Confessions: Buying Gear
Every year magazines release their buyer's guide full of the coming year's gear, rating gear that has had limited testing done to it and telling you how much better this year's gear is compared to last year's. I do admit I used to buy a lot of buyer's guides but for the last 5 or 6 years I just haven't bothered because in the end it seems to be about pushing product, (ever notice the bulk of the gear being reviewed is also the ones with ads?). At the end of the day these guides tell you what the editors think you should buy but not how you should buy or where your money is best spent. If you are new to backcountry skiing the amount of gear you are told you need can be extremely overwhelming and expensive. In this article I'm going to attempt to break down where you should invest your money and how to buy things to suit your needs while cutting out the industry bullshit. This article was written mostly for first time buyers but some finer points may be of some use to others. This list is in no way meant to be a training guide or complete gear list, it covers the main purchases that I have found people struggling with while I was working in retail and when I help friends 'gear up'.
Expensive Gear Won't Make You Better
First off we need to throw away the myth that better, newer gear will magically increase your performance. In the end better gear makes you more comfortable doing the job you already know how to get done. If I had to put numbers on things, I would say in general, gear has about a 5-10% contributing factor to performance, with the remaining 90-95% split into mental and physical abilities, (in my personal experience I would say mental abilities out weigh the physical). I've seen people wearing garbage gear (and I mean that literally, they found their gear in dumpsters), out of shape but with the mental will to conquer no matter what and they do. On the other side I've seen people with top of the line gear, super fit but no drive to struggle through the difficulties they encounter and they end up failing. I'll always remember the time I picked up Ruari Macfarlane hitchhiking to Sunshine Village Resort, on his way to ride Pocket Rocket. He was wearing an old beat up North Face windbreaker and his ice axe was probably made in the 70s but as I soon learned he was a highly motivated and skilled snowboarder. Another example I often use to make this point are the times I lent my old DIY Ride splitboard to Audrey Hebert, we used to call this splitboard "the ski maker" as it was so shitty and frustrating to use that most would convert to skiing after using it. I remember when Audrey returned the splitboard after using it in Roger's Pass and told me how her bindings didn't hold tight to the old 90's voile plates but she still completed her objectives due to her skill level and determination. Both mentioned have preformed at professional competition level, (Freeride World Tour), not because they had expensive gear but rather because they work hard, have focus and drive. I have many other examples on how gear isn't the end all and be all of personal performance but hopefully you see my point. Basically gear will make it easier to preform due to your comfort level improving.
Brand Means Nothing
In my experience brand means nothing. I've had equipment from the same brand both fail me and surpass my expectations. Most modern mountain equipment manufactures make pretty solid stuff and most will get one of their designs wrong from time to time. Gear is a very personal thing and just because X brand's gear worked for your buddy doesn't mean it will work for you. Just because X brand's jacket suited your needs doesn't mean their backpack will. Just because X brand's jackets cost double that of Y brand's jackets doesn't mean they are twice as good. Ignore brands and branding and look for gear that works for you.
Forget New Tech, Keep It Simple
If you look at the 1st edition of The Freedom Of The Hills and the 8th you might be surprised that the basics of mountain travel haven't really changed. If you look at modern marketing on gear you might think everything is "new under the sun" and you need all the new toys and gadgets in order to complete your mountain objectives. The reality is that most modern gear is lighter, stronger and more expensive but it's basically the same stuff to do the same job.
Basic Travel Gear - Skis, Boots, Bindings, Skins and Poles
Obviously the first step is to buy gear to travel in the mountains. Roughly 10 or so years ago ski manufactures started to see a trend into backcountry specific gear and with that came a much wider range of backcountry skis, boots and especially bindings making it seem even more confusing then ever to buy your first setup. Unless you have a fairly unlimited budget you will likely need to set priorities for these core pieces of equipment.
