Apart from always bringing a shovel, beacon, and probe, skiers subscribe to a few different philosophies when it comes to what to bring backcountry skiing. On one side, you have the light-is-right crowd carrying just the bare essentials. And on the other, you have the bring-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink crowd. While I see merits in both philosophies, I believe the best approach—as is the case in most aspects of life—falls somewhere between.
It’s great to be prepared for anything in the backcountry, but there is no reason to carry more than you need. Not only does it make the ascent tougher, but a heavy, awkward pack can take the fun out of the descent, which defeats the whole point. Conversely, you don’t want to be caught underprepared in the event of an emergency or some other unforeseen event. Remember that even if you’re skiing near a road or ski area boundaries, you are still in the backcountry, and that you are your own rescue team if anything goes wrong. With that in mind, here are a few best practices when it comes to packing for a typical day in the backcountry.
A shovel, beacon, and probe are non negotiable when it comes to backcountry skiing. If you don’t have all three, you’re putting yourself and others in your group at risk. With those three items aside, there are also a few other essential pieces of gear you should always have in your pack before you venture into the backcountry. A light, compressible down or synthetic insulating layer is critical while ski touring. Not only does it keep you warm during transitions and snowpack studies, but it’s also important to have in the event of an emergency to help keep any injured members of your party warm and from possibly going into shock. It’s also essential to have enough food (I recommend convenient, high-energy items that don’t get smashed easily) and water to keep you motoring up the skintrack. No one wants to bonk when the skiing’s good, so be sure to bring enough calories and water to keep you out there all day.
A few more small essentials are also key for backcountry travel, regardless of how quick the ski tour may be. First, a small binding tool or multi-tool is an item I never leave home without, along with a few rubber straps in various lengths and a good amount of duct tape and cloth medical tape for securing a climbing skin that’s lost its stick or just patching up a torn shell or puffy jacket. A first-aid kit, lighter, sunglasses, headlamp, extra batteries, and a light balaclava are also items I always have in my backpack, whether it’s a midwinter tour below treeline or a late spring mission in the high alpine. The beauty of these items is they’re relatively light, take minimal pack space, and they are absolutely clutch when you—or anyone else in your group—needs them. With careful packing, I’m able to fit all of this in a ~30-liter backpack, with plenty of room left for some more seasonal- and objective-dependent essentials.
What I bring with me ski touring varies with the seasons. For instance, what’s in my backpack in late April is going to vary quite a bit from what I bring with me in the middle of winter. During midwinter tours, I may decide to bring an extra insulating layer, an additional pair of mittens, and maybe even a small Hydroflask full of hot coffee to help stay warm during transitions. Alternatively, during spring tours I may forgo the extra layer by opting for ski crampons, glob stopper wax, and a self-arrest tool like an ice axe or whippet. The main takeaway here is to not be dogmatic in how you pack for backcountry skiing. Ask yourself what temperatures, snow conditions, and terrain you’ll be travelling in and plan accordingly. Doing so will not only ensure that you’re well prepared, but it will also prevent you from having to haul excess gear and weight up the mountain.
Snow Study Gear
The kind of snow study tools you carry will depend on your avalanche education level and expertise. Most backcountry travelers can get by with a shovel, probe, and knotted length of p-cord. More experienced users may want to carry a rutschblock cord, snow saw, brush, magnifying glass, crystal card, inclinometer, and notebook for jotting down snow pit profiles and stability test results.
While I don’t personally carry all of this gear with me on a day-to-day basis, I do carry all of this gear when I’m skiing in an area where I’m not personally aware of the snowpack’s history. It’s scenarios like that where taking the additional time to dig into the snow, feel the individual layers, and perform a few stability tests is essential to travelling safely in the backcountry. Later in the year, as the snowpack becomes isothermal, there’s really no reason to dig down to see what’s going, as you’re typically able to glean from the snow surface what’s happening below. So once spring rolls around most snow study tools stay home, freeing up room in my pack for more spring-specific gear like crampons and skin wax.
Extra Bells & Whistles
As backcountry skiing becomes more and more popular, there has been a major uptick in new products and innovations to add to your winter kit. Deciding what you need (and don’t) will ultimately come down to a number of factors including group size/dynamics, budget, level of acceptable risk, and weight. If you’re touring with a large group or people you haven’t spent a lot of time with in the backcountry, I’d strongly encourage you to carry radios in order to stay in contact. Avalanche airbags are never a bad idea, but they should never be used as justification for skiing high-consequence lines in questionable avalanche conditions. They’re a useful safety net that should always be paired with careful snowpack assessments and conservative decision making, which again is never a bad thing.
As this post comes to an end, I can already hear a low murmur increasing to an uproar from the bring-everything-but-the-kitchen sink crowd. “What about a small sleeping pad just in case you have to spend the night? Emergency blanket? Waterproof matches? Kindling? SAM splint? Extra sunglasses? You mean you aren’t going to bring a 32-ounce growler and pocket bacon?” Well, let’s just leave those luxuries to the extra bells and whistles category, and I’ll let you decide what’s a must-have in your ski touring pack. Though I will say a good rule of thumb is that once you have to start strapping things to the outside of your pack, you’ve brought too much gear. Oh, and one more thing—don’t forget to bring some TP.