Backcountry Skiing for Beginners: The Gear

Missed Backcountry Skiing for Beginners Part One?

As I discussed in part one, the gear is a critical component of backcountry skiing. Without the fancy gear, you sure are going to struggle! However, only some of the gear needs to be purchased straight out of the gates while the rest falls into the *nice to have* category once you know if you’re truly enjoying the sport.

This post does contain affiliate links, which means I make a small commission if you purchase the items. As always, I appreciate your support!

The Safety Essentials

These are not nice to have; these are necessary if you’re going to explore the backcountry.

Avalanche Beacon

An avalanche beacon is an absolute requirement as it could possibly save both you and your friend’s life one day. Also known as an avalanche transceiver, each individual wears one of these attached to his body. {Note: it is important to keep it attached to your body rather than shoved in your backpack. Should a slide occur, your backpack could get ripped off your person, leaving you without a beacon. No bueno!}

Backcountry Skiing for Beginners

All photos by Will Rochfort

Beacons have two basic functions: to emit a signal and to receive a signal. While touring and skiing, everyone leaves their beacon in the “send” mode so that it sends out a signal. Should you be caught in a slide, your friends would then flip the beacon to “receive” mode in the hopes of locating your sending signal and thus, you. It is super important to practice with whatever beacon you use. Grab some friends, stash some beacons in a backpack, and bury it in the snow. The more comfortable you are with your beacon, the easier it will be for you to find a friend should the worst-case-scenario occur.

Details: I own the Ortovox Zoom+ beacon. It’s not the fanciest on the market but it’s intuitive to use and affordable.

Backcountry Skiing for Beginners

Probe

If you or a friend is caught in a slide, there is a good chance that her entire body will be underneath snow. Since you wouldn’t want to injure anyone further, it’s less than ideal to start ramming around with a sharp shovel in hopes of making contact. Instead, backcountry skiers all carry probes collapsed in their backpacks. Break out the probe, assemble it, and use this to locate the specific area where your friend is buried.

Details: I own a Brooks-Range aluminum probe. It’s not the lightest out there, but again, it was affordable and gets the job done.

Backcountry Skiing for Beginners

Our friend Michael, crushing some powder outside of Leadville, CO

Shovel

Once you reach your buried friend and locate him with your probe, you will need a shovel to dig him out quickly and efficiently. Backcountry shovels typically break down to make them easier to carry in your pack. Some of the cheaper versions are made of plastic, but be aware: plastic can occasionally break under serious weight.

Details: I own a Mammut Alugator aluminum shovel.

The Ski Gear

Backcountry Skiing for Beginners

Why are my friends so cool?

Sure, many people start out carrying their alpine gear while trekking uphill in a pair of snowshoes. But more often than not, that doesn’t last. Not only is it exhausting and heavy but so inefficient! If you’ve decided to invest in backcountry gear, here is what you need.

Skis

Naturally, you’re going to need a pair of skis. For the most part, you can look at any downhill ski on the market while considering two factors: how light and smooth is it on the uphills and how much power it give you on the downhills. Personally, I prefer a slightly fatter ski {think: 105 under foot} for backcountry skiing as it floats a bit better in variable conditions.

Details: Currently I’m skiing the K2 Gottbacks but I’m hoping to get a slightly wider ski next season.

Bindings

Bindings are a big part of backcountry skiing. Originally, most backcountry skiers used a tele setup. But then, the concept of “alpine touring” or “randonnee” became popular and most people realized they didn’t need to learn how to tele ski to get into the backcountry! Alpine touring {or AT} bindings are different than downhill bindings in that they have two functions: you can release your heel while climbing uphill but also click in to your binding to ski downhill, just like with alpine skis.

Backcountry Skiing for Beginners

A tech binding: pins hold the toe piece while it’s easy to lift your heel for touring

Again, there are dozens of good AT bindings on the market and you can choose from a tech binding and a non-tech binding. A non-tech binding {or a frame binding} has both the toe and heel piece connected to a frame that lifts away from the actual ski. The benefit of these is that they are frequently usable with both AT and regular downhill boots. Downside? They are heavier.

In my circle of friends, we all ski with tech bindings. The bindings require two pins that insert into the toe of your special, AT-specific ski boots. Tech bindings are much lighter than frame bindings because there is no frame in the system; the rigidity comes from your boots. With these, you turn the binding one way to release your heel for climbing. When you’re ready to ski, you turn the heel piece back so that you can click in for downhill.