The most important piece of travel gear is your boots, plan on spending whatever it takes to get the prefect boot for your foot. Without functional feet you won't get too far and on multi day trips the level of comfort your feet are in is critical for long back to back days. Your boot is also the direct interface where you transfer energy into ski movement, without proper fitting boots your skis won't preform well. Touring boots are more specialized compared to normal downhill boots and your first step is to get to a boot shop that does ski touring boot fittings and have your feet properly fitted. Don't think twice about dropping money on a good boot fitter, custom work that may be needed or an expensive boot that fits you better than the cheaper one. Ignore your friend that swears his boots are the best and trust the boot fitter that works with hundreds of different feet every season.
The second thing to drop money on is bindings but at the same time don't be tricked by expensive bindings that do the same job as ones that are half the price. When it comes to backcountry bindings you basically have two choices, a pin/tech binding and a plate. Pin/tech bindings are lighter and tour better due to the pivot point location but lacks a bit in the "hard charging" category. A plate binding is heavier and tours worse than a pin/tech but preforms better at the resort or in really bad snow conditions (chop, avy debris, etc). I actually have several setups of each but if you can only afford one then it really comes down to this: for backcountry only, get a pin/tech, for resort/slackcountry and maybe a little backcountry get a plate. Regardless sooner or later you'll buy a pin/tech if you keep doing backcountry trips as they are just better at touring and weigh much less than a plate binding. As far as different models and brands there are very few differences other than marketing in my experience. Some of the newer pin/tech bindings have release systems that function more like a regular downhill binding but to be honest I've never felt like my pin/techs didn't release when I needed them to or that they released in a fashion that felt much different than my downhill binding. Regardless if I'm buying a pin/tech or plate binding I look for 3 things, 1) din rating I need, 2) light weight and 3) price. In my experience everything else seems to be marketing and in the end you pay for that fact.
People seem to put a high priority on purchasing skis but I have found that skis matter the least out of the three big purchases in this category. When I started collecting touring setups I mostly bought used skis, some as low as $40. My most expensive ski I have in my collection right now cost $375, they were last year's model on sale for 50% off. There was a time when ski tech changed quickly but it seems we are well past this, last year's new ski is just as good as this year's and you'll save a ton of cash. The important thing when buying skis is to buy one that fits your personal style of skiing, that's it. Don't go buy an expert level ski if you are an intermediate skier, no matter how much you're told how "this is the best backcountry ski out there", you won't have fun. Don't be tricked into buying that $1300 carbon ski because it weighs a little bit less than last year's non-carbon $300 ski, your body likely won't know the difference anyway. I know a few people that have top of the line $1500 skis, most of my setups with bindings cost half that amount. Remember skis are tools to get around the mountains and just like a hammer most will do the trick regardless of price or how old it is.
Another area that seems to be expanding is climbing skins but in the end you have a few options, 100% nylon, nylon/mohair mix and 100% mohair. Nylon grips better, glides worse and weighs more than mohair. When recommending skins to someone my general rule for someone new to skinning is to buy 100% nylon or a skin with more nylon. If you already have a season under you and don't have difficulties with steep or awkward skinning then try out a mohair. Personally I mostly use nylon skins but use mohair for my lightweight traverse/mountaineering setup.
Poles really do matter the least, I know guys who steal bamboo from the resort, glue a nail in the bottom, tape a handle and they work just fine. For a long time I purchased ex-rental poles for $5 from the resort but recently I got a pair of extendable backcountry poles and the extra feature is nice at times.
Safety Gear - Avalanche Beacon, Shovel and Probe
I have to admit to skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry for many years before I purchased these items. In my youth I solo'd in the backcountry and to be honest didn't see the point in dropping money on this gear in that context. These days one would likely be crucified for suggesting this route and maybe rightly so. If you are skiing with a group or if you take any avalanche course you'll need basic avalanche safety gear, it's just that simple. I personally do not buy used safety gear, the new stuff doesn't cost a huge amount and saving a few bucks in this category isn't worth it if the gear fails for some reason.
