In part 2 of this series I’m going to go into detail about buying gear for backcountry skiing. If you haven’t already read part 1 of this series check it out to make sure you want to drop a bunch of money on a sport you may have not tried.
Don’t Believe The Hype
For many years I was too broke to buy top of the line gear that every magazine told me I needed and I did just fine. Gear doesn’t make you a better backcountry skier. I used to buy used $50 CMH skis and would swap my touring bindings over from an old set each season. When I first got into winter camping I used a $5 tarp that I purchased from the gas station. My point is that you don’t need all the newest, lightest gear on the market to start out, nor does that move make any sense as you don’t know your preferences yet. Once you know what you like then you’ll want to invest in gear that suits your needs and style, which in the end makes it easier to perform.
Rent Gear & Take A Intro Course
If you have never skied in the backcountry then renting gear and taking a course is an excellent way to explore if you truly want to drop cash on gear. Most ski shops now have backcountry retails and some even have demo fleets to try before you buy. Many ski guides offer intro courses for backcountry skiing and some may even include a rental option. Taking an intro course this will put you in a position where you can safely explore the sport before having to worry too much about topics like avalanches. It’s also a great idea to take an intro course before taking an avalanche course in order to be more focused on learning about avalanches than dealing with how to put skins on. Many people will first go out with a friend and this can work too but generally speaking most friends aren’t trained to keep a newbie safe or deal with all the start up problems they have long forgotten about. Often intro courses are less expensive than most other courses (they are hoping you’ll come back for their avalanche course) so the investment to value ratio is often excellent. Make sure to look for a company that provides ACMG certified guides (in Canada) and stay away from those who don’t.
Used Or New?
Once you know you want to buy a setup there are some items you can buy used and others which are best purchased new. Boots and avalanche safety gear should be purchased new. Everyone’s feet are different and buying used boots is often a waste of money because you’re probably not a boot fitter. Also old boots are often much softer (lost performance) due to use and will break down much sooner than a new boot.
Avalanche safety gear, which includes an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel, should all be purchased new. There is no way to know if used safety gear has been abused (by mistake or otherwise) and you will save little money compared to new. These items should also be replaced on a regular schedule and that’s one reason why people sell their old gear. The ski culture isn’t completely there yet but it is starting to become irresponsible to sell these safety items used due to the above reasons. It is important to note that it is critical that your avalanche safety gear functions without issue, no matter how small the issue may be.
Ski bindings are a bit tricky when it comes to the new or used debate. Pin bindings, which are used by most backcountry skiers, can become soft with use and the release value can become somewhat unreliable. If someone is selling a binding that has under 100 days you are probably fine (but still hard to really know). If you are unsure bring the binding into a tune shop and ask their thoughts.
Skis, poles, outwear, backpacks and all other gear can be purchased used without too much concern and you will usually find excellent deals on such gear. Skins often come with used ski setups but if not you are probably better off buying new as re-glueing skins is not fun and can be difficult for a beginner.
Travel Equipment – Skis (or Splitboard), Bindings, Boots, Poles, Skins, Ski Crampons
Skis – there are endless types of skis out there, every brand will say they are the best and their model is the only one you’ll ever need. Most ski marketing is bullshit and after a few years you’ll probably own setups for specific snow conditions. I recommend getting a ski around 100mm underfoot with early rise to start out with, this will help you ski deeper snow with less effort while still being good for hard snow conditions. If you are an “advanced resort skier” you might want to buy an intermediate style ski to start, you can always swap the bindings over to something more aggressive later.
Bindings – resort freeriders who do hot slack laps will tell you that you NEED a big, bulky binding to ski in the backcountry. They don’t know what they are talking about. Most of my bindings are under 300g per foot, my go-to setup for steep variable ice sports a 150g race binding. Don’t be fooled by ski marketing on this point (I’m looking at you Salomon), plenty of people are skiing just fine on lightweight pin bindings in the backcountry. Look for a binding which your release setting lands around the 80% mark of the binding max. For example I set my release to 8 and my bindings max out at 10. Most pin bindings have a fixed front release so make sure you match that to what you need. Many of the cheaper pin bindings are made of cheap plastic and I have seen many break, there are bindings out there now made with no plastic, they cost more but you’ll have them longer and breaking a binding in the backcountry is a nightmare.