Details: My first pair of bindings was the Dynafit Speed Radicals. While ultralight, there was nowhere near enough control on the downhill for me, so I just purchased a new pair: the G3 Ions. I took them out this weekend and loved them!

Backcountry Ski Boots

As I mentioned above, you can get away with using your alpine boots in a frame binding. But y’all, I can’t imagine doing that because alpine boots are so, so heavy and uncomfortable for touring!

Backcountry Skiing for Beginners

On the contrary, backcountry boots are lighter and more flexible than regular alpine boots. Additionally, they typically have two modes: walk and ski mode. While touring, you click the boot into walk mode and loosen all of the buckles. This gives the boot a ton of flex and wiggle room, making it comfortable to scoot around in. Once you’re ready to ski downhill, you tighten the buckles and click it back into ski mode.

Details: My first pair of boots was the Dynafit Zzeros. They were a great boot and I really liked them but I could not get the sizing right for my feet. I used them for three seasons while constantly taking them into a bootfitter to get various areas punched out as I continually lost toenails while wearing these. Finally, Will surprised me with a new pair in the hopes that I could actually be comfortable while touring: the Salomon MTN Explore. The Explore are a touch narrow in the toe but both the liners AND the shell are heat moldable. I took them into a bootfitter and got them sorted for my feet; perfection!

Skins

You quite literally cannot ski uphill without your skins! In a nutshell, think of skins as carpets for your skis. Each ski has a corresponding skin {that fits the width} and one side is covered in a special glue while the other side is similar to a carpet. While touring, you stick the skin to the bottom of your ski. It flattens while you go uphill, allowing you to glide. But if you slide backwards down hill, the “carpet” stands up, keeping you in place. Ever rubbed your hand across velvet and felt that stiff feeling against the grain? Just like that.

Backcountry Skiing for Beginners

Joe, skinning up

It’s important to protect the glue on the skins because it can wear away with time. Additionally, you want to keep the glue from getting soaked while touring because it will cause the skins to lose stickiness. Usually, I fold mine back on themselves when getting ready to ski and stash them in my pack, or even in my jacket to stay warm if I know I’m going to run a few laps.

Details: I have the K2 trim-to-fit skins that go with the Gottbacks. 

Backpack

Regardless of the style, you need a backpack while touring. Not only do you have to carry all of your avalanche safety gear, but you also need to remember you snacks and water. Plus, touring works up a major sweat and it’s likely that you will tour in fewer clothes than you will actually want on the summit. Bringing a backpack means you’ll have space to carry everything you need.

That said, it’s ideal to get a ski-specific backpack for a few reasons. First of all, most of them have a separate pouch to store your probe and shovel, making them easily accessible in case of emergency. Additionally, the specific backpacks normally have various straps and buckles that make it easier to carry your skis on your backpack, should the need arise.

Backcountry Skiing for Beginners

Crystal Sagan, gear guru for POWDER magazine

Details: I have a few that I use including an avalanche backpack {see below}. For the non-airbag versions, I typically use the Deuter Guide 30+ for big trips.  I’ve also been pleasantly surprised with the Camelbak Phantom— especially at that price point. 

Ski Poles

Obviously, you gotta have poles! Truthfully, any will do but it depends on your preferences: some turn into probes, others are collapsible, and some are ultralight. I prefer adjustable so that I can alter the height of the pole based on the terrain I’m in.

Details: I own the Salomon MTN Carbon S3. These are ultralight, adjustable, and have tear-away straps in case of trouble.

Nice-to-Have Accessories

The items above are the need-to-have stuff for backcountry skiing. Below are a few items that we’ve used in various situations but they definitely aren’t requirements for the majority of backcountry skiing. It simply depends on how extreme the terrain and your preferences.

Backcountry Skiing for Beginners

Pro athlete Kalen Thorien…..She is a much better skier than me yet oh-so-awesome! 

Avalanche Backpack

Everyone wants them but they are freaking pricey! There are quite a few avalanche packs on the market these days that are a great idea if you can swing the cost. Airbag packs work based on the notion of “Inverse Segregation” which says that larger objects will rise to the top when in a sea of moving objects of all sizes {think: avalanche.}

Most avalanche backpacks operate with a canister full of pressurized gas. When in a slide, skiers are supposed to pull the cord located on the shoulder of the pack, triggering the gas which then fills up the airbag in the pack. The airbag rips through the zipper of a separate pocket in the back of the pack. With brands such as Mammut and BCA, these gas canisters are refillable. Downside: these pressurized gas containers cannot be taken on airplanes, so if you use this type of avy pack you must fill the canister upon arrival.