There are a ton of avalanche beacons out there now, all claiming to be the best but in reality this is a very simple tech that has been around for a while. Some brands include a bunch of extra features and their price reflects that. When I look for a beacon I look for 4 things, rated in this order: 1) 3 antenna digital, 2) multiple burial feature, 3) size and weight, 4) price. Most modern beacons now have the first two points as a standard, there is no reason not to have them and I wouldn't buy a beacon without them. Size and weight matter to me because the larger the beacon is against your body the less comfortable it is to have on all day or for multiple days. Price is my last factor, as most modern beacons have the main two features I am just going to buy the cheapest out of them. Why don't I want those other features that companies are including in beacons these days? 1) Extra features = more battery use, 2) Simple is faster/better, I want to find my friend as quickly as possible, I don't need extra features to do so.
Shovels are a pretty easy buy, 1) made well/won't break, 2) fits in pack nicely and 3) light weight. Most companies making avalanche shovels won't release something that will fall apart but after your purchase it's a good idea to dig a 2m hole in a road side snow bank just to make sure. When you buy a shovel bring your pack with you to see how well it fits, you should be able to remove it from your pack quickly, without struggle. Weight gets more important for gear that goes in your pack as you will need to carry it, not such a big deal for day tripping but if you get into multi day trips you'll soon find yourself counting grams.
Probes are also a pretty basic purchase as most are making solid probes these days. In general longer is better as it makes for quicker probing (you'll find yourself bending over a lot with a 2m probe resulting in wasted time). It seems the general rule these days is to buy a 3 meter or longer probe. Make sure to try the probe out and make sure you can extend it quickly and it locks in place firmly without too much effort and practice doing so before trips. Fooling around with a probe while your buddy dies is bad form. Again weight ends up being an issue with longer trips so might as well buy the lightest one after the above conditions are met.
All other avalanche safety gear focuses on helping increase the odds of you surviving an avalanche. Air bags, breathing devices, etc are all great but I personally believe spending that money on avalanche training courses with a certified mountain guide will get you more bang for your buck.
Clothing - The Biggest Lie
Clothing is the most personal category in your whole backcountry kit and everyone's setup will be slightly different depending on a large range or reasons. If you want to save money this category is super easy to do it in as many people buy into the myth that they need new outerwear every other year and end up selling their used stuff for super cheap. If you ski resort you can also build on your resort wear but you will find that layering becomes much more important in the backcountry as you are engaging in different types of travel. Generally speaking the price differences you see among the higher end backcountry brands have more to do with marketing than quality and a cheaper model of jacket may very well fit you better than an expensive one anyway. Companies make up all sorts of trademark names for fabrics that are pretty much the same with basically the same results. Throwing away brand loyalty here and focusing on the product that works best for you will save you money and get you a better product for your personal needs.
Your basic setup will probably end up something like this:
Shell, breathable/waterproof top and bottom
Down and/or synthetic insulated top (and bottom if camping)
Base layer top and bottom
Hut booties (for multi day trips)
Gloves and/or mitts
Toque, ball cap, neck warmer, etc
Sunglasses and goggles
Breathable/waterproof shells are pretty much all the same, most have a nylon outer with a membrane inner and each company will have their own trademarked name to promote this fabric. What matters is how waterproof and how breathable the fabric is, unfortunately these days the marketing focuses more on the trademarked name of the fabric than these important numbers and you very well may not find answers from a retail worker. A good waterproof/breathable rating for high end gear starts in the 20,000/20,000 range, the higher the number the better.
When it comes to down products don't be fooled into thinking that 850 down is warmer than 700, these numbers reflect the amount of cubic inches that 1oz of down fills (ie: 1oz of 850 down will fill a space that is 850 cubic inches, therefore using 700 down for the same amount of space will end up weighing more). If you are trying to stay as light as possible this is where the down rating matters, generally speaking 850 or 900 down will be the highest you see for non-custom gear, (1000 down is possible but only from specialty manufactures due to separating such down being a painfully slow process). For warmth measure the amount of loft (distance the down separates the inner and outer fabric) that the jacket produces. If looking for a very warm down jacket (ie: base camp jacket) make sure it has baffles and is not sewn through. Baffles remove spots where heat can escape whereas a sewn through jacket has the outer and inner fabric sewn together to hold the down in but in return creates an area with no down in it.
