Backcountry skiing seems to get more popular every year, with its untracked lines, solitude, and challenge enticing more and more lift-served skiers away from the resort and into the woods.
Getting into backcountry skiing can seem like a big ask, though. Where do you even start?
There are two key components to entering the world of backcountry skiing: equipment and education. In this article we’ll review the gear; for educational resources, check out the American Institute for Avalanche Research.
There are a few schools of thought about what is the “best” backcountry skiing gear, and there certainly isn’t one setup to rule them all. You’ve got to think about what you want to get out of a day in the backcountry:
Do you want to cover as many miles as possible?
Do you want to ski the steepest, gnarliest lines?
Are you you looking for a setup that attempts to do both?
Different equipment will excel at different aspects of backcountry skiing, so choosing the right gear for your personal style is must.
You can’t go backcountry skiing without skis. In today’s world of carbon and wood cores, banana rockers and twin tips, trekking skis and freeride boards, it can be confusing to figure out what’s right for you. The constant battle when choosing a touring setup is balancing uphill performance with downhill shred-ability.
A well-performing uphill ski will be lightweight, which makes it easy on the ascent, but can result in a chattery ride on hard snow. These skis can also be narrow, which also helps cut down on weight but diminishes the ski’s ability to float, leaving you wallowing in deep snow while your buds slay pow.
On the flip side, a super wide, damp ski will be outstanding at cutting up freshies or givin’ er off that rad drop, but will be a serious hindrance on the way up. By the time you haul your powder-hungry, champagne-chugging setup to the top, you may find that all the good turns have already been taken. Finding a balance between the two extremes is essential.
The next piece of the puzzle are skins. Skins essentially turn your skis into snowshoes for the hike up. They stick to the bottom of your ski using clips and an adhesive, and their plush underside glides along the snow when moving forward and grips when sliding backwards.
Skins can be made from synthetic material, mohair (a silk-like fabric made from the hair of the Angora goat), or a combination of the two. Ones made from synthetic material tend to grip better, while ones made from mohair glide more smoothly. Skins that blend the two provide a balance of these two qualities.
Many skins have clips that will fit onto any ski, but more and more ‘pre-cut’ skins are being designed to fit with notches and holes in specific skis. If there isn’t a ‘pre-cut’ skin made for your ski, fear not—just purchase ‘trim-to-fit’ skins for your skis and cut them to fit.
Alpine touring (AT) bindings, like telemark bindings, allow your heel to move freely when you’re hiking uphill. Unlike telemark bindings, they lock your heel in place when it’s time to descend, and the binding and ski will perform more akin to a typical alpine setup.
There are two main categories of AT bindings: tech bindings, which are lighter weight, and frame-style AT bindings, which are heavier, but have better downhill performance.
Tech bindings are only compatible with “tech boots”—boots with small fittings in the toe and heel that the binding clicks into. Historically, tech bindings have been designed more for uphill efficiency than downhill performance, but newer, beefier models like the Marker Kingpin or Dynafit Radical FT 2.0 are aiming to change that.
Frame-style AT bindings accept traditional alpine boots or boots with lugged AT soles. They grip your boot like an alpine ski binding, with the toe and heel pieces connected by a frame. They offer stability and security when you’re going downhill at the expense of weight—and the design requires you to lift your boot and the binding with every stride.
AT boots differ from alpine boots by having a “walk mode” that allows the cuff to pivot for a greater range of motion. They also feature lugged rubber soles that are more suitable for gripping difficult terrain when bootpacking, and are generally made of lighter materials to help you conserve energy on the way up.
As with everything else, when you’re choosing boots you’ll continue to need to find that balance between uphill and downhill performance. Some boots are incredibly light and have a huge range of motion through the ankle—making them ideal for the skin up and navigating tricky alpine traverses. On the flip side, these boots provide less stability and support on the descent. A burly boot that performs well on the way down will most likely have a more restricted range of motion and be heavier, which will make your climb more cumbersome.
Whatever type of boot you pick, make sure that they’re compatible with your bindings. Many AT boots are only compatible with tech bindings or specific frame bindings. This is because all true AT boots feature a rockered sole that many traditional alpine bindings cannot accommodate.
When it comes to backcountry ski poles, don’t overthink it. If you’ve already got a pair of poles that you love, you can probably just use those. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a pair of adjustable poles that you can manipulate throughout the day to fit the terrain you’re on. For example, on long, flat traverses you may want a longer pole, and when you’re skinning up steeper terrain, a shorter pole will help you keep your balance.
