Outdoors

A Beginner’s Guide to Backcountry Skiing, Gear, and Safety

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 venturing farther into the backcountry 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 influx 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.

At a minimum, you’ll 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.

Get Educated

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.

Decision Making

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 snow makes a distinguishable whoomph when it shifts) can signal danger.
  • Th: Thaw. Have the temperatures recently led 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 backside 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 of 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.

Get the Gear

Here’s what you need to go backcountry skiing. We’ve included our top picks for each piece of gear.

  • Jacket
  • Pants
  • Skis
  • Boots
  • Bindings
  • Skins
  • Beacon
  • Probe
  • Shovel
  • Backpack

Jacket: The North Face Futurelight Summit

Backcountry touring is the most challenging use case for a waterproof, breathable jacket. It’s warm and wet going up but windy and cold coming down. Most jackets aren’t up to the task and end up in a backpack or tied around a waist. The North Face has a solution to this: Futurelight.

The North Face Futurelight Summit jacket

The Futurelight breathable waterproof membrane is sandwiched between an outer and inner layer just like other jackets but the magic is that it’s air permeable. Tiny threads spun into a membrane keep water from getting in but let air and your sweat out. Hilaree Nelson and Jim Morrison wore the Futurelight Summit jacket on their historic first ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir. You know, the Lhotse right beside Everest? Ya, that one.

Pants: Arc’teryx Sabre AR Pant

When it’s not snowing at Arc’teryx HQ in Vancouver, British Columbia, it’s probably raining. If there’s one thing they know best it’s waterproof outerwear.

Arcteryx Sabre AR Pants

Their Sabre AR pant might be the most comfortable pant you can wear ski touring. The brushed fleece lining inside can comfortably be worn next to skin and provides a touch of warmth but not too much. For the hot skin track up, big side zippers dump all the heat. 100 denier Cordura PowderCuffs keep the snow out from the bottom and Keprotec instep pads prevent any cuts into the sides from skis. Slide’n Loc attachments link with compatible jackets to create the benefits of a onesie without looking ridiculous. For a slightly lighter version, the LT skips the comfy brushed liner to save some weight.

Skis: G3 FINDr 94 Ski

Skis are like shoes. Everyone has their preference and it will be completely different than that of their friends. The holy grail of skis still remains though. It’s super light for touring up, floats through powder but can handle crud and ice without blinking.

Skis: G3 FINDr 94

The G3 Findr 94 is getting pretty close. With 102 and 86 underfoot as the other options, the 94 is the all-mountain middle of the set. Four layers of carbon fiber and sustainably sourced Canadian aspen creates a core that’s nice and light. Polyurethane sidewalls increase durability and dampen the chatter when the snow is terrible. Don’t forget the magnetic contact points on the bottom of each that holds the skis together when you’re bootpacking.

Boots: Atomic Backland Carbon

Another heavyweight in your touring gear is your boots. Boots have to strike a balance between lightweight and comfortable. The Backland Carbon from Atomic straddles that line nicely.

Boots: Atomic Backland Carbon

A grilamid and carbon shell keeps things lightweight as does completely removing a couple of buckles. The foot section of the boot is held in place with a Boa lacing system. Dial it in to the desired tightness and you’re done. Backing it off is easy with the dial as well. Pull the whole thing out and it releases completely. A frictionless pivot at the ankle gives 75 degrees of rotation when you’re grinding up the hill. Lock in at the top and the stiff Carbone Spine keeps you in place for the ride down.

Bindings: Marker Alpinist 12

Pin bindings have come a long way in the last few years and the Alpinist 12 from Marker is no exception. The 8.6-ounce bindings have a ton of features packed into a lightweight package.

Bindings: Marker Alpinist 12

The Alpinist 12 has DIN settings from six to 12 with lateral and vertical release for the downhill. Active Length Compensation automatically moves the heel tower up to 4mm when the ski is flexed offering a smoother ride down. Zero-, five-, and nine-degree climbing aids keep your calves from exploding on the uptrack. Both the toe and heel pieces have anti-ice pads so it’s easy to lock-in. Brakes and crampons are available for the Alpinist as well.

Skins: Contour Hybrid Mix

Grip or glide? That is the question for skins. We have yet to find a perfect skin that grips extremely well but has a perfect glide, too. Contour is getting close with its Hybrid Mix skin.

Skins: Contour Hybrid Mix

A blend of nylon and other materials has made for a solid climber and glider with the Hybrid Mix. On the other side, two different kinds of glue are used. One type of glue sticks to the ski and the other sticks the glue to the skin. The result makes it easy to pull off skis and easy to pull them apart from each other. If they do need a clean after a dirty spring tour, a light spray from Contour’s skin cleaner will bring the glue back to life.

Beacon: Mammut Barryvox S Avalanche Transceiver

A beacon is the most important piece of gear you hope you’ll never need to use. If you do need to use it, then it had better be fast and easy to use. The Barryvox S from Mammut is both those and more.

mammut barryvoxs beacon

Building on the success of the Pulse, the Barryvox S is much faster at searching individual and multiple burials. The massive 70-meter search strip finds burials faster. The large screen tells you exactly where to go and what to do. Your beacon will never take the place of training and lots of practice but everything helps in an emergency. The Barryvox S can now use lithium batteries which don’t leak as much and last longer in cold temperatures.

Probe: Mammut 320 Fast Lock

Probe: Mammut 320 Fast Lock

Speed and durability are prime factors when looking for a probe. The Mammut 320 Fast Lock probe is durable aluminum with a drop-shaped tip for getting through icy debris. The durable tensioning cord inside is quick to pull and lock into place. When you have a bit more time to dig a pit and assess your situation, precise height measurements are on both sides. Review emergency procedures in the car with the quick rescue notes on the storage bag.

Shovel: BCA D-2 EXT Avalance Shovel with Folding Saw

Small shovels are lighter and easier to swing but larger ones move more snow. The D-2 EXT from Backcountry Access definitely leans toward the large, burly end. The D-2 even includes a folding saw in the handle in case you need some emergency firewood or are digging out a sled in a tree.

D2-EXT Dozer Avalanche Shovel

The 10-by-11-inch T-6 heat-treated blade can move a ton of snow. If you just need to paddle snow as a second shoveler, switch the D-2 into hoe mode by putting the blade on one side of the T-handle. Grab the shaft and the other part of the handle for a powerful snow paddle.

Backpack: Black Diamond JetForce Pro 35

Black Diamond is a trusted name in outdoor gear and avalanche safety and the brand’s JetForce avalanche airbags are making a name for themselves. At $1,400, they’re not a small impulse buy but this purchase could save your life.

Black Diamond JetForce Pro 35

The JetForce Pro 35 comes with 35 liters of space and a fan-based avalanche airbag inside. The rechargeable battery can deploy the airbag up to 4 times so you won’t be without an airbag for the tour home. There’s no expensive recharge canister to buy when you want to practice either. Just deploy, repack, and pull the trigger. This version comes with a 35-liter booster pack that holds your gear, but there are 10- and 25-liter versions available as well. The booster packs are interchangeable so you can swap depending on the day.

Article originally published by Austin Parker on January 3, 0217. Last updated by Ross Collicutt.

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