Backcountry skiing is not something to be done lightly. It is only for skilled skiers who have educated themselves on the risks and know how to take the proper precautions. It is especially important that people who are going to try this kind of skiing have the right gear.
Backcountry skiing is downhill skiing done either within the boundaries of a ski resort in its unmarked, largely unpatrolled areas, or outside of ski resorts entirely. Such accouterments as ski lifts are typically not available, though one could use a ski resort’s ski lifts to obtain elevation, and then leave that area for the backcountry.
Because backcountry skiing involves traversing areas that are not maintained for human use and not regularly monitored and patrolled, they raise significant safety issues. Avalanches are a greater risk than in the groomed area of a ski resort. Immobilizing injuries can have much greater consequences because the skier is isolated, rather than in a ski resort area where he or she will be seen immediately, and where advanced rescue and medical services are immediately available.
Therefore, it is recommended that one engage in backcountry skiing only if one is an advanced, skilled skier in good physical shape; one is not alone; and one has all the proper equipment, including equipment that is not generally necessary for conventional downhill skiing at a resort.
For backcountry skiing, it is best to have the following:
Though you can use your same skis as for conventional downhill skiing, lighter weight skis are recommended for backcountry skiing. Most backcountry skiing is powder skiing, for which short, fat skis that float well work best. For conditions other than powder, an all-mountain carving ski is appropriate. For heli skiing, your skis should be as fat as you can handle.
2. Ski poles
Again, standard ski poles will work fine when skiing the backcountry. However, it’s nice to have a pair of lighter weight carbon poles with adjustable lengths, as different length poles work best for different situations.
AT (Alpine Touring) boots should be lighter than for conventional downhill skiing at a resort. If you go ultralight, though, your ability to control your skis and handle downhill turns may suffer, so you’ll need to find the right balance between comfort and performance.
AT bindings also should be lighter weight for backcountry skiing.
5. Climbing skins
Climbing skins are attachments that go on the bottom of skis to facilitate your being able to ascend (which, because of ski lifts, you typically wouldn’t have to do in the groomed area of a ski resort). Traditionally they were animal skins, often sealskin, but now they are generally made from synthetic material.
If you’re going to venture very far off the beaten path, you’ll want to bring plenty of items with you that you wouldn’t otherwise need. A skiing backpack is essential for this. It should have pockets so you can organize your equipment in a way that you know where everything is and can get at it easily, even if you’re not in the most convenient, maneuverable situation. It should also have a way to attach your skis.
For conventional skiing at a resort, you may be able to get away with street clothes and a jacket. But you need to be more meticulous for backcountry skiing, as there’s the unfortunate possibility you might get in trouble and be stuck in the elements for an extended period of time before you are located and rescued. You’ll want at least a proper ski suit and ski pants, a lightweight jersey, and a hood.
8. Sun protection
Just as with other forms of skiing, when you’re out in the sun, with the snow acting as a reflector for the sun’s rays, you are at risk of too much exposure to the sun. Use sun block and lip balm.
9. Food and water
You’ll need plenty of water to stay hydrated. The farther you’re going to stray from the monitored areas of a resort, the more you’ll also want to have some food for if you get stuck somewhere for an extended period.
10. Personal safety items
For emergencies, your backpack should contain a first aid kit, some kindling, a butane lighter or waterproof matches, and a survival blanket.
11. Avalanche beacon
Avalanches are an unfortunate risk of backcountry skiing. An avalanche beacon (or transceiver) sends out a signal to a receiver who can then locate a person buried in the snow and reduce the rescue time.
12. Avalanche shovel
To dig a person out after they’ve been buried by snow in an avalanche, you’ll need a good quality, strong but lightweight shovel.
13. Avalanche probe
Especially if there is no avalanche beacon sending out signals, sometimes there will be no way to determine where a person is buried except by poking down through the snow with a probe. You’ll want one that’s at least a yard long when assembled.
An avalung is a snorkel-like device that enables you to breathe for up to an hour even if fully buried under snow.
15. Avalanche airbag
This one will set you back about $1,000, so only people who are going to be doing a lot of backcountry skiing in isolated areas would likely consider it. It is a large airbag or balloon contraption that one inflates by pulling a string. It greatly increases the chances in an avalanche that one will remain on top of the snow rather than being buried.
Sylvia Cochran, “Skiing Tips.” Trails.com.
Brian Griffin, “Backcountry Skiing Gear Guide.” About.com.
“Avalanche Gear for Backcountry Skiing.” Skiing the Backcountry.
“What Gear to Buy for Backcountry Skiing.” Skiing the Backcountry.