So you want to make the leap into backcountry skiing (aka ski touring, AT skiing, etc)? Well, you’re not alone – backcountry skiing has exploded in popularity over the years.
It’s not too surprising that escaping the crowds for untouched powder and pristine lines is an idea that many skiers find appealing. If you don’t quite know where to start, we encourage you to check out our post on how to get started backcountry skiing before you start buying new equipment. Once you have an idea of what all is entailed and what you will need to learn, then it’s time to dive into what you will need out on the snow.
Keep in mind that you will need to assess where you will be skiing and in what fashion. Somebody doing long, multi-day ski tours will need a much different setup than a skier who spends 80% of their time at a resort and just a few single days in the backcountry per season.
PLEASE keep in mind that no amount of gear should replace having a solid foundation of experience when in the backcountry. Ski with more experienced and knowledgeable backcountry partners, but also taking an avalanche safety course and be well acquainted with your safety equipment. These things are vital to your safety and the safety of others while in backcountry and potentially hazardous terrain.
Below are the essentials pieces of backcountry gear you will need.
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There is really no difference between typical alpine skis used at resorts, and skis used for the backcountry. The main consideration is how light you want your skis for the uphill climb and how wide you want your skis depending on how much powder you anticipate skiing in the backcountry.
Obviously, wider skis are heavier but float better in powder, so evaluating the conditions you expect to ski and how much weight you are willing to sacrifice goes a long way in determining what kind of skis will be best for you in the backcountry.
Ski Touring Bindings
Ski touring bindings ARE different than bindings used for typical alpine resort skiing. Touring bindings typically utilize pins in the toe piece that acts as a “hinge” while your heel remains free. This allows you to make a natural walking movement, being able to pick up your hill as your step, or skin, forward. There are several variations of backcountry ski bindings:
Tech bindings are the lightest, most simplistic, and have a low profile design. They are best for devoted backcountry skiers that benefit from the additional weight and bulk savings.
Frame AT Bindings
Frame AT bindings look more similar to traditional alpine bindings, and as a result are a bit heavier and bulkier. In exchange, they accept boots with either traditional soles or AT specific soles, and perform very similarly to standard alpine bindings on the downhill.
Hybrid Touring Bindings
Hybrid bindings accept boots with tech toe fittings, but have a traditional heel piece. New and upcoming options, like the acclaimed Salomon Shift bindings, have tech toe pieces for great uphill use, but can then adapt to turn into a standard alpine toe piece for better downhill performance.
Skins are the name of the game in backcountry skiing and will likely be what new backcountry skiers are least familiar with. Ski skins are pieces of material that stick to the bottom of your skis and allow you to travel uphill without sliding back down. The material is made in such a way that the fibers grip the snow in one direction, while laying flat and “gliding” in the other direction.
In general, skins made of synthetic material are more durable and have superior grip. Skins made of mohair on the other hand, glide much easier but don’t grip quite as well. Some ski skins will have a blend of these materials for a balanced profile.
Boots for backcountry skiing, or touring boots, typically have a walk mode that gives your boot a greater range of motion when you are skinning uphill. Touring boots are also usually a little lighter to accommodate long days on the uphill.
DOUBLE CHECK that you are getting boots and bindings that are compatible with one another. Touring specific boots are generally only compatible with pin style bindings.
Backcountry Ski Poles
Backcountry ski poles double as your hiking poles on the way up. For this reason, being adjustable is a necessity for your poles. You will want them to be a bit shorter on the uphill, depending on how steep it is, and adjust them back to your typical comfort level on the downhill.
Backcountry Ski Pack
Your ski pack will hold essential safety items, extra layers, food, and water throughout the day. Backcountry specific packs often have pockets designed specifically to hold snow shovels and proves. For a typical half to full day, you can usually manage with something less than a 30L pack. However, if you plan on doing multi-day tours, you may need to consider getting a larger pack.
Additionally, avalanche backpacks exist that inflate in emergency situations. Some consider them as encouraging a false sense of safety, however statistics do support the claim that your odds of surviving an avalanche do increase when using them.
Avalanche beacons are arguably the most important piece of backcountry equipment. This is the items that lets you find buried skiers in the event of an avalanche, and allows others to find YOU.
Without a beacon or transceiver, it would be close to impossible to find a buried skier in an avalanche in the incredibly small window of time that they have to survive.
As with any other piece of avalanche safety gear, it is absolutely vital that you practice and learn how to use your equipment so that you are totally prepared if the worst case scenarios should ever occur.
A snow shovel is another common and necessary tool of the backcountry. It is used to dig test pits to analyze snow-pack and to dig out other skiers in the event of an avalanche. Snow shovels can have fixed or adjustable handles and have different size blades that can move varying amounts of snow.
A probe is simply a collapsible pole that is stuck into the snowpack to help locate buried skiers. While the beacon gives you the general small proximity of a skiers location, the probe lets you narrow in on EXACTLY where the skier is.
As always in the wilderness, conditions can change – especially during an all day ski tour. It’s always a great idea to have an additional layer to adapt to the weather.
You will learn quickly that overheating when it is technically freezing outside is a very easy thing to do when backcountry skiing. Skinning uphill with gear and equipment is tiring and will easily get your hands sweating. Bringing a few pairs of gloves is crucial.
A thinner pair will fare better on the skin uphill so your hands don’t quickly overheat, while a midweight pair of gloves will work on the downhill. It’s a good idea to even have a heavy duty pair in your pack for stormy days or if the weather takes a turn.
Food and Water
It goes without saying, just like any other outdoor activity, that you will need energy along the way. Don’t forget to bring food and water so that your body can keep up with the rigorous demands of the wilderness and being on a backcountry ski tour all day.
Better safe than sorry. Extra weight is always hard to justify, but bringing some basic injury items, and common all-purpose items like duct tape, a multitool, lighter, etc is a smart move any time you get too far from civilization.
Additionally, as you gain more experience you may find some small things here and there that you personally find helpful for your days on the snow that you can add to a small kit so you are always prepared.
Hopefully after reading through this list you have a comprehensive idea of the equipment you will absolutely need to get out into the backcountry. Backcountry skiing is exhilarating, peaceful, and a wonderful experience.
But, as we mentioned before, please KNOW BEFORE YOU GO, and be prepared with the necessary knowledge or experience to have a safe time in backcountry terrain.
Stay safe and best of luck putting together your backcountry touring setup!