Whether you’re a first-timer catching a massive storm in Colorado or you’re a seasoned local in the Pacific Northwest, skiers and boarders are pushing beyond resort boundaries and into the backcountry more than ever.
With increased backcountry skiing across the country, these off-piste slopes are becoming the winter playground for an ever-increasing group of riders. Along with that overload of skiers exploring resort-accessed side-country or full-blown ski touring adventures comes an increased risk for avalanche danger.
From exiting a resort boundary gate to skinning up from a trail-head, backcountry skiing requires a different mindset and whole new set of skills and tools than your typical resort day. If you’re planning on hitting that powder stash, now is the time to start learning (or reviewing) some essential backcountry skiing skills and putting together your out-of-bounds tool kit.
Get the Gear
At a minimum, you need an avalanche beacon, collapsible snow shovel, and probe whenever you’re out on a run that is not actively avalanche controlled. Learn how to use your kit, and practice, practice, practice. Hide some beer with a beacon in the snow or even the sand at the beach (put your beacon in a plastic bag) and see who can find it fastest.
Our Top Backcountry Skiing Gear Picks
The Backcountry Access Tracker 2 avalanche beacon is famous for being simple, easy to use, and durable. One big switch changed modes, one big number showed distance, and that was it for the controls.
The updated Tracker 3 has a faster processor for instant updates on the screen as you move. It’s 20 percent smaller and lighter so it fits in any pocket or discretely in the included harness. The new version also includes multiple burial features. You can suppress the signal from one beacon so you can search for the second. “Big Picture” mode takes you back to seeing everything.
Along with the beacon, the probe is another essential piece of equipment when traveling in avalanche terrain. Probes help you find your friends after an avalanche but they’re also helpful in seeing how deep the snow is and as a ruler when inspecting the snowpack in a pit.
The Stealth 300 Carbon is longer than your average probe but might be essential in areas with deeper snow. It’s actually lighter than many probes because it’s made from carbon. The Quickie tension system pulls the probe tight and locks it into place faster than other probes. With this system, the top section of the probe is nested into the next one resulting in a smaller probe in your backpack.
In an avalanche, the beacon and probe will find your friends but you still have to get them out. You better have a shovel. Hiking uphill with a heavy shovel on your backpack isn’t any fun, so it needs to be light — but it can’t be so light it breaks when chopping heavy snow. The Alugator Light from Mammut treads the fine line between light and strong.
At slightly more weight than a can of beer, it’s not tough to carry the Alugator Light around all day. However, it’s also thick enough that you can stomp on the reinforced treads and the sharpened serrated blade will cut through snow and ice. The blade and handle meet the UIAA 156 Avalanche Shovel standard. As always, the more multi-purpose, the better, and the Alugator has attachment holes to build snow anchors and rescue sleds.
The beautiful and super-lightweight Icelantic Natural 101 skis are feathers going up but can handle any conditions coming down. The 31mm of tip rocker and 5mm of camber underfoot allow for a ride any kind of snow. The slightly rockered tail lets you pivot easy for tight turns but still is easy to stand up in the snow or build a snow anchor. Ochroma (balsa) wood with a flax fiber layer makes up the core. (Balsa is also used to build model airplanes because it’s so light.)
Touring boots are like touring skis: They need to be super light on the way up and super strong on the way down. These two goals are usually at odds with each other — strong equals heavy. The Zero G Tour Pro ski boot from Tecnica is pushing the limits of how little a 130-flex ski boot that can bomb the steeps can weigh. Four buckles and a lightweight power strap keep you locked in. A 55-degree walk mode gives plenty of room to move. For the steepest terrain, beefy Vibram soles with big lugs keep your feet on the ground.
Winning awards left and right, the Salomon Shift binding throws the touring ski binding model on its head. Typically, tech bindings like the G3 Zed are crazy light but don’t have the control to push a ski to extremes and don’t release like an alpine binding. Frame bindings can ski hard on the way down but drag all those extra ounces all the way up the hill. The Shift binding keeps the best of both worlds.
On the way up, engage the toe pins for a simple uphill setup. For the way down, move the pins out of the way and pull the alpine-style nose-piece into place. The beefy heel piece keeps you locked on your ski unless you’ve entered tomahawk mode, where the 6-13 DIN will safely eject your planks. The Shift binding fits almost any boots with the adjustable toe piece.
The last thing you need heading up an icy, exposed section on the way to the summit is your skins slipping backward. G3 has extended its popular Alpinist skin line even further. Now the Alpinist+ pushes the limit of grip and glide. The Grip edition of the skins uses super durable nylon plush to provide more, well, grip than any of their other skins. Easy-to-use, low-profile clips at the tip and keep your skins on and make transitions faster. Less slipping and peeling; more skiing.
