16 Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding Essentials
You’re staring down a perfect, untouched slope under a cloudless blue sky. It’s silent, except for the sound of a soft breeze and birds chirping. No lifts buzzing overhead or first-timers to navigate around, just a layer of fresh powder and a few friends to help rip it up. If this sounds like your ideal scenario and you don’t mind putting in the extra work to make it happen, you need to try backcountry skiing or snowboarding.
While well-worth the effort, skiing or snowboarding in a backcountry environment, far away from groomed runs and emergency services, requires much more preparation than boarding at your favorite mountain resort. Because of this, you have to do your homework before heading out. Here are 16 backcountry skiing and snowboarding essentials that’ll keep you safe and comfortable during your time touring the unknown:
Quick Backcountry Skiing Checklist
- A plan
- A friend or group
- Snow study tools, avalanche beacon, avalanche probe, and shovel
- Preloaded mobile maps or waterproof map of area
- A backpack with pockets for avalanche gear and support straps for heavy loads
- Food and water
- First-aid kit
- Cell phone and radio with mobile charger
- Extra beanie and gloves
- Multi tool
- Snowshoes and repair kit
- Ski poles, skins, skin wax
- Layered clothing
- A big puffy jacket
Must-Have Backcountry Safety Gear
1. A game plan
Have a meeting with your group during the morning of your trip. Go over maps of the area, talk about routes, and check out updated snow conditions and avalanche advisories. You’ll also want to talk about any possible avalanche terrain to look out for while trekking to the right spot. Nick D’Alessio, AMGA Certified Ski Guide and owner of two backcountry excursion companies in Alaska, says 80% of your decisions for the day should be made before heading to the mountain.
2. A friend or group
Friends are a must when spending any period of time in the backcountry. They’re not just there to share in the powder slashing, but also to keep you safe. They’ll help haul you out of deep snow after you get stuck, but most importantly, they are another set of eyes to keep watch over this unpredictable terrain.
3. Snow study gear, avalanche beacon, avalanche probe, and shovel
Snow can look quite harmless to the untrained eye, but it’s quite the opposite. Avalanches can move huge masses of snow and other debris reaching speeds exceeding 80 miles per hour in some cases. Snow study gear allows you to measure different aspects of the snowpack to determine if it is safe to ride on.
An avalanche beacon and probe are both carried in the event you thought a section of snow was safe, but it wasn’t. A beacon sends and receives a locating signal while a probe is used to poke through snow to locate the buried rider, both should be worn by every rider and never with a battery charge lower than 80%. It is highly recommended that every rider take an accredited avalanche safety course to learn how to use each tool properly.
Lastly, a shovel is one of the most versatile accessories you can bring. It’ll help you build insane kickers and dig a buddy out in the event he’s covered by an avalanche. You’ll want one that is both short and sturdy, some even come with sharpened blades for chopping down tree branches.
4. Waterproof map of area or preloaded mobile maps
One of the best and worst things about exploring the backcountry is there’s usually no cell coverage. It’s great for dodging work, but limited cell service also means limited access to emergency services or map apps. Make sure to preload a mobile map using apps like Gaia or grab a waterproof map of the area to avoid getting lost.
A compass will allow you to quickly reorient yourself in the event you get lost in the expansive backcountry. When used in conjunction with your waterproof map, you’ll be able to find your way back to your starting point with ease.
You may never use it, but in the event you’re separated from your group or need to warn a buddy of impending doom, you’ll be thankful you packed a whistle. Wear one around your neck, attach it to your clothing, or buy a jacket with one integrated into the zipper — it just might save a life someday.
7. A backpack with pockets for avalanche gear and support straps for heavy loads
There are plenty of backpacks offered specifically for use in the backcountry. Make sure to buy a sturdy, spacious backpack with dedicated exterior pockets for avalanche gear to be quickly accessed. The backpack should also have straps to carry your snowboard or skis while hiking to your spot.
What’s In Our Backpack?
8. Food and water
Kind of a no-brainer, but you’ll need to refuel and rehydrate during your exploration of the backcountry. You’ll want to include ample water as well as a sports drink or two to replenish your electrolytes. For food, include something both high in protein and carbs if possible, like trail mix or granola. These types of foods will give you both the short-term energy you need to hike up a slope and the long-term energy to keep you going until the sun goes down.
9. First-aid kit
Your kit should contain these first aid essentials: gauze, bandages, and cravats. You’ll also want to have a CPR mask, ACE bandages, and trauma shears for cutting clothes. Hopefully you’ll never have to use your first-aid kit, but you’ll be glad you have it when you need it.
10. Cell phone and radio with mobile charger
Radios are a great way to communicate with group members when cell coverage is sparse. A mobile, lightweight battery pack is a great addition to keep all of your gadgets charged while out in the wilderness.
11. Backup clothing items
Slashing through all of that fresh powder will undoubtedly lead to some wet clothing which, in temperatures below freezing, can result in hypothermia. To avoid getting too cold, make sure to pack an extra beanie, gloves, and socks.
12. Multi tool
A multi tool comes in handy in almost every situation. From adjusting a binding to opening a beer, you never know when you might need one.
13. Snowshoes and repair kit
Hiking through deep snow and Traversing steep snow-covered slopes is nearly impossible without the assistance of snowshoes or crampons. Snowshoes allow you to stay on top of the snow rather than sink in it by increasing the surface area of each step. Your snowshoe repair kit should contain extra wire, extra nuts and bolts, Voile Straps, and duct tape.
14. Ski poles, skins, and skin wax
In combination with snowshoes, ski poles offer increased leverage and stability on snow and ice. They also make it much easier to hike long distances by allowing you to propel yourself with both your legs and arms.
Adding skins to the bottom of your skis enables you to do what’s called skinning, or traveling uphill on skis, which is the most of efficient way for skiers to get to the summit. Make sure to bring extra skin wax to retain uphill traction throughout the day.
Layers are essential when skiing or snowboarding in the backcountry. You’ll want to start with a base layer of thermal underwear and then move to a merino wool hoodie for a midlayer. Finally, your outerwear should consist of a waterproof jacket and pants that are both lightweight and durable.
16. A big puffy jacket
Lastly, you’ll want a big puffy jacket in the bottom of your bag for a last resort. There is always a chance of getting stranded out in the backcountry and in that case, you’ll find some comfort in knowing you have a heavily insulated jacket tucked away in your bag.
Backcountry skiing or snowboarding offers a unique experience complete with majestic mountain views, pristine snow, and not another soul around. The remoteness and extreme terrain, however, mean even the smallest mistake can have dire consequences without the right preparation. Using the guide above in combination with an accredited avalanche safety course will give you everything you need to have the time of your life in the backcountry.