Backcountry skiing requires more than just ski gear and a confident turn. Resorts handle avalanche control, groom the snow, supply trail maps and provide skier services such as washrooms and restaurants. In the backcountry, you assume responsibility for everything from route-finding to avalanche safety and food to toilet paper. The night before you leave for your ski trip, have everyone in your group meet and compare checklists to make sure you haven't forgotten anything essential.
Be prepared for changing weather conditions by dressing in quick-drying, breathable layers. Start with a top and pants made of a wicking fabric. Next, add a medium-weight fleece top and pants for warmth. Finish with waterproof, breathable layers on top and bottom. Although many skiers prefer light, flexible gloves, keep glove liners or heavier gloves in your pack in case your hands get cold or wet. Cover your head in layers, with a fleece headband and waterproof hat. Wear gaiters to keep snow out of your boots, but stick an extra pair of ski socks in your pack just in case your feet get wet. Carry an extra fleece layer also to handle sudden drops in temperature. In the backcountry, you can't warm up in the lodge when a cold front moves in.
Choose versatile gear. Backcountry skis need adequate flotation for loose, deep snow and solid metal edges for hard-packed snow and ice. Boots should be warm and provide solid ankle support. Break in your boots thoroughly before you head out into the backcountry; you don't want to get blisters four hours from the trailhead. Save weight by using poles that convert to avalanche probes. Climbing skins help with steep uphills, and crampons may be necessary to tackle extreme uphills or mountainous terrain. For actual mountaineering with steep descents, use Alpine touring or randonnee gear, rather than telemark bindings, unless you are really experienced.
Navigation and Communication
Avoid getting lost in the backcountry with a GPS system. Because batteries are not always reliable in cold weather, carry a waterproof topographic map, compass and altimeter as a backup. Many backcountry areas do not have cell phone coverage. Rent a satellite phone to cope with genuine emergencies.
Avalanche Safety Gear
At least one or two members of your party should have advanced avalanche safety training, as the best gear in the world is just dead weight if you don't know how to use it. All members of the party should carry avalanche transceivers, probes, headlamps and lightweight shovels. Add ice axes and ropes for technical routes. At least two people should carry snow study kits.
Food and Water
You may not feel thirsty, but your body requires almost a gallon a day of water when skiing the backcountry. Carry a hydration system or easily accessible water bottles and fuel to melt water. Vigorous Nordic skiing burns up to 1,000 calories per hour, and your body requires fuel to stay warm and keep moving. Even when you're out for a day trip, bring at least 5,000 calories per person of food, allowing an extra day's supply for emergencies.
Backpacks designed for backcountry skiing have slots for carrying skis and are narrower than ordinary packs so that they do not interfere with poling. Use transparent bags to organize the extras you'll need for your trip inside your pack. Sunglasses or goggles are essential to protect your eyes from light and wind. Bring sunblock and high-SPF lip balm and reapply it frequently. At least two members of your party should carry emergency medical kits. Don't forget toilet paper and facial tissue.
- Alpine Skills International: European Haute Route Equipment List
- Mountain-Guiding.com: Climbing Skins - Different Types
- WildSnow.com: So What Is In My Pack Anyway?
- SierraJournal.com: Backcountry Ski Pack – What Do You Carry?
- YamnuskaMountainAdventures.com: Intro to Backcountry Skiing
- XCSkiIndiana.com: The Health Benefits of Cross Country Skiing
Carol Poster began writing professionally in 1974. Her articles have appeared in "Outdoor Woman," "Paddler," "Ski Magazine," "Women's Sports & Fitness," "Dance News," "Show Business," "The Athenian," "PC Resource" and "Utah Holiday," among other publications. Poster holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from Eastern Washington University, as well as a Ph.D. in English from the University of Missouri.