Instead of a compressed air canister that is only deployable once, the Voltair 30 Airbag from Arc’teryx uses a super-fast fan and rechargeable battery to quickly fill the airbag. Instead of timidly heading home after one deployment worrying about another slide, pack the airbag back up and keep touring. The battery can power up to 20 deployments depending on the temperature. The battery and fan are easy to take on the airplane if you’re traveling. Don’t worry about finding canisters in a foreign country — just plug it in.
Once you’ve started piecing your backcountry kit together and gotten your self familiarized with some of the specialized safety tools, it’s time to really start training. The gold standard for learning about backcountry safety is the American Institute for Avalanche & Education’s (AIARE) Avalanche Level 1 Course. No matter where your home mountain is, there is likely an AIARE certified instructor nearby. If you’re not quite ready to hit the backcountry hard, or just need to brush up on some skills, many mountain guide services offer beginner courses that introduce you to backcountry skiing skills and decision-making processes.
Check The Forecast
Every morning our ritual consists of coffee and a visit to Avalanche.org. This site is sponsored by the American Avalanche Association and Backcountry Access. It serves as an aggregator for all avalanche forecasting around the country. Get familiar with the North American Avalanche Danger Scale:
Whether we’re skiing at the resort, hitting up a secret pow stash, or stuck in the office, the forecast tools keep snow safety on our minds every day. More importantly, reviewing snow conditions helps you have a bigger picture of what the snowpack is looking like over the course of the season. Knowing there is a dangerous layer of snow from a few weeks ago that is still factoring into danger ratings is essential knowledge when you step into your bindings.
In the backcountry, we like to remember two acronyms to aid in the decision-making process. Decisions can have life or death consequences when you step out on an exposed ridgeline or chute, so having every aid in making the call is very important. The first acronym deals with technical details of the slope you’re about to ski, and is termed ALP TRUTh:
- A: Avalanche. Has there been avalanche activity on your chosen slope or similar ones in the last 48 hours?
- L: Loading. Has there been significant snow, rain, or wind that could have added extra weight to a weak layer recently?
- P: Path. Is there a noticeable path that a potential avalanche could take?
- T: Terrain Trap. Are there features on the terrain you’re skiing like cliffs, gullies, or trees that could make the consequences of getting caught more dangerous?
- R: Rating. What was the danger rating of today’s avalanche forecast?
- U: Unstable snow. Have you seen or heard signs of instability? Cracks that propagate in the snow, collapsing snow, or a whoomphing sound, (yes unstable makes a distinguishable whoomph when it shifts) can signal danger.
- Th: Thaw. Have the temperatures recently let to a melting event?
The second acronym, FACETS, was coined by Ian McCammon to describe ways in which our judgment can be compromised:
- F: Familiarity. Is this run or face something you’ve skied many times? Does that contribute to overconfidence?
- A: Acceptance. How much danger is your group willing to risk in search of that perfect turn or a good day?
- C: Consistency. Are you someone who always sticks to the plan? Faced with conditions that aren’t conducive to your summit plans, can you make changes to your route that are safer?
- E: Expert halo. Are you with a group that has a stand-out, more experienced member? Are you scared of speaking up if you don’t agree with their assessment?
- T: Tracks/scarcity. How long has it been since your last pow turn or deep backcountry mission? Is your “stoke” level affecting your judgment on what is safe?
- S: Social facilitation. Can you be egged on by your friends to hit the pow? Peer pressure is a real danger in avalanche terrain when your group is excited.
While these two acronyms won’t in themselves keep you out of danger, knowing and applying them will help you make responsible decisions while you’re out backcountry skiing. Whether you’re just hitting the back side of the resort for a little side country lap or heading out for an all-day adventure, re-evaluating your objective frequently is paramount to staying safe.
Go with a Guide
Even after brushing up your beacon search skills in a course, hiring a guide can save you time, keep you safe, and get you into the best powder stashes. Lots of websites online list guided trips with ratings and reviews. One of our favorites is the recently launched 57Hours app. The company thoroughly vets the guides and trip providers listed. The app makes it easy to search for any kind of mountain trip around the United States and the western coast of Canada. Ask the guide questions about the trip and book in a couple clicks once you find the right one for you.
Know Before You Go
Our friends at the Utah Avalanche Center put together this awesome video. If you take away nothing else from our guide, a little bit of awareness goes a long way.
Article originally published by Austin Parker on January 3, 0217. Last updated by Ross Collicutt in January 2019.