Boots – go to a shop that focuses on backcountry skiing, get fitted by a boot fitter and listen to their advice. Do not listen to your friend who just told you that “X boot is the only good boot and you should buy it and make it fit you”. Every boot fits differently and your best move here is to start with a boot that fits you as close as possible out of the box and then if you need to shape the boot do so. Don’t buy a boot regardless of fit and then think a boot fitter can make it work for you, the boot will end up softer and could break sooner than it should. Don’t order boots online unless you already know that model will work for you. Boots are where you want to invest the most money because you’re feet will be all messed up if they don’t fit correctly.
Poles – collapsing poles are nice but to start off you don’t need them. If you already ski just take what you got. If you don’t already ski and are tight on money then buy a cheap pair, often rental shops sell off old poles for $5-10. I used to find poles in the trash. You will end up breaking poles, spending $200 on a set is a bit silly so don’t do that. Carbon poles are basically trash.
Skins – skins allow you to travel uphill, they glide against the snow as you move forward and grip when applying pressure backwards. If you purchased a used setup then you might get cut skins with it, otherwise you will need to buy these from a shop. Skins come in different lengths and widths so you need to match them to your skis. For width buy a skin that matches or is wider than your skis underfoot measurement. For example if you have 100mm underfoot buy a 100mm skin. If you have a 106mm underfoot then 110mm will work. You will then trim your skin in order to expose the edges of the ski, the directions how to do so will be included in the box. You do not need to cover every last bit of ski base with the skin. Some people will tell you that your tip and tail (which will be wider than your underfoot) needs to be covered by the skin to work properly, this is not the case at all. 99% of your grip comes from under your foot. Some of my ski’s tips and tails don’t even touch the snow due to their extreme rocker design but skin just fine. My race skin doesn’t even have a tail (ends at my heel) and they work just as good as any I own.
Ski Crampons – these are used in difficult snow conditions in order to provide grip, (hard pack, crusts and nasty sidehills). I carry mine all season and use them as a ski scrapper when I get wet snow build up on my skins or bases. Beginners will love them when the conditions get a little tricky. Jaded backcountry skiers with less experience than they think they have will tell you they are completely unnecessary and shouldn’t exist.
Safety Equipment – Avalanche Transceiver, Avalanche Shovel, Avalanche Probe.
Avalanche Transceiver – buy a new, 3 antenna digital model. Transceivers range in price and some have some extra features but as long as you buy the current standard you should be fine, it is more important than you know how to use your model very well. You should be provided with one for guided courses so you can wait to try what your guide recommends before buying.
Avalanche Shovel – buy a new, sturdy shovel. Don’t cheap out or be too concerned with weight, you will need to be able to cut through dense ice like blocks of snow to save your partner in an avalanche.
Avalanche Probe – buy a new, non-carbon probe that is 300+ cm. Carbon probes break easily (I had one crumble in my hands!) and they only save you very little weight. Length matters as you need to physically touch your partner under the snow and sometimes that can be very deep. There are probes on the market with a transceiver interface to make searching quicker, I have one but unless you have extra cash I would skip this until you get fast with a standard probe.
Personal Gear – Backpack, Eyewear, Head Lamp, Waterbottles, etc
Backpack – the most important thing with this one is to try it on with weight. Most stores will have something to put in packs for you to try, if they don’t then you might want to consider getting advice somewhere else. Everyone is shaped differently, no one pack will work for everyone. Look for a pack with a separate area for your safety gear, personal gear, etc. Being able to find something without emptying your pack onto the snow is important. As you gain experience you can look to higher end packs with less organizing features but for beginners this is the way to go. Expensive bags don’t always make them the best, if a cheaper model fits you better then go with it. I often get asked about airbags but you’re better off exploring that subject during your avalanche course.
Eyewear – sunglasses and goggles are important to have out there in a white environment. Neither item needs to be expensive, just make sure they have UV protection (yes, even those $20 sunglasses at the gas station have UV but they are surface film so won’t last long, this is what I use as I break my glasses a lot).
Head Lamp – always have a head lamp, regardless of trip length. When you need it there is no good alternative. If you forgot it and need light, use a ski strap with your cell phone on your head, it’s a horrible way to make due but it “works”.
