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Too often, backcountry skiers rush to judgements about other backcountry travelers when it come to proper safety equipment and protocol—we’ll see someone skiing outside of resort boundaries without a pack, for example, and assume they have no idea what they’re doing, or reprimand them for their poor decision. Amy David, an AMGA Apprentice Ski Guide and AIARE Avalanche Instructor for Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountain Guides, gets it—it’s frustrating to see skiers ignore backcountry safety protocols. But David also works with the Sawtooth Avalanche Center as a media coordinator to promote safety and education within the backcountry community, and as a result of this work, her goal is to be open and educational about avalanche safety instead of defaulting to reprimanding someone for making bad decisions.
So, in the interest of helping backcountry skiers make smarter and safer decisions, David shares the backcountry safety gear you’ll always find in her pack when she’s headed out for a day in the mountains.
Avalanche Safety Essentials
- Avalanche transceiver/beacon
- Emergency Phone Numbers
A beacon, shovel, and probe (and working function of how to use it) is the bare minimum for a day in the backcountry. “Along with your beacon, shovel, and probe, I think it’s important to have a rescue plan with phone numbers for the local search and rescue, nearest hospital, and sheriff either in your phone or on a laminated piece of paper,” David says. Having those phone numbers to turn to will help streamline the process should you need to call for a rescue.
For avalanche courses or days where you’re looking to dig around and get into some finer details of the snowpack, David’s snow study kit includes a snow saw, notebook, pencils, a crystal card, magnifying loupe, clinometer, and snow thermometer. While not essential for every single ski tour, David recommends carrying at least a snow saw (she recommends the Black Diamond Snow Saw Pro which extends to 60 cm but folds in half for portability) for quick column tests, and the rest on days where you plan to dig a full snow pit.
Communication and Navigation
- Two-way radio
- Satellite device for emergency communication
- Topo map and/or navigation app
Since cell service is hard to rely on in the backcountry, David recommends carrying a satellite device like a Garmin inReach for emergency communication, and the BC Link 2.0 two-way radio for communication within your party in more complex terrain. Aside from emergency communication, a device to navigate is essential. David prefers to use her phone (in airplane mode to preserve battery life) with maps downloaded for use offline in the Gaia app.
On topic: The best radios for backcountry skiing
Basic Self Care
- Extra layers
In the backcountry, keeping yourself fed, hydrated, and warm is not only essential for having fun, but also for safe travel. A little more food and water than you anticipate needing, sunscreen, and an extra buff and puffy jacket will go a long way for staying comfortable and happy on any day out.
“We need to sustain our bodies, but we also need to keep ourselves in a good mental state so we can make good decisions,” David says. “If you’re bonking, you’re not going to be a useful member of the group.” Hanah One Go Packs are David’s pick for quick fuel since they’re light, energizing, and easy to stash in any pocket.
David adds that a headlamp with spare batteries is crucial if you end up in the backcountry later than expected, which is easy to do during the short December and January days. She also recommends wearing a helmet while descending, something skiers often overlook in the backcountry, but one she feels adds important protection, even on mellow days.
- Basic repair kit
- Skin wax
- Emergency kit
Whether she’s guiding or skiing with friends, David keeps a repair kit and rescue sled in her pack in the event of an injury or mechanical failure. A basic repair kit can include a knife, multi-tool, skin wax, duct tape, fire starter, and ski straps, pole splint, extra pole basket, zip ties, scraper, and hose clamp (to hold together a ski boot or keep it attached to a ski). David’s go-to multi-tool is the T-shaped Binding Buddy tool, which is easy to use with gloves on and comes with five different bits stored in the handle that fit a variety of different bindings.
“It sounds like a lot, but they’re all relatively small and can be stashed in a small, compact bag,” says David. On the larger side, a rescue sled or tarp is ideal for a member of the party to have on hand, especially for an overnight trip or long day out. Coordinate with your group to make sure at least one or two people have a first aid kit.
How to Pack Your Backcountry Pack
All those items may sound impossible to fit into a day pack, but David offers a little advice on how to keep your pack small and organized. Most skiers opt for a 25- to 40-liter day pack, and David says she can fit just about everything into her Rab Revolt 35-liter pack. David loves the Revolt for the simplicity of the three-pocket design, comfortable ski carry, ice axe and helmet attachments, and buckles and zippers that are easy to use with gloves on.
“When packing, I think of it as similar to when I’m going backpacking,” she says. “The ABCs of packing: Accessibility, Balance, and Compact.” Things like chapstick, sunscreen, quick snacks, and water should all be accessible either while skinning or for a quick stop. David likes to keep those in her outside or waist pockets, while first aid kits, emergency layers, and repair kits can go a little deeper. She notes that a shovel and probe should always go in the designated safety pocket, always the easiest to deploy in an emergency.
Balance is another key component to packing a touring pack, since uneven weight distribution can make skiing downhill feel funky. David recommends packing the heaviest items in the middle and lower part of the pack for a more natural feel. Keeping everything compact, cinched down, and inside the pack will also help with skiing downhill, since the tighter and closer the bag is to your body, the less it will move around while making turns.