IMPORTANT: You should always carry an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe when travelling in avalanche terrain and know how to use them. Backcountry travel requires an acceptance of the risks involved (avalanches are not the only danger) and implies a willingness to take responsibility for educating oneself about these dangers and ways to mitigate them. We recommend that backcountry travelers take an AIARE Level One class or the equivalent, and practice the skills they learn there regularly with their partners.
Backcountry skiing and snowboarding is an exciting way to dive into new terrain and find fresh snow. While knowledge is the most important tool you can bring into avalanche terrain, you must also equip yourself with the right backcountry gear. From avalanche equipment, to the right backpack, and skins for your skis or splitboard, this guide will help you prepare for your next backcountry adventure.
Three of the most essential and well known pieces of avalanche gear are your avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe. This is the essential gear needed in an avalanche rescue. An avalanche transceiver (also known as a beacon) transmits a signal that can be picked up by other beacons. In the event of a burial, the beacons of the search party are switched into ‘search’ mode and pick up the signal of the buried individual(s), pinpointing their location. Most of the beacons on the market are digital and have 3 antennas, while some have features that include a display screen, the ability to track multiple burials, and a higher range of signal pick up.
Avalanche probes are used by searchers to pinpoint the location of a buried individual before digging them out. A probe looks like a long tent pole used to poke through the surface of the snow until you feel the buried skier. At this point you use an avalanche shovel to dig out the victim. Avalanche shovels and probes are fairly straight forward pieces of gear. The biggest differences from brand to brand, are weight, size, and materials.
To carry all of your gear, it is best to opt for a backcountry backpack that is designed for skiing and snowboarding. There are a couple of features that set these winter-specific packs apart. First, they have straps to easily carry your skis or board, which makes the occasional bootpack much more enjoyable. They also have a separate compartment for your avalanche gear that allows for quick access in the case of an emergency. Additionally, it keeps your main compartment with extra layers and food dry and safe from your wet avy tools. Ski backpacks can also be compatible with other tools such as avalanche airbags or an AvaLung. Just like a jacket, it is worth it to try on different packs from different brands to find the one with the best fit for your liking. The size of pack that you need will depend on the length of your adventures, but in general, 30 liters is a good starting point.
Ski & Snowboard Gear
In order to access backcountry zones in the most efficient manner possible, skiers and snowboarders use touring setups. For both skis and snowboards this means lightweight equipment and bindings that allow you to free your heel on the way up, and click or strap back in for the descent.
Touring bindings make this easy for skiers. Snowboarders, meanwhile, use splitboards, which come apart into two ski-like pieces for the ascent and click back together for the descent. You can ride any skis or splitboard that you like, keeping in mind that you have to carry them to the top, so weight is certainly an important detail to keep in mind when choose your sticks. Splitboards come in a variety of shapes and sizes, just like normal snowboards.
The Voile splitboard binding system allows you to use your current bindings, but these are generally a little heavier than dedicated touring bindings which have the interface between the board and the bindings built in. The Karakorum system, is a different iteration of a splitboard bindings, with its own interface.
The biggest factor when choosing your touring skis is weight, but there are a couple other characteristics you should to take into consideration. Ski mountaineers who seek summits, not powder, often choose a ski in the 70-90mm waist range, where a ski in the 90mm-115mm range is better suited to all-around use. Many people choose more traditional ski shapes and camber profiles to ensure effective contact of the bases to snow which translates to more efficiency uphill. Some rocker is fine, but a full rockered setup sacrifices your uphill performance, as less of your skins will come into contact with the snow – this means less grip.
Ski touring bindings come in two styles – frame bindings or tech bindings. Frame bindings look much like a normal binding, and allow you to use any alpine boot. They are heavier, but a great option for someone new to touring who is only going to be doing an occasional short excursion. Tech bindings use pins in the front and rear to secure your boot in place, and are much lighter than frame bindings. Most aren’t built to take the impacts of jumps and big hucks, but they make up for it with their lightweight and better touring performance. Your boot must be compatible with pins to use a tech setup. Newer to the scene, the Marker Kingpin and Salomon/Atomic SHIFT are mid-weight bindings that utilize tech pins for the uphill, but secure your boot in much like an alpine binding for the descent. Choose here based on the amount of riding you will be doing inbounds versus the backcountry.
To make the ascent, you attach skins to the base of your skis or splitboard. Skins have an adhesive side that sticks to the base of your gear, and a directional carpet-like material on the bottom side that doesn’t allow you to slip backward on snow allowing you to walk up the mountain. For both splitboard skins and ski skins, unless you find a setup that comes with pre-fit skins, purchase an appropriate length and width and then trim them for a perfect fit.
While most skins look the same, they come in a couple different materials- synthetic (nylon), mohair, and a blend. Synthetic skins are more durable and less expensive, but don’t glide as well as mohair, while mohair skins are smooth but less durable. A blend of the two is a solid compromise if you’re looking for a better balance of glide and durability.
Basic Backcountry Checklist:
- Skis or Splitboard
- Climbing Skins
- First Aid
- Water & Snacks
- Other useful tools: Snowpit Analysis Kit, Slope Meter, AvaLung, Airbag
There are endless options and brands when it comes to avalanche gear. Whether it’s the latest technology or has stood the test of time, the best avalanche gear is the the equipment you’re comfortable using and have practiced with. Above is a basic checklist for backcountry skiing and snowboarding. The specific gear you pack should always adapt to your group, skills, and objectives. The backcountry is an amazingly rewarding place, but is also unforgiving, make sure you are educated and geared up to have a safe and fun time!