Water Bottles – get a double lined water bottle (or 2 depending on your needs) for day trips so your water doesn’t freeze. I use single wall for multi day trips as they transfer heat (for drying clothes). Don’t bother with hydro bag/pack setups, the tube will likely freeze at some point. Pack water purifier pills in case you run out of water and need to grab from a creek.
Knife – a basic survival tool that you should always have in the wilderness.
Sunscreen – snow reflects light, make sure to put it in places you never have before, (no, not “there”, like under your chin and inside your nose).
Ski Straps – carry 2-3 long ski straps with you, this is now your “repair kit”. Unless you need something specific for repairs these straps will get you out of any issue you might have. I’ve fixed boots, bindings, skis, backpacks, etc with these.
Group Gear – Maps, Compass, GPS, Guidebook, First Aid Kit, InReach, etc
Maps – carry a map of the area you are skiing in. Phones now have map apps but phones die and/or preform poorly in the cold.
Compass – outside of glacier travel I rarely bring one but to start out it’s probably a good idea.
GPS – again outside of glacier travel I don’t personally bring these but they can be excellent in order to not get lost. Again phones have built in GPS but most aren’t good in the cold and a dedicated GPS lasts way longer than any phone.
Guidebook – these often have pictures of terrain, maps, etc that can be used in group discussions in order to not misunderstand each other. Pointing across a valley at a mountain feature can often be difficult in a group situation but pointing at a picture makes sure everyone is on the same page.
First Aid Kit – I put this in group gear but often I like everyone to have their own in case people get separated. Some people like to carry a lot of first aid gear but for the most part you will be using band aids for most injuries. When you take a course ask your guide what items are of best value or better yet take a 80 Hour Wilderness First Aid course where you will learn how creative thinking will help in even fairly serious situations.
InReach – some kind of communication tool to call for rescue is something you may never need to use but when you do it can save your life. In recent years this item has become standard to carry, most people now treat it as personal gear.
2-way Radios – there’s been a few times that I have skied a line and wished I had a radio to communicate a slope or snowpack issue to those about to ski down. These can be purchased almost anywhere and are fairly inexpensive.
Tarp – packing a small tarp in case you need to spend the night out or wait for rescue is a very good idea.
Sleeping Pad – same reason as taking a tarp on all trips. Removing someone off the snow who is injured is key for their survival.
This is a tricky category as everyone is different. Most importantly is that you adopt a layering system. Unlike resort skiing you will be doing a lot of work and you need to be able to adapt to being warm and cold during the day, all without sweating too much. You will want to get a waterproof shell jacket/pant, multiple insulation jackets to layer under those shells and ski socks and base layers which go against your skin. Avoid all cotton products and stick to wool or some type of poly fabric. Wool is better for “running cold” people, poly is better for “running warm” people. Many companies come up with fancy copyrighted names for their fabrics but most of this is non-sense, several of my poly base layers are from no-name brands which cost $20, meanwhile you will pay $100 for the same from a big ski brand. Make sure to have several gloves, including a very warm set in case something goes wrong (it’s hard to function with frozen hands!). Start off with an assortment of warm hats, a cap, neck warmers, etc to see what works for you. Buy used if possible. Every season new versions of the same items are released and the trendy kids need the new color, take advantage of this! You can get that new trendy gear once you figure out what type of clothing system works for you.
Multi Day Gear
Hey now let’s not get ahead of ourselves, you haven’t even backcountry skied yet! It’s important to really dial in your gear needs for single day trips before you decide to have overnight adventures. I’ll go through this gear later.
Glacier, Rock and Steep Skiing Gear
Chill out, go ski some green runs near the highway. I’ll get to this category a little later on.
Part 2 Re-Cap
Expensive gear won’t make you better. Rent some gear in order to take an ACMG guided backcountry intro course to make sure you like the sport and have a professional show you how to use the gear. Buy new boots and safety gear (avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel). Look for used deals for skis, bindings, poles, outerwear, backpacks, etc. Clothing is super personal and you need to test out different layering systems before bothering to drop a ton of cash on this, buy lots of different used gear and when it doesn’t work for you sell it to someone else for the same price. Don’t invest in multi day, glacier, rock or steep skiing gear until you’ve dialed in your single day trip needs and gained some experience.
In part 3 I’ll be going over the never ending process of backcountry education.