The one necessity of a backcountry ski pack is that it offers quick and easy access to your avalanche rescue tools (shovel and probe). Beyond that, everything is personal preference. A few convenient features a ski pack could have are a helmet carrying system, additional storage, and compatibility with a hydration bladder. If you plan to use a hydration bladder, be sure you also get an insulated hose sleeve. It really sucks—pun intended—when your water freezes in the hose.
Some packs offer survival features, like Black Diamond’s Avalung or airbag systems. In the event of an avalanche, the Avalung helps you breathe more easily while under the snow, giving your partners more time to find and extract you. Airbag systems fit in specific packs and can be deployed in the event of an avalanche. They can help minimize trauma and help you stay on top of the avalanche. Remember: neither one of these features guarantees your safety, nor are they a substitute for proper snow education and terrain management.
A beacon is probably the most important backcountry tool on this list. Without it, you’ll be unable to search for a partner buried in an avalanche (and they’ll be unable to search for you if you’re the one who’s buried). There are a number of different models of beacon out there and each one is different, however all of them are able to send and receive signals to one another.
Regardless of what beacon you choose, it is utterly useless unless you spend time practicing with it—in a real avalanche situation, you don’t want to be reaching for your instruction manual! Go out with friends a couple of times each season and spend a few hours burying beacons in your backyard or in the woods. The extra effort will make all the difference when you need to put your skills to the test.
Unlike the shovel you use to dig out your driveway, avy shovels are pretty cool. They’re used for digging test pits when analyzing snow pack and for clearing snow after an avalanche. It’s one of the three most important tools to have in the backcountry along with your beacon and probe; you need all three for any of them to be effective.
Different models of avalanche shovel have a number of different features, but they all share one trait: metal (aluminum) blades. This is because when snow stops moving after an avalanche, it sets like concrete and will shatter a plastic blade.
Some shovel blades are bigger than others, making it easier to move more snow but more difficult to pack. Shovel blade shapes also vary; some blades have pointed or serrated edges to make it easier to cut through the snow while others just have a flat edge.
There are also different types of shafts. Some have extendable handles which weigh more but offer better leverage when digging. Other shovels have a reversible “hoe mode,” which allows you to move snow more quickly. Finally, some shovels have space inside the shaft for probes or snow saws to free up some room in your pack.
An avalanche probe is a nine to ten foot long collapsable pole that’s used for—you guessed it—probing. In a burial situation, you’ll use your beacon to locate the general area of the buried skier. Once you get close, penetrating the snow with your probe will let you pinpoint the victim’s location. Proper beacon and probe technique will you save precious time when digging your buried comrade out, ultimately resulting in a higher chance of avalanche survival.
No matter what the forecast is, it’s important to have your “oh crap” layer in your pack. Find a lightweight puffy that packs down small and always keep it stashed in your pack. Weather can change quickly in the mountains, and people do sometimes get hurt. In the event that you’re caught standing around or have an injured person who needs to be kept warm, this layer will make a world of difference.
Food and Water
This one goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyways. Pack food and water. Even if you’re just going out for a morning tour, you never know what may happen. Also, when it’s cold your body burns more fuel, and skinning is hard work. Give your body the resources it needs to perform. You don’t need much, a few bars and a liter of water will go a long way.
Pro-tip: If you bring hot water in a thermos with a lid that doubles as a cup, you can scoop snow into the cup, then add hot water. The snow will melt in the cup and give you more liquid without having to carry any extra weight!
Just In Case Kit
While we all hope for carefree, happy-go-lucky days in the backcountry, things in the mountains don’t always go according to plan. It’s important to have a few emergency items tucked away inside your pack in case things go south. Bringing a headlamp, a multi-tool, two Voile straps, and a binding repair kit is a good place to start, and as you spend more time in the backcountry, you’ll figure out the items you need to build out your own “just in case” kit.
Another pro-tip: Snap your ski pole? You can make an emergency splint by tightly wrapping a Voile strap around a strip cut from an aluminum can. Whether you pack a strip of aluminum ahead of time or just repurpose it from your can of summit beer is, of course, up to you.
A Backcountry Education
We can’t stress enough how important it is to get yourself educated before embarking on a day of backcountry skiing. No matter how good your gear is, it’s useless without intimate knowledge of how to use it. Additionally, none of the gear we talked about above will help with route planning or safely navigating/assessing avalanche terrain. Take some snow safety classes, and spend time learning from experienced backcountry skiers. Practice using your equipment regularly and continue to seek out new skills and knowledge even as you become more seasoned.
Lastly, don’t forget to have fun. Bottomless pow awaits, all you have to do is find it. Safely.