When you’re in the backcountry, what you have in your pack can mean the difference between being comfortable or freezing—and in some cases, life or death. For the best packing advice, I turned to my friend Richard Bothwell, owner of the Outdoor Adventure Club. He’s been guiding in the backcountry for 20-plus years and teaching AIARE avalanche safety courses for more than ten years. Here are six of his top tips.
#1: Keep Your Safety Tools Separate and Easy to Access
This is a fundamental rule because you’ll need quick access to your shovel and probe in an avalanche rescue. To keep them accessible, invest in a backcountry pack, like the Mammut Nirvana Ride, that features a dedicated safety-tool pocket. Don’t repurpose your hiking bag. Bothwell also likes to keep his safety gear handy for constant diagnostic use, which helps him avoid an avalanche. “I use my probe all the time. I’m constantly probing the snowpack to check for layering and [snow] depth,” he says.
Bothwell also likes to keep the main pocket on his backcountry pack organized, because fumbling through a messy bag on a cold, windy ridge is not fun. Constantly looking for gear also slows you down on the skin track. To keep things orderly and dry, use simple Ziploc bags—one for your lunch, one for your first-aid kit, and another for your repair tools or anything else in your backpack.
#3: Pack with Your Objective in Mind
“In backcountry skiing, there are a thousand essentials, but we only choose [a few] on any given day,” Bothwell says. For example, you might pack radios if you’re skiing in spots where you lose line of sight. If you’re on a long tour, you should think about carrying a bivy sack, sleeping bag, and extra food in case you get stuck. And during the spring, when temperatures rise, packing extra water might be necessary.
#4: Don’t Overpack
“It’s essential that all your gear fits inside your pack,” Bothwell says. He never ties anything to the outside of the bag; it’s too easy to brush against a tree or fall in the snow and knock off those items. If that happened to your water bottle or shovel deep in the backcountry, there could be serious consequences. It’s also important to avoid nonessential items like giant camera lenses—extra weight slows you down and tires you out.
#5: Consider What You’ll Carry on Your Body
“I think about what I’m putting in my backpack and what I’m putting on my person,” Bothwell says. He likes to carry his beacon in his pants pocket because it’s easier to access, more comfortable, and farther away from the cellphone in his pack. (Most companies suggest keeping beacons and phones at least 23 inches apart so the signals don’t cross.) He also carries his AIARE Field Book, which he writes notes in constantly, in a pants pocket.