There’s a reason backcountry riding is the largest growth sector in the snowsports industry: A world of wonder lies beyond the ropes. With untracked slopes and an earn-your-turn ethic, backcountry skiing and snowboarding has never been more popular than it is now. But exiting the resort boundary also means leaving the security of ski patrol and avalanche control. You are in charge of your own safety and decision-making. Before you head out, we’ve got the ultimate primer on everything you need to prepare for your first backcountry excursion.
1. Educate Yourself
First things first: Sign up for a backcountry safety course. At REI.com/Learn, set your location and distance and select snowsports as your activity. You’ll find nearby courses on avalanche awareness, snowshoeing basics, backcountry decision-making, and more. Start with an intro course that’ll cover group dynamics, route choices, and how to read an avalanche forecast. When you’re all geared up and ready to dive deeper, consider taking a multi-day Avalanche Level 1 course (find courses at Avalanche.org).
2. Get Safety-Equipped
The three essential items every backcountry traveler needs to carry and, most importantly, know how to use (see Tip #1) are a beacon, a shovel, and a probe. In the event of an avalanche, these are the standard tools that enable you to quickly locate and dig out someone trapped under the snow. Which ones to buy? Black Diamond / Pieps Sport Avalanche Safety Set conveniently takes the guesswork out of the equation by packaging the critical items together. The set comes with an easy-to-use Pieps DSP Sport Transceiver, a lightweight, dependable Transfer 3 Shovel, and the fast-action QuickDraw Tour Probe.
3. Opt for Lightweight Boots
After avalanche-safety gear, the next most important piece of equipment is probably your boots. You don’t have to wear alpine touring boots in the backcountry. A lot of touring bindings are compatible with standard ski boots. But your feet will be a lot more comfortable going uphill in a boot with lightweight design and walk-friendly features. Salomon’s Mtn Lab Alpine Touring Boots have a carbon-fiber spine to cut weight, and its walk mode gives you a generous 47-degree range of motion.
4. Pick up Bindings Built for Touring
Many dedicated backcountry skiers prefer what are known as “tech” bindings, or lightweight bindings that rely on two sets of pins to hold the toe and heel of your boot in place. Although they’re extremely efficient on the way up, not all of them are as great for skiing down. Marker’s new tech binding, the Kingpin 13, is. Thanks to a 13 DIN setting, it’s strong enough for high-performance descents, plus it has a one-click switch from walk to ski mode and an easy step-in.
5. Choose the Right Skis
For general backcountry use, look for a pair of touring skis that won’t weigh you down but are wide enough to float through powder. Blizzard’s Zero G 95 Backcountry Skis are made with a wood core and carbon fiber for a featherweight feel with sturdy performance. Plus, they have a just-right 95-millimeter waist, as well as a tip and tail rocker for slicing through deep snow.
6. Score Climbing Skins
Without climbing skins, you’re not going anywhere: Skins stick to the bottom of your skis to give you traction and glide to go uphill. Black Diamond’s Ascension Nylon STS Climbing Skins can be trimmed to fit a range of skis. (You’ll want the 95-millimeter size to fit the Blizzard skis mentioned in #5.)
7. Snowboard the Backcountry
The backcountry isn’t just for skiers, it can be a snowboarder’s paradise too. Get equipped with a splitboard, like Jones’s Solution Splitboard, which breaks into two wide planks for the way up and then transforms into a light and playful snowboard for the downhill. You’ll also need some splitboard-specific bindings, like Spark’s R&D Arc Splitboard Bindings, that use a pin system to allow you to quickly transition from uphill to downhill mode, and splitboard skins like Voile’s Splitboard Climbing Skins. Your standard snowboard boots will work just fine.
8. Practice Your Skills
Now that you’re all geared up, it’s time to get familiar with how everything works. Practice using your avalanche beacon inbounds at beacon-training parks, where ski patrollers bury a beacon so you can find it. Resorts such as Alaska’s Alyeska, Montana’s Whitefish Mountain Resort, Idaho’s Brundage Mountain, Utah’s Solitude, and more have practice fields to help fine tune your rescue chops. A growing number of resorts are also implementing uphill-skiing policies, so you can practice skinning up in a controlled environment to get in shape and test your gear. Check out uphill-friendly resorts like New Hampshire’s Bretton Woods, Utah’s Brighton, Washington’s Stevens Pass, California’s Sugar Bowl, and others.
9. Consider an Airbag Pack
Airbag backpacks are designed to keep you afloat and protected in case of an avalanche, and they have been known to reduce fatalities in worst-case scenarios. Black Diamond’s Halo 28 JetForce Avalanche Airbag Pack utilizes a new jet-fan technology to inflate the airbag, which makes it easier to travel on airplanes than with packs with compressed-air cartridges. The pack’s 28-liter size fits all of your backcountry safety gear. Bottom line: This pack isn’t a life preserver. Make smart decisions to avoid getting caught in a slide in the first place.
10. Find Good Partners
Who you choose to head into the backcountry with is just as important as having the right gear and knowing how to use it. More accidents in the backcountry are due to decision-making errors rather than misreading the snowpack. Everyone in your party should be educated (see tip #1), familiar with potential routes, the weather, and the quality of the snowpack. Before you decide to ski a particular slope, make sure everyone in your group is comfortable with the decision and knows the order you’ll ski in and the location of all safety zones.