of your adventure… and you’ll need to stack up photos for all of your followers on Snowledge and Instagram.
Not only is backcountry skiing and snowboarding a great way to keep sliding on snow long after the resorts close, it’s also a great way to escape into nature. The calm and tranquil silence of the mountains is scientifically proven to reduce stress, and the adventure of being somewhere with little human contact is icing on the cake. If you’re looking for an escape, go load up your packs and join the Strugglefest—all we ask is that you do it safely, and with all the right gear so you can climb another day! #SnowledgeIsPowder #Snowledge
Get inspired for your own trips off the grid by checking out the Snowledge team’s backcountry adventures this year: