If you want to start backcountry skiing there are some basic steps you need to take to get yourself going. One essential step is getting the right gear that will not only keep you comfortable in the field, but also help keep you, and your party safe in case of an emergency. A recent comment from an Unofficial reader has prompted this checklist:
“Hey Brennan I’m keen to go out and buy a touring setup and start earning turns rather than spending every weekend waiting in the lines at Squaw. A post on how to get started would be really cool, and probably appreciated by the other people that read blog posts like this and wish they were out there. I’m mainly interested in what gear to buy (split up into what’s essential when you are starting off, what’s good to have once you know what you are doing, and then luxuries that you’d buy if you were out there every day – which you seem to be), where to learn some skills so you don’t put lives in danger, and some good places to start out. cheers”
My response is listed below. Before I get started I want to make mention that interest in the sport, and advances in backcountry skiing gear has exploded in recent years. At no other time in the history of the sport has so much quality gear been available to the consumer. However, backcountry skiing remains a dangerous activity, and is predicated on the reality that it is the users responsibility to take caution when engaging in this sport. Serious injury and death can come as a result. On the flip side, a safe day in the backcountry is like nothing else. Few things in life are as beautiful as spending a day lapping a mountain with fresh snow and a few of your closest friends.
What follows is a subjective perspective of advice that is useful for a beginning backcountry skier, informed by my own personal experience based on time spent in the field, assisted by the gear I have used and tested, and experiences that have come as a result. If you don’t know how to use your gear, how to read/interpret an avalanche forecast, or travel safe in avalanche terrain this gear won’t be as empowering as it is meant to be. That said, this piece is solely meant to provide a basic list of gear one should own before starting off on the golden road to backcountry skiing.
Each of the following pieces of gear, or an equivalent product can be purchased through top online retailers, such as our Unofficial #1 choice, evo.com. Each piece of gear listed below will be actively linked to either take you to evo where you can purchase the piece of equipment discussed, or the link will take you to a review of the piece of gear mentioned, or website where you can read more about the item.
If you want to talk to a live person, and get the best-personalized service possible in the greater Tahoe area, everything you’ll ever need to backcountry ski can be picked up at Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City. The gals and guys at Alpenglow use just about every piece of gear they sell in the shop. They’re a cornerstone local business in our community, and if you do end up purchasing equipment through Alpenglow, beyond supporting our local economy, you’ll develop a relationship with some of the best service women and men in the business, gain intimate knowledge in the shop by being ale to ask them specific questions, and gain a better understanding of what’s the best piece of gear for you.
Basic Equipment List
Starting from the basis that you have the motivation to get out in the backcountry, i.e., use human power to access your turns, there are a few necessary items that are essential to own. These three pieces of gear form a basic triangle of safety equipment meant to mitigate a potential death that can come from being caught in an avalanche (beacon, shovel, probe).
Beacon: If you are travelling and skiing in avalanche terrain it is unacceptable to be without a beacon (avalanche transceiver). If you get caught in an avalanche and buried this is a tool that will allow you to be found. On the flip side, if someone in your party, or someone in a zone you are skiing gets buried in an avalanche, this is the tool that will help you find them. There are numerous high quality beacons on the market these days, and like all of the gear I’ll discuss in this piece, people choose to use specific types of gear largely dependent on price, brand, and features. There are many thoughts on the issue if you search around online, but for the past few years I’ve skied with and have trusted an Ortovox S1.
Probe: After you’ve searched for your victim using your beacon, located a signal, and honed in on their location, if there are no exposed body parts indicating exactly where they are buried, you’ll need to get your probe out to make contact with the body first before starting to dig them out.
Shovel: When you locate a victim in an avalanche using your beacon and probe the next thing you need to do is dig them out. While plastic shovels are generally smaller and lighter, they also have a tendency to fail under extreme pressure, or even from extreme temperatures. A nice sized aluminum shovel blade is highly recommended, and for the past several years I’ve owned, used, and trusted a BCA Arsenal Shovel Probe Combo. I have used a separate shovel and probe system in the past, but like having my probe conveniently stored in my shovel shaft with this system.
Next in line
Bindings: You can get alpine trekkers, or you can use snowshoes, but I don’t recommend either options. Both are heavy, bulky, and inefficient. The way to go theses days, if you’re not using a tele-binding or are a splitboarder, is to get an AT setup. I used Fritschi’s for years, and while they do work, all you really need to know to start your process off right is to get a pair of Dynafits. They are the lightest, most efficient, bomber binding available today. I recommend the FT 10 model since that’s what I’ve used and trust, although any binding they make is a viable option.
A special mention should be made for Marker Dukes as well. They are super heavy and really inefficient from a touring standpoint as they are essentially an inbounds binding that allows you to hike with a free-heel. However, I have a pair that I ski on when I’m inbounds and love them for that, but I also tour on them on really deep days because they’re mounted on my favorite pair of powder skis. Sometimes the benefit of bomber performance outweighs the burden of added weight. Ideally I’d just have another pair of Dynafits on my Praxis Powderboards, because for skiing the backcountry, there is no better binding you can buy. But if you’re going to mostly ski inbounds, and tour once-in-a-while, these might be a good option for you.
Skins: Because you’re smart and already know snowshoes and trekkers are only going to hold you back in the long run you got yourself an AT binding, and now you need some skins. We’ll talk about skis in a moment, but depending on what ski you choose to use that will probably influence what skins you buy. If you buy a Dynafit ski like the Stoke, you’ll probably want to get the skins specifically made for those skis. For most other skis I‘m a big fan of Black Diamond skins, specifically the Ascension skins. They’re not as light as you can go, but they are durable, glide well, stick to the skin track well, and are relatively easy-on, easy-off.
Boots: When I used snowshoes for my first local backcountry mission up Castle Peak I quickly learned why people use skins. Likewise after a couple of stubborn years using alpine boots to backcountry ski due to financial constraints, I finally saw the light and got myself a pair or AT ski boots and haven’t looked back. A lot of people will tell you why they like this boot more than that boot. For the past several years I’ve skied on Garmonts and find them to be the best balance of comfort and performance money can buy. I loved the Axons, but now swear by the Radiums. They’re the best ski boot I’ve ever used. I’m also looking forward to trying out the Masterlite’s this season, which speaks to a newer push from the industry to offer lighter weight AT boots that work on the down, but excel on the up.
Skis: The biggest movement beyond just the influx of quality gear in the backcountry ski world over the past few years has been to continually refine equipment to be lighter while maintaining durability and performance on the decent. Dynafit makes some of the lightest skis on the market that many skiers find give them exactly what they need for skinning and skiing. Personally, I’ve skied the Stoke a good 40 or so days and don’t really love them. The up is fantastic, but the down is not what I’m looking for, personally. The only way you’re going to find the right ski for you is to test pairs out and see what works best for you, or do your best pooling information from those who have tested and reviewed skis, and make a decision based on second-hand knowledge. I’m constantly on the search for harmony between light and smooth on the up, with no compromise on the down. This is why I sometimes choose to ski my relatively heavy powder skis on super deep days in our own local backcountry because the skis are just so much more fun than anything else I’ve ever used. That said, I’m really looking forward to skiing Praxis Freeride skis as my go-to backcountry ski this year. If I wasn’t 6’ 3”, 200+/- lbs, I’d probably be skiing the Praxis BC Boards, or be content with the Dynafit Stoke.
Backpack: With so many choices, again it boils down to what are your primary objectives, and what is the lightest thing out there, that’s comfortable to you, and has the capacity to store and carry everything you need. I switch my pack on and off depending on my particular mission. For most moderate to long days, although it is a bit heavy and bulky, the Mystery Ranch Big Sky Pack has been the most comfortable pack I’ve ever skied with and I love it. If I’m trying to go lighter and don’t need to carry “all” my backcountry gear, I often use an older pack I’ve had for years.
Poles: Any will do, but some turn into a probe, and some are collapsible. That’s what I’ve used for a while now, Black Diamond collapsible poles, and I find these are the best option for backcountry skiing. When I’m boot-packing I can collapse my poles for better efficiency while hiking. Likewise depending on how deep and steep the skin track is I adjust the size while on the up, and change them back for a proper skiing length on the down. They also strap to my pack easily when collapsed if I’m using another tool to climb on an ascent such as an ice axe.
Proper Clothing System: The basics are pretty much what you want for inbounds skiing, but specifically married to backcountry skiing. You want to think about breathability and quick changeovers. Just remember lighter is better, and a lifetime warranty is worth the extra bucks up front.
Base Layer: Patagonia
Insulating Layer: Brooks Range
Protective Layer (hood preferable): Patagonia
Hat: Something like this will do
That is a basic checklist of gear you need for a “regular” day out backcountry skiing. Check back soon and I’ll have Part II, an addition that will build from this piece and include topics such as other items you might want while out in the field, and where to get necessary avalanche education before heading out.