What’s in your pack? The essential backcountry ski gear
Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum
The following is part of a series of articles compiled by the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame that will take a closer look at the sport of alpine ski touring. The museum is located atop the Vail Village Parking Structure and features a treasure trove of ski history and heritage.
VAIL — It’s seemingly impossible to watch television these days without coming across the Capital One credit card commercial that begs the question “What’s in your wallet?” It seems as if a quality shopping experience, not to mention true happiness, is tied directly to that answer.
The same can be said for backcountry skiing and boarding. While a great deal of the focus on equipment is normally consumed with finding the perfect ski, boot and binding setup to easily navigate up and down the backcountry, some of the most critical gear can and should be found on the skier’s back.
First and foremost, the most important backcountry tool you can have won’t even take up any room in your pack. Avalanche knowledge and education is a must. No matter whether it’s a one-night course to learn the basics or a longer course ending in certification, it’s important to know what you are up against and how to make educated decisions.
Arming yourself with this knowledge is the first step, packing for the adventure is the next. A good backcountry pack should be large enough to fit all of the necessary gear, while also being comfortable to wear. If the pack doesn’t have a dedicated shovel and probe pocket, then make sure to pack them so they are easily accessible in case of an avalanche.
Your avalanche transceiver is another key tool that does not get put in your pack! It should be worn on your body, underneath your outermost layer. All members of your group should not only have beacons, but also be well versed in their use, practicing with them on a regular basis.
A good shovel is extremely important. It will require moving a great deal of snow to pull someone out of an avalanche and, when a slide stops, the snow sets up like concrete. Look for a shovel with an extendable shaft, large metal blade and ergonomic handle.
Most avalanche victims are buried approximately 6 feet under the snow and you will need to locate them after your beacon search. Choose an avalanche probe that is a stand-alone piece of equipment as probes that are part of a pole or contained in a shovel handle may be too short and not strong enough for use in avalanche debris. Make sure your probe is at least 240 centimeters (7 feet 11 inches) in length.
Layering Clothes is Key
Backcountry skiing is a physical sport and there is a good chance that you are going to sweat and then stand in the cold. Having extra layers is important, not only for keeping warm but also in dealing with emergency situations so a good down jacket that will fit over your outermost layer is preferable. Extra gloves are a good idea, while an extra hat and neck gator can prove 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. Possible items include ski straps, duct tape, ski tip loop, wax scraper, extra screws, extra batteries for your beacon and a multi-tool. Extra buckles for boots, screws for bindings and pole baskets will also help out in a pinch.
You may be 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 key, including SAM splint, gauze, 4-by-4 bandages, Ace bandages, quick clot, blister bandages, Band-Aids and tape should cover most emergencies.
Don’t forget that backcountry skiing is a lot of work and you will get hungry and thirsty. Carry food items that you can eat quickly and that don’t take a lot of room in your pack, such as nuts, dried fruit and chocolate, along with energy bars and chews. You can also carry water in a bottle that is kept in your pack.
A compass and/or a GPS unit are also essential components of your pack contents. These tools are not only important 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.
While the extent and range of cell phone service obviously varies from region to region, it can never hurt to have your phone with you. Carry your phone in your pack, turned off and at least 12 inches away from your beacon to avoid any interference with the beacon’s signal.
At the end of the day, you need to know avalanches and backcountry travel, carry the right equipment, travel with partners and don’t be afraid to turn around and come home if conditions aren’t right.
What’s in your pack?