Backcountry Skiing: the essentials

A couple years ago, in the spring after ski season, when I was itching to get up the mountain one more time after a big snowfall, I took my skis up to Snowbowl, a mountain just outside of Missoula, Mont. Although I was unprepared and had none of the appropriate gear, I hiked through the snow to the top of the mountain and took a sweet off season run down untouched snow. Since then — although I’m still too stingy to spend all the money required to have the best backcountry gear — I love to combine a beautiful winter hike with the awesome feeling of carving down the freshest snow on the mountain.

For the skiers and snowboarders out there, the current season can be a tantalizing one. When the snow starts falling, the mountains start calling, but until the lifts open, you’ll have to find your own way to get to the snow. Backcountry skiing is the way to get up there and shred some of that preseason “gnar” so even if you have never tried it before, I recommend you buy or rent some gear and try it out. If you are looking to get into backcountry skiing or getting your old gear together for the weekend, here are some essential gear items to make sure you have in order before you start.

Backpack — The only advice I have for your backpack is that it has lots of pockets to hold all your gear and is comfortable to wear because you are going to have to carry it up a mountain. More important is what you put in the backpack. The most valuable item to have is a working avalanche beacon you can use in case there is an avalanche. In addition to the beacon, you should bring an avalanche probe and shovel. Beyond avalanche gear, you should always bring snacks such as granola bars, water and sunscreen.

Apparel — Basically, the equipment you wear while backcountry skiing is the same equipment you use for any cold weather activities except often lighter to make it easier to climb the hill. Layers are extremely useful to give yourself temperature options so you are not too hot or too cold. The only other modification to regular ski apparel I would add for backcountry is a helmet. Safety is the key to a successful backcountry expedition.

Skis, boots and poles — I apologize now for the snowboarders, I can’t give you advice on this section except to say do what works for you. For the skiers, if you downhill ski and can afford it, I would recommend you use alpine touring (AT) bindings on some thicker skis. This will give you the ability to use skins to climb up the mountain which is much easier than hiking. If you don’t have the money to drop on a nice backcountry set up, you can still get up there with a good pair of hiking boots and your skis and boots on you back. For those out there who telemark ski, all you need is a good pair of skins and you can do the same thing as the AT binding crowd. For any of the types of skiing above, make sure your boots are warm and comfortable. As far as poles go, most backcountry skiers choose to use telescoping poles because they are easier to use climbing if they are a little longer and easier to ski down with if they are a little shorter.

If you are interested in trying it out, it doesn’t require too much fancy gear to go out backcountry skiing. You can get by out there with avalanche gear, water, warm apparel and regular ski equipment. For people who are interested in really getting started, I would recommend you buy skis with AT bindings to make it easier to get up the mountain as this can make the trip more fun, but expensive skis are not necessary. Finally, to be safe, be sure you have both a friend with you when you go out backcountry skiing and make sure there is also someone staying behind who knows where you are going and when you will be back.