Base layers can range from cheap to insane with little or no difference until you run into the wool products. Again companies trademark the way poly is stitched together, making up fancy words to charge you more. In reality my $30 synthetic base layers seem to work just as good as my $100 ones, often with the cheaper ones lasting longer. Wool can be a bit different as sheep produce different quality, if you are a cold person than merino wool is one of the highest end you can get but it will cost you more.
Ski specific socks are important regardless if you are spending the day at the resort or in the backcountry, they cost more but last forever, (I have many over 10 years old).
If you are doing multi day trips then a good pair of hut booties are important. I prefer synthetic insulation because they stay warm even if they are wet (down loose it's loft and therefore it's insulation properties). On long day trips I also carry them as it only takes getting frost bite and loosing chucks of your foot once to realize how important they can be in an emergency.
Gloves, mitts, toques, ball caps, neck warmers, etc are pretty personal items but for the most part lower priced items/brands work just as good as expensive ones. You can buy $300 gloves for example but my $15 ones have never let me down. I found my toque in a lost and found, it works great! Again think layering, I have a waterproof mitt shell over my gloves for downhill skiing as most of the time you don't need the extra layer while touring. I bring a thin and thick toque, if it gets super cold I wear both and if it's warm I got my thin one. Again everyone will have a different system and it often takes a while to develop one.
Proper eye wear is important in the mountains as glare from the snow can have a blinding effect. I had a friend once do the Wapta Traverse in an 11 hour day without sunglasses, he had snow blindness for a week after and couldn't go outside, not fun.
Basic Personal Gear - Backpack, First Aid/Repair Kits, Headlamp, etc
The most important thing about a backpack purchase is that is fits you properly. Much like a ski boot, if you have a bad fitting bag you will suffer. Make sure to try the pack on with weight before purchase, take your time walking around, climbing stairs and even running. No one pack will work for everyone so just ignore advice from marketing and friends that say otherwise. Make sure you can attach your skis firmly to the bag for boot packing. For skiing I prefer packs with a rotating hip belt as it really helps center bigger loads correctly for steeper skiing. I also prefer using the same bag for all my trips and therefore look for one that can be tightened down nicely when doing day trips. If you are looking into doing multi day trips than something around the 60-65L size will work fine for all but the most extreme trips if the rest of your gear is light weight and small.
A first aid and repair kit is very important in the backcountry. For first aid you should have enough gear to deal with minor and major bleeds, I personally carry some band aids, tampons and tape to deal with bleeds. I keep iodine, alcohol and clean wipes for cleaning. For other injuries (broken bones, trauma) my focus is self rescue to a road which can involve creating a sled out of the victim's skis, poles, tarp, etc. Repair kits are very personal and you should basically have enough to repair gear in order to escape from the backcountry, this will highly depend on your own gear and any weaknesses it may have. Don't bother buying backcountry first aid or repair kits, often they contain a bunch of stuff you will never use and/or too much of it and often cost more than buying what you actually need.
Headlamps are pretty basically and cheap these days, don't over think this purchase too much. Don't worry about getting some crazy powerful one unless you enjoy night skiing a lot.
Buy a wax scrapper and skin wax, sticky snow sucks, clean it up using a wax scrapper and throw some skin wax on those skins.
Sunscreen, lip cream and toilet paper are must haves for obvious reasons.
Build a personal survival kit based on your level of experience in the mountains. I bring a few lighters and a flint fire starter system as a backup to create a fire. I carry a small compact chain saw for cutting trees for firewood or building emergency shelters, some prefer folding bush saws. Always have a sharp knife. I also carry water purifier tablets and a couple of candles. I always carry at least 3 orange ski straps with me, I would have a few more "epics" to tell if I didn't carry these. You can fix boot straps, bindings, create skins, hold frozen skins on, etc.
Insulated water bottles for day trips and single walled water bottles for multi day trips (use of single walled explained below).