Black Diamond recently came out with a new type of avalanche pack that operates on a JetFan system. Basically, these airbags are filled with a high-powered, battery-operated fan that can be used four times per battery charge. This tech innovation made avalanche packs much easier to travel with, as well as allowing skiers to practice with their avy pack at home without worrying about where to fill up their gas canister afterwards.

Details: Will was insistent that I not ski without an avalanche pack, so he gifted me one for Christmas a few years back. I own the Mammut Light Protection Airbag. While I haven’t needed to discharge it {knock on wood!}, it’s a very comfy pack that is easy to wear while skiing. 

Crampons

Again, this is *not* a necessary piece of gear for skiing but depending on your preferred type of terrain, you may need crampons on occasion. For us, we will occasionally need them during spring skiing. Typically, we get up super early to get the touring out of the way before the snow warms up and gets slushy. Sometimes, this means you may encounter a super icy section of snow that is too slippery for your skins. Rather than slide all over, remove your skis and attach crampons to your boots.

Backcountry Skiing for Beginners

The Spearhead Traverse

And while I’ve never used them, Will recently did the Spearhead Traverse in Canada that required him to use ski crampons!

Details: I actually cover this category for Backpacker, so I really can’t go into details as to which pair of crampons I prefer. There are quite a few brands out there, so give some a try!

Walkies

We didn’t realize how often we’d use walkies until we started backcountry skiing! We tend to travel in groups of 5-9 people, and inevitably, some of us are quicker than others. Or frequently, the pro skiers in our group will tackle some crazy couloir while the rest of us watch from below. Either way, it’s great to have a set of walkies in the group so everyone can communicate with each other and keep the “Where are they now?!” fears at bay.

Details: We have a pair of the BCA walkies. Super basic and easy to use!

Backcountry Skiing for Beginners

See his walkie clipped to his backpack strap?

….And the Rest

I won’t include all of this in specific detail {unless anyone is dying to know?!} but as always, make sure to bring the apparel and typical ski items that you will always need: snowpants, socks, baselayers, a hard shell, insulation, a hat, goggles, sunglasses, a helmet, gloves, sunscreen, snacks and water.  And did I mention that you should take an Avy I course?!

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6 Comments

  • Reply amanda -runtothefinish May 25, 2016 at 2:12 pm

    I’m guessing if i can’t ski on a regular slope this would be a bad idea….yes?

    • Reply heather June 3, 2016 at 6:12 am

      Hahaha…we’ll get you skiing a normal slope in no time 😉

  • Reply Laura May 26, 2016 at 12:14 pm

    Thanks for the info Heather! AT gear seems to change so much from year to year so it’s nice to see what other people are using! I have a super old setup that is SO heavy that I am hoping to upgrade in a few years. Just curious- do you go to Larry’s for boot fitting, or is there another place around the Boulder area? I need to get some additional fitting done, but there is always such a long wait at Larry’s.

    • Reply Amanda S June 2, 2016 at 1:17 pm

      Hey Laura – I’ve gone to Neptune for my fittings. Just call ahead, and they can usually get you in for an appointment within a couple days!

    • Reply heather June 3, 2016 at 6:14 am

      Hey Laura! Sorry for the delay. Truth be told, I used to go to Larry’s but I wasn’t thrilled {and to be fair, I am literally the ONLY person who doesn’t rave about them, so maybe it’s just me.} I went there for a few years and they kept trying to shove me in the same boot that obviously wasn’t working. I found a guy in Golden that is AMAZING. He still does fittings now if you text him but he sits down and actually analyzes your foot and makes manual changes to the boot before even putting your foot into it. He was a boot fitter for Salomon for like 10 years and now he is the boot guy for a French ski team, so he really knows his stuff. He fitted my new boots and for the first time in four years, I’m actually COMFORTABLE! He also focuses only on fittings and ski tunes; no retail section to speak of which, in his words, makes him focus more on a good product since it is where all of his income comes from. Anyway, if you want his info, please shoot me an email! (I don’t have it on me right now– sorry.)

  • Reply Whitney January 5, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    Your pics make it look enticing though the notion of being stuck in an avalanche is terrifying 🙂 I’ll live vicariously through your pics for now!

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