I had a slow evolution of getting into backcountry and acquiring all the gear. I think that’s just fine, there’s no point in spending tons of money when you are still figuring out if you like a sport or not.
When I started getting into backcountry, I started with side country out the gates of my local ski resort and I used my regular all-mountain snowboard. There were times that I had to unbuckle and do some boot packing but nothing too terrible. Then I tried snowshoes and strapped my snowboard to my backpack. It worked but it’s hard work to snowshoe up a mountain. Eventually I bought a splitboard off a friend and Rob got me the rest of the set up for Christmas. And this all took place over the course of three years.
In this installment of Backcountry 101, I’ll go over all the gear that you need for getting out into the backcountry, staying safe, and having fun. From the must-haves to the nice-to-haves to the clothes to keep you warm and dry, I’ll go over it all.
And if you wondering, what the heck is going on here, head back to the Intro to Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding post, for your introduction.
This is by far the most important gear you will need in the backcountry. I don’t care if you are doing a tour, side-country, or just skinning up a sled hill, you need the basic avy kit which is a beacon, probe, and shovel.
Beacon: A beacon is a little electronic box that sends out a signal and can trace other beacon signals. So if you get buried in an avalanche and you’ve got your beacon on, your friends should be able to trace your signal to you, and vice versa. The beacon is the most important part of the avy gear because it allows you to find a buried person. It’s also worth saying that for your beacon to be effective you have to be wearing it. It can’t just be in your backpack. If you’re caught in an avalanche you could very easily lose your backpack and then your friends are digging up a pack and not you. Which would be a bummer.
Probe: It’s a long collapsible stick that looks a lot like a tent pole. Once you’ve used your beacon to find the general area where a person is buried you’ll get out your probe to poke around through the snow to find the person’s exact location. You don’t want to just start digging because a beacon can only give you a location within a few meters. The probe will help you find a person’s exact location. The probe also has measurements on it so you know how deep the person is buried so you can dig appropriately.
Shovel: You’ve got to dig with something and a lightweight collapsible shovel is your best bet. Once you’ve located your buried person get that shovel out and dig!
Backpack: You’ll need a way to carry all your avy gear and a backcountry-specific backpack is the best. It has a specific pocket for all your avy gear and spots for each thing. It’s important to keep your avy gear separate from the rest of the stuff in your pack because if you need to get it out every second counts. If you’re searching through your bag because your avy gear is mixed in with your extra jackets and snacks you’re losing precious seconds.
Whether you are a skier or a snowboarder you can still get into the backcountry. However, the gear you’ll use is slightly different from your regular downhill stuff. If you are just getting started I’d stick with the sport you are used to i.e. if you snowboard go with a splitboard, or if you ski then go with touring skis.
Splitboard: A snowboard that splits in two and becomes skis! Isn’t it magical? You’ll use the skis to climb up the mountain sort of like cross country skis. Then you’ll snap them back together into a snowboard for the downhill. Your splitboard will also require specialty bindings that can transition from walk mode, where your heel can come up to a traditional type binding for your downhill ride.
Snowboard Boots: You can use your regular snowboard boots for your splitboard which is awesome!
Skis: Touring skis are going to be like your downhill skis, the length and width are based on your preference. The main difference are the bindings. You need touring bindings that allow your heel to move when you are in walk mode. Then can be clipped back in for the downhill.
Ski Boots: You do need specialty boots for touring that have a “walk mode” that loosens the boot enough for you to walk. Then depending on your bindings, you’ll either need a “pin boot” for tech/pin bindings or a more traditional boot for frame bindings.
(side note: I am a snowboard/splitboarder so all my ski info is gathered from friends and the internet. If you are a skier and have anything to add or a better explanation of how touring ski gear works please let me know in the comments!)
Skins: Skins are these carpet things that go on your skis to keep you from sliding backward when you are going uphill. The fibers go in one direction so that you can keep moving forwards but not back.
Poles: Regardless if you are skiing or splitboarding you’ll want poles for the uphill portion. Poles are helpful with balance and stability on steep slopes. They also come in handy if you need to block a ski from slipping. If you are skiing your regular poles will do just fine. But if you are splitboarding you’ll want collapsible poles that can be put away in or on your backpack for the downhill.
Staying warm is always important in the snow, but what’s even more important is staying dry. If your clothes get wet from either sweat or falling snow you’re going to have a bad time. Having multiple layers and sweat-wicking and waterproof materials is going to be key. The biggest issue I’ve found is that skinning uphill is work out and I’ll get pretty sweaty. However, once I get to the top and stop moving to transition I get cold really fast. That’s why it’s important to have those wicking fabrics and extra layers to put on. No one likes being cold, especially in the backcountry.
The Ascent: Going uphill can get hot. I like to stick to minimal layers so I don’t get too sweaty. Start with light base layers on top and bottom, your snow pants, and then depending on the temperature, either a light or midweight layer on top. For sun protection make sure to have a brimmed hat and sunglasses and don’t forget the sunscreen! I also like to wear light gloves or glove liners so my fingers don’t get cold.
The Transition: Once you’ve stopped moving you’ll want to layer up to stay warm. Having a puffy or fleece jacket handy to put on is always a good idea. A waterproof shell will keep you dry if it’s snowing and will keep the wind from cutting through your layers as well.
The Decent: After layering up for your transition add on your helmet, goggles, and waterproof gloves and you will be good to go.
In Your Pack
Aside from your avy gear, there are a few other things that are good to keep in your backpack. I wouldn’t call these absolute necessities like your avy gear but are always good to have. If you’re out in the backcountry and realize you need them but don’t have them you’re going to be bummed.
I know this seems like a whole lot of stuff, but like any new sport, you can accumulate things over time. I do believe the most important thing to have is your avy gear so that should be first on your list of things to get. As for everything else, I’d say borrow, rent, and try gear out until you find your perfect fit.
Stay tuned for more Backcountry 101 posts!
Backcountry 101: Intro to Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding
Backcountry 101: Safety
Backcountry 101: Training
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