Multi Day Gear - Time To Spend The Big Bucks
When it comes to multi day gear there is no point in cutting corners unless you can get a great deal on something used. You want this gear to be dependable, tough and light weight, which results in it being expensive. If you buy the higher end gear in this category you will have it for many years so the investment is large at first but a good one long term.
The most important thing on multi day trips is the ability to make water from snow. Most modern stoves are made to last and are very light. You can either buy a liquid or pressurized fuel stove. Liquid fuel stoves preforms better in the cold without help but you need to prime it and do more maintenance on them, (maybe in field). Pressurized fuel stoves need their cans warmed in order to preform at their peak in the cold but have no other hassles (no priming or maintenance). I much prefer pressurized fuel stoves and have come up with a trick to keep it running at it's peak in the cold, (article coming soon). Either way you will need fuel as well as the stove unit and figuring out fuel needs for trip length is something that comes from personal experience and needs. You will also need some kind of dish to eat from, a spork for eating with and something to clean up after. Skip buying and breaking a bunch of plastic sporks and buy a metal one. For water bottles I use single walled metal for multi day trips as the rapid heat transfer can be used to dry gear and keeps you warm in your sleeping bag, (never place a hot sealed single walled water bottle in the cold snow, they explode!)
The second most important item is a shelter. Even if you plan on snow caving it is wise to bring a small tarp in case the snow isn't deep enough, (bringing a small tarp even on day trips is a good idea too). Most 2m x 1.5m sil tarps weigh around 200-250 grams. If you want something with more comfort a good 4 season tent weighs and costs much more but is less work than a snow cave or tarp, look for one with good venting and room for gear to be stored inside. If you want to go really cheap those big blue tarps found at hard wear stores work just fine but are a bit more heavy than a sil tarp, I used one for many years without problems.
The last major items are a sleeping pad and bag, this is where you should invest the most money in this category. Buy the lightest inflatable sleeping pad with the highest R rating that you can afford. You may also want to buy a folding closed cell pad to go under this, (people do this in case their inflatable gets a hole, a justified concern). Sleeping bags are extremely personal as everyone's body is different. Generally speaking you will want to buy a bag that is rated about 5 to 10 degrees (Celsius) warmer than you plan to go camping in, (ie: you plan to go camping in -10C or warmer then look at -15 to -20C bags). I have found this works for most people and since weather can swing the wrong way in the mountains you are preparing for the worse. With a good set of camp clothes you can also go into much colder temps than your bag is rated for by wearing everything to bed. For mid-winter camping in the Canadian Rockies I use a -30C bag but by spring I'm using my -4C with my camp clothes, often you'll end up with a small collection of bags after not too long. If doing only hut trips you should still carry a winter bag, if you get stuck out for the night you'll be happy you did. Invest in a bag with high end down, (800+) to keep it as light as possible. Also make sure it has a baffle design to limit the cold spots that a sewn through design create. Every company will say they have some kind of magic baffle design that out preforms other brand's designs, this is mostly nonsense. The lightest design is straight walled baffles and do just as good as the fancy designs that use more fabric and therefore weigh more. If you are mostly camping then you will want a bag with some kind of light water protection, either a light weight membrane outer (2k-5k waterproof fabric usually) or a DWR treated nylon. If you are doing very long trips then half bags (go up to your waist) combined with your camp clothes can work depending on the temps and your personal level of allowable suffering when temps don't work out. Most bags that are worth buying won't be found in shops as they are too expensive to have sit on the shelf for too long, you will most likely need to special order online. A high end down sleeping bag will last 10+ years if treated well, so spending $800+ on one ends up being an investment you won't regret after seeing your friend's cheaper, heavier and bulky bag.
Finally my favorite gear item, the pee bottle. Some people don't seem to pee at night but if you do then a pee bottle is awesome, just unzip your sleeping bag a bit, turn over and do your business. For women there is a she-pee device for aiming, you'll still need to get out of bed but at least not out of the shelter, (and practice in the shower as one friend suggested recently). Make sure to buy a water bottle with a wide opening.