Backcountry skiing can be a lot of fun and a great adventure. Before you head into the great white unknown it’s important to be properly prepared. Unlike skiing at one of Utah’s many world class resorts; you are completely on your own when you head into the backcountry. You are responsible for handling any rescue or emergency situation and being prepared is of the utmost importance. Read on to find out what you absolutely need in your pack for a day of backcountry skiing and some optional items that are smart to bring along.
Mandatory Items for your Backcountry Avalanche Pack
Before you head out on your first backcountry ski tour you are going to need to have a proper backpack. A good backcountry avalanche pack should be able to fit all the necessary gear and be comfortable to carry. Packs like the Black Diamond Covert AvaLung Backpack or the Dakine ABS Signal 25L Backpack add safety features like the AvaLung or Air Bag System and still provide enough space to pack all your gear. The AvaLung system from Black Diamond works like a snorkel; it allows you to breathe the air readily available in the snowpack while expelling carbon dioxide away from your mouth so you don’t form an ice lens (what causes suffocation). The ABS or Air Bag System deploys a large, pillow-like airbag from your pack when activated. This large airbag helps you stay on the snow surface during an avalanche and provides added protection for your head, back and neck.
A good shovel is super important since you are going to have to move about 1.5 tons of snow to pull someone out of an avalanche. A shovel with an extendable shaft, large metal blade, and ergonomic handle is what you are looking for. Shovels like the Ortovox PRO Alu III or the Black Diamond Transfer 7 shovel are great options and are compact enough to fit in just about any pack.
Considering most avalanche victims are buried approximately 6 feet under the snow, you need to locate them after your beacon search. Select an avalanche probe that is a standalone piece of equipment. Probes that are part of a pole or contained in a shovel handle are too short and not strong enough for use in actual avalanche debris. The Ortovox 320 Plus pfa Probe has been a great probe for me as well as the Black Diamond Quickdraw Guide Probe. Make sure your probe is at least 240cm in length.
YOUR BEACON DOES NOT GO IN YOUR PACK! It should be worn on your body, underneath your outermost layer according to manufacturer recommendations. Without a beacon the rest of the equipment mentioned in this blog is useless. If you are looking for a beacon check out the Pieps DSP Pro Beacon or the Ortovox 3+ Recco Avalanche Transceiver. I use the Ortovox S1+ Beacon both when ski touring and instructing avalanche courses. I find the Ortovox S1+ has the best user interface and a very ergonomic harness system.
Backcountry skiing is a physical sport; you are going to sweat and then stand in the cold. Having extra layers is important for not only keeping yourself warm but also when dealing with emergency situations. A good down jacket that will fit over your outermost layer is important. Why over you ask? Because when you stop hiking it’s nice to be able to just grab your puffy and throw it on, then stuff it back in your pack when you get moving again. Extra gloves are a good idea as well; I like to carry two extra pairs, just in case. An extra hat, as well as a buff or neck gator, are also valuable in the case of a rescue situation or if the ones you’re wearing get wet.
A basic repair kit can save you in the backcountry. My kit includes Voile Ski Straps, duct tape (on my pole), skin tip loop, wax scraper, extra screws, extra batteries (for your beacon) and a multi tool like a Leatherman. Know your equipment and pack items that will work with your equipment. Extra buckles for boots, screws for bindings and pole baskets, will help you out in a pinch.
First Aid Kit:
You are responsible for your own rescue in the backcountry. Search and Rescue could take hours, so you need to be prepared to deal with the worst. A well-stocked first aid kit is crucial; SAM splint, gauze, 4×4 bandages, ACE bandages, quick clot, blister bandages, Band-Aids and tape should cover most emergencies. The further you are going, the more you will need.
Backcountry skiing is a lot of work and you will get hungry. I like to carry a thermos of hot tea; it’s a nice treat when the temps are cold and you are looking to warm up. Carry food items that you can eat quickly and don’t take a lot of room in your pack. Nuts, dried fruit and chocolate are always good, along with energy bars and chews. Just be careful they aren’t frozen stiff before you take a bite. I also recommend that you carry water in a bottle that is kept in your pack. Most hydration systems just freeze so try to avoid them.
You should always have a compass and/or a GPS unit in your pack. I carry a Brunton 3DLU compass and a Garmin Edge GPS device. These tools are not only crucial for keeping you on track and headed in the right direction, but for rescue as well. Should you have an incident, the best thing you can give a search and rescue team is your GPS coordinates.
As cell phone coverage and technology improves this tool is becoming more important. In the Wasatch we get cell service just about everywhere, so carrying a phone makes sense. It may be different in your area but it can never hurt to have it with you. Carry your phone in your pack, turned off and at least 12 inches away from your beacon to avoid any interference with your beacon’s signal.
We all need eye protection – glasses on the way up, goggles on the way down. I keep my goggles in a microfiber bag and switch between them and my glasses as needed.
You never know when you will need to start a fire, de-ice a binding or piece of equipment and a lighter takes up very little space and weighs close to nothing.
Days are short in the winter months and there is a good chance you will start and/or finish in the dark. Having a headlamp will be a big help, should you start running behind on your plan or have to execute a rescue with limited daylight.
Non Mandatory Items for your Backcountry Avalanche Pack:
The following items are not mandatory for your backcountry pack, but a good idea if you can fit them in and deal with the added weight. I like to be prepared for just about every situation when I am in the backcountry.
Portable Rescue Sled
Bivy Sack – if you have to spend a night in the backcountry or get an injured partner back to the trailhead.
Reusch Block Cord – for isolating a Reusch Block Test column, cutting a cornice or as an emergency rope/cord.
Parachute Cord (10-20m)
Personal Locator Beacon – A personal locator such as a SPOT, uses satellite communication to relay your location to friends or search and rescue personnel. It is NOT a replacement for an avalanche beacon.
If you follow this packing list you should be pretty well prepared. That said, backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding or snowmobiling is dangerous. Having the right gear is only one small part of the puzzle. Before you consider heading out of the resort boundaries you should take a Level 1 avalanche course similar to the White Pine Touring AIARE 1 avalanche course. After you have taken your course, you need to practice with all your gear and keep practicing for as long as you plan to travel in the backcountry. Be safe and enjoy the snow and tranquility of backcountry skiing.
JANS Ltd. Communications Director and AIARE Educator