Backcountry skiing and snowboarding are booming in popularity. Between pristine, untouched powder and majestic, looming peaks, the backcountry’s appeal is easy to understand. But because of exposure to changing weather and uncontrolled snow and avalanche conditions, backcountry travel is inherently risky. Safety is the responsibility of every backcountry user, and that starts with having the essential gear to travel safely and respond to emergencies, accidents and avalanches.
Before we get into what needs to go in your pack and pockets, let’s address the first truly essential backcountry tool: knowledge and education. Every backcountry skier and snowboarder should learn a little bit about the backcountry before venturing beyond the ropes. Start by reading up on what separates the backcountry from resorts. Then take the Utah Avalanche Center’s (UAC) online Know Before You Go Course and learn to read and understand their daily avalanche forecasts. From there, an Avalanche Rescue Clinic to teach you how to effectively use your avalanche safety gear should be completed before heading into the backcountry.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let’s cover what you need to bring along every time you go into the backcountry. Pack these items up, find a trusted partner and head out in search of powder. If you have any personal favorite pieces of gear we haven’t mentioned, let us know in the comments.
This is the Holy Trinity of backcountry safety gear, so don’t leave home without ‘em in your pack. There’s a huge variety of these items out there, but there are a few specifics to keep an eye out for. New, digital beacons (like this one) are a bit more intuitive to use than older analog models. Any beacon from a reputable brand will work, however, and the best beacon is always the one you’ve practiced with and are comfortable using. When it comes to shovels, metal is the only option for both the blade and shaft. Plastic is useless when digging in tough avalanche debris, so steer clear. Shovels with longer shafts will give you more leverage when digging, even if they take up a bit more space in your pack. Any locking probe will do if it’s long enough (approximately a nine-foot minimum is a good measure). Sometimes the Holy Trinity can be purchased as a package for convenience and to save a few dollars. Just remember, this is all lifesaving equipment, so it isn’t the place to skimp.
Is it possible to use snowshoes to access backcountry terrain? Yes. Do I recommend it? Absolutely not. Using climbing skins and touring bindings is far more efficient and takes a huge load off your back. These come in all types of flavors. Skins can be made from nylon, mohair or some combination of the two. Each has specific benefits, but all of them work well. There are splitboards with touring bindings for snowboarders. There are lightweight tech bindings for skiers who prioritize uphill travel efficiency and touring-capable alpine bindings for those who prioritize downhill performance and security. Figure out what matters most to you and start there. There are no wrong answers. Just don’t be the person post-holing around while everyone else cruises up the skin track with ease.
You’re going to need at least three clothing layers: a wicking baselayer (top and bottom), an insulating mid-layer (top only) and a stormproof shell (jacket and pants). For the baselayer, you need something that’s made of wool or synthetic material that wicks moisture and dries quickly. You’re going to heat up quickly on the uphill and get cold fast once you stop moving, so this one’s important. The mid-layer is what keeps you warmest on the downhill and while transitioning from climbing to descending. I like to bring a lightweight synthetic puffy layer, but in the spring you might be able to get by with a warm fleece layer if you tend to run hot. A stormproof shell tops it off to seal out moisture and protect you from the wind. Versatility with these layers is key. The weather changes quickly and you will get hot and cold quickly as your effort level changes. Being, dry, comfortable and warm is an essential part of staying safe and making good decisions.
Just like with your layers, you’re going to want a couple options. Start with two pairs of gloves or mittens. One is for warmer weather and high exertion on the uphill. The other is for when things get cold and the descent. I have a lightweight pair of gloves I climb with and a set of bombproof mittens for the rest of the time. Even on warm days, it gets surprisingly chilly as the sun begins to set. In the backcountry cold hands are more than an inconvenience, they’re a liability. Happy hands make for happy backcountry skiers and snowboarders. Check out our primer on glove layering from Hestra here to learn more about layering gloves to keep your fingers happy.
You’re going to work hard and get tired. Even when it’s very cold you need to stay hydrated, and you burn an incredible number of calories traveling in the backcountry. Ample food and water can be the difference between going back up for another lap of perfect powder or bonking deep in the backcountry and turning your day into an arduous epic. I bring at least a liter of water any time I plan to be out for more than an hour, and I like to pack some delicious snacks like Sour Patch Kids or leftover pizza wrapped in foil. Both of those items are far more appealing than heavily processed energy bars and the like, and they make great bartering options when you want to take advantage of your hungry backcountry partners.
Trust me, the sun is going to burn you. Yes, even in January.
Ideally, you use your headlamp for pre-dawn missions on the skin track, but they can also be a literal lifesaver if you get stuck out later than expected to due to gear failure, navigation errors or another unexpected occurrence.
You don’t need to carry a full hospital, but a few basics to control bleeding and help build a splint should be in everyone’s pack. You can purchase pre-made first aid kits, but you can easily compile your own effective one for far less money. I polled some healthcare workers and backcountry guides, and here’s what were in just about all their first aid kits. Most also recommend taking a Wilderness First Aid (WFA) class so you’re better prepared in case of an emergency.
There are endless iterations of repair kits out there, but mostly you just need something to help you get by in the event a binding breaks or skins stop sticking to your skis. Here’s what some of those aforementioned backcountry guides recommend carrying in the pack every day.
Pull this up on your phone or print one out if you’re an analog type of person. Just be sure you can access the forecast for reference throughout the day.
This could be on your phone, on your watch or in the form of an actual standalone compass. Being able to double-check your slope aspect is essential for safe travel.
Again, this could be via an app on your phone or an analog version that kind of resembles a protractor. Verifying slope angles is another important factor in good decision making and safe travel.
You need to carry all this stuff in something. Packs don't need to be fancy or technologically advanced, just durable and comfortable. Airbag packs, which can be inflated in case of an avalanche are becoming increasingly popular. You can absolutely get by without one, but avalanche airbag packs have proven to be very effective in keeping people from being buried in some common avalanche situations. They are by no means a replacement for good decision-making, but if you have the money to afford one it’s difficult to rationalize not carrying one.