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How Hunting Is Making Me a Better Backcountry Skier

The process of looking for an elk this fall helped me refine my backcountry skills in unexpected ways.

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I’ve spent years skiing out of bounds and thought I had my routine and gear list down pat. But then back in October my buddy Charlie Ebbers and I spent four snowy days around 12,000 feet in the mountains of northern New Mexico hunting elk. While I didn’t get an animal, I did learn some valuable lessons about living in and moving through the mountains that I’ll be incorporating into my backcountry ski trips this winter. Here are the three most important tips I picked up.


It’s Really Nice to Have a Backpacking Stove in Your Bag  

Hunting involves a lot of walking and a lot of sitting. You walk to a high vantage point where you think you can spot an animal and then you sit there with binoculars, sometimes for hours, waiting for the animal to appear. 

As you might imagine, sitting in the snow and wind at 12,000 feet trying to spot an elk was a cold and fairly miserable experience. But it was made that much tolerable because I’d brought along a Jetboil Stash and was able to quickly make me and Ebbers a hot cup of tea, instant coffee, or miso soup. Having hot liquid all the time warmed us up but also gave us a psychological boost. 

I know the purists among you will probably laugh at carrying a stove in your very well-organized and lightweight backcountry bags. But hear me out. The Stash weighs a scant seven ounces and with the fuel canister, you’re talking about a pound total. Jetboil also cleverly designed the Stash so that everything, including the fuel canister, fits in the pot so it’s about the size of a Nalgene cut in half. For me, both the weight and size were totally worth it, and the Stash will be in my backcountry bag all winter long. 


It’s Okay to Overpack When it Comes to Layers 

While hiking around looking for elk I wore the same thing I wear when skinning: long underwear and vented waterproof pants on the bottom and long underwear and a breathable midllayer on top. When sitting and looking for an elk with binoculars I’d immediately pull on a down jacket and a shell to try and retain as much warmth as possible. 

On days when temps hovered around freezing I was warm enough in my core. On days when it was below freezing, I’d have to try and spot for 15 minutes and then spend 10 minutes walking around to keep my core temp up.

All of this got me thinking about getting hurt while backcountry skiing and having to wait for rescue. I always bring a down jacket with me and a second pair of gloves, but I sometimes opt for a midweight puffy and midweight backup gloves. Now that I’ve seen what it feels like to cool down after sitting somewhere for an hour or more—what I might experience if I have to wait for a rescue—I’m going all in on backup layers. 

I’ll be packing a thick down jacket (something like the Patagonia Fitz Roy Down Hoody), thick down gloves, and toe and hand warmers. I’m not going to carry all this weight to skin up the local ski area, but if I’m out of bounds and there’s a possibility of getting stuck, I’ll be prepared.


A Good Mapping Tool Is Essential

Over the past couple of years I’ve tended to ski tour in areas I know well, or I’ve gone with people who knew the area well. But while out hunting we had to explore new terrain that neither Ebbers or I knew. It made me nervous, but Ebbers was an expert with the onX Hunt mapping app and knew he could get us back to the car or our tent even if we were off trail the entire time. 

First, he used the app to scout the general area and we decided where we wanted to go. On the route, Ebbers would pull out the app to check our location, make sure we were in the right area, and draw a line from our position to the car or our tent so we knew how much farther we had to hike before the end of the day.

Many of you know that onX also makes a Backcountry version that’s quite robust. You can use the Backcountry version to route find as we did, but it also comes with avalanche forecasts for your chosen area, provides slope angles for the aspects you want to ski, and even provides 3D maps so you can visualize the terrain before you head in. I already have onX Backcountry on my phone and I’m excited to use it all winter long.