In the last ten years, the popularity of backcountry skiing and the advancements in its gear have grown exponentially. It is interesting to think about whether better gear has increased backcountry use, or increased popularity has driven innovation. Regardless, the gear that is available to us today makes getting to the untracked snow even easier. However, dropping thousands of dollars on the latest and greatest equipment will not get you in better shape, or make you more experienced in the backcountry. The truth is that the best gear is the gear you are most familiar and comfortable with. That said, there is equipment that has become standard in the backcountry, and I’ll provide a little rundown on the most efficient choices.
In general, snowshoes are a poor choice for day to day backcountry use. They are difficult to side-hill (traverse) with, they take up a ton of room in your pack for the descent, and lack the efficient kick and glide motion of skinning, not to mention they are downright slow. Modern Alpine Touring, Telemark, and Split-Board gear are by far the best choices for backcountry travel. I won’t go into specifics on what brands you should buy, but keep in mind that 90% of your time touring is spent going uphill. Therefore, try to keep weight in mind when choosing gear, as with every step you will be picking up your boots, bindings, skis and skins, and the weight of any moisture this gear has soaked up.
As with any day in the woods, there is a checklist of things that you will want to have to facilitate the best possible experience, and stay prepared for any situation. Here is a list of what I keep in my pack. Of course many of these items are personal preference, but this is what I have found to work.
- A backpack with at least 35 Liters of space. This will provide you with enough room for cold winter tours when you’ll bring more food and layers. Of course you can get by with a smaller pack, but cramming your gear into a pack that barely fits everything can be frustrating.
- Beacon, Shovel, Probe. Treat this as one unit. If you’re missing one, you don’t go out, no matter what.
- I have found that nylon works best, mohair is lighter but doesn’t grip as well.
- Waterproof / Windproof shell jacket and pants, sun hat and warm hat.
- Cotton Kills. DO NOT wearing anything cotton on a tour. It will hold moisture and feel incredibly cold once you sweat. Wool or synthetic poly-pro is the best option for base layers and socks.
- 2 pairs of gloves. A lightweight pair you can sweat in on the uphill, and a warm pair to wear on the downhill and when resting.
- Helmet and goggles.
- Sunglasses; if the sun breaks even for half an hour on a storm day, you’ll wish you had them. Sunscreen; at elevation, the sun has fewer layers of atmosphere to filter out its harmful rays, and the snow reflects the sun very effectively. I wear sunscreen on every tour.
- A foam butt pad. A great way to sit down and relax on a warm, dry seat. Also doubles as an emergency sleeping pad should you need to stay out a night.
- A warm “puffy” insulating layer. I bring one even on the warmest days. Again, in case you need to spend the night.
- An emergency space blanket, first aid kit, headlamp and lighter.
- Skin wax. You won’t need it most of the time, but cold snow can stick to wet skins and make gliding incredibly slow and frustrating. Applying skin wax alleviates this issue.
- Cell phone, or better yet, Personal Locator Beacon. Even if you’re the “low-tech” type, this will make a rescue scenario 100 times easier. And if you don’t think you’ll ever need to make that call… I had to in 2012 for a friend’s ski accident, so stay prepared.
- Lots of food and water. My estimate for my personal calorie and water requirements are 1000 calories and 3/4 liter water for every 2,000 feet of elevation gain.