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Backcountry Basics They Didn’t Teach You in Avy 1: Backcountry Gear

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Having the right gear can help make or break a ski tour, so in this section, you’ll learn the nuances of what you need—and don’t need—as well as how to pack your gear and how to care for it.

If you’re just joining us, make sure you start at the beginning to get the most out of this course.

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Skis, Boots, and Bindings

Most backcountry skiers will already have the basic gear, but it’s important to match your gear to your mindset: light and fast, balanced efficiency, heavy-metal performance. For instance, if you mix your boots/bindings/skis from light and fast with heavy metal, you’ll get neither the performance nor the weight savings you’re after. So stay within your silo, or, at maximum, only mix with the closest silo (ie: balanced efficiency with heavy metal or balanced efficiency with light and fast). Knowing your priorities before you buy (more) gear will save you money and energy.

Backcountry Basics They Didn't Teach You in Avy 1 skis boots poles
Do your best not to mix “lanes” with your ski gear. That means not putting a freeride boot (right) with a lightweight ski/binding setup (left), or a lightweight boot (left) with a wider, more downhill-oriented ski (right).
(Photo: Alton Richardson)
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How to Pick your Pack

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Dedicated Ski Packs

Having a dedicated ski pack is worthwhile if you’re going to be doing a substantial amount of touring, and here are some features to consider.

Backcountry Basics They Didn't Teach You in Avy 1 avy tool pocket
(Photo: Alton Richardson)

Avy-Tool Pocket

Having a separate pocket for your shovel, probe, saw, and/or skins is helpful for two reasons:

  1. It keeps all your rescue gear easily accessible and in once place
  2. It keeps all the stuff that may have snow on it away from your dry layers that are stored in the main body of the pack

A-Frame or Diagonal Carry

Backcountry Basics They Didn't Teach You in Avy 1 ski carry

The main advantage of diagonal carry is quickness. The problem is that your skis are heavy—even if they’re light touring skis—and the diagonal carry puts that weight at the back of your pack (away from your body), which is inefficient from an anatomical standpoint.

An A-frame puts the skis much closer to your back, so they carry lighter and are easier on your back. However this system can be more finicky to set up. Some packs’ A-frame systems are much better than others. If your pack’s system isn’t great, the tails of your skis can bang you in the back of the calves, or the tips can hit you in the back of the head—both of which are annoying. And it really doesn’t take long to put your skis in an A-frame carry position. So unless the carry is really short, I prefer the A-frame. And it’s much better with a ski strap connecting the tips at the top.

Avalanche Airbags

They work. I’d much rather my rescuers come over a rise and see me on top of the snow than come over that rise and see nothing but avalanche debris, in which case I’d just have to hope they’ll find me and dig me out in time. When airbags first came out, I thought, “I don’t want the extra couple pounds, and I don’t want to spend $1,000.” Then I thought about it, and asked myself, “How much would my family pay to bring me back?” I bought one the next day. They’re effective, and they improve your chances of coming home. That, to me, is worth the added weight and cost.

But keep in mind, they won’t protect you from trauma. So they’re not helpful in the trees. You also have to be able to deploy them on time in case of an avalanche, so there’s no guarantee that an airbag will save you in the backcountry. Also, I don’t always bring one. If the snowpack is locked up and the hazard is low or my route is lower angle, I’ll often leave the airbag at home and opt for a lighter pack to save overall weight.

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What Goes in Your Pack?

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Like you just heard, my rule of thumb is to carry enough to be safe, but not so much that I’m bogged down. Try to make everything in your pack do more than one thing. You’ll have to experiment with what that is and how that works for you. The first time I went to ski Mt. Rainier, I was so weighed down I barely made it out of the parking lot (scroll down a bit for the audio story). Eventually, I went so light that I didn’t even bring a sleeping pad on a multi-overnight tour. Eventually, you’ll find middle ground.

Here’s what I carry in my pack:

Backcountry Basics They Didn't Teach You in Avy 1 gear in pack
(Photo: Alton Richardson)

Clothing Layers:

  • Extra gloves, extra hat, mid-layer, shell, puffy, neck gaiter (like a Buff) for a goggle cover

Safety Gear:

  • General: Multi-tool (with pliers and a saw), scissors, first-aid kit, bivy, and emergency sled material
  • Repair kit: Ratchet multi-tool w/torx 20, pozidrive #3, and drill bits
  • Carabiners, cordelettes, runners: These are useful if you have to make a makeshift harness to belay someone, belay while checking slope stability, and for short roping. You could also cut a cornice with cordalettes, build an emergency sled, or secure a patient to a sled, etc.
  • Miscellaneous: Scraper, base cleaner (for skin wax), stone, skin wax

Packing Your Pack

As we just mentioned, aside from the common advice of putting your heavy stuff at the bottom and close to your back, so it has the least impact on your back, pack things according to when and how often you’ll need them. I put a first-aid kit, repair kit and bivy at the bottom of my pack. Unless it’s likely to precipitate, my shell is also near the bottom and that’s where it sits 90% of the time. That would be different if I lived in the Pacific Northwest, but, where I am in Idaho (where it’s colder), I’m much more likely to put my puffy on at the top, and often just ski in that. If it’s windy, though, then the shell comes out.

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Skin Care + Troubleshooting in the Field

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Aside from the obvious advice of not dropping your skins in the dirt or pine needles, here are some tips for taking care of them:

  • To keep your skins sticky in cold winter conditions, clean your ski bases thoroughly. Light snow can get between the glue and base, causing failure. Scrape the snow off your skin using the edge of your ski, or your pant leg. If the glue is really bad, keep your skins warm. However, I’m not fond of putting them in my jacket because it’s cold.
  • In the spring, when it’s wet and heavy, often skins can start balling up. To help prevent that, wax them before you start your tour, and bring extra wax with you to reapply as needed.
  • Skins not working at all? Wrap your ski with cordelette, ski straps, or use pine bows on the bases. None of these solutions will be very fun, but they’ll get you back to the trailhead in a pinch.

Pro Tip: Wax On, Wax Off

Wax your skis before you get to the trailhead. Just make sure to brush and scrape them well, so your skins don’t glom onto any stray wax.

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Ski Layers

Backcountry Basics They Didn't Teach You in Avy 1 layers
(Photo: Alton Richardson)

What you wear on a tour is so dependent on factors like how long your tour will be, if you get hot or cold easily, weather conditions, and more. But that said, here’s what I typically wear or have with me:

  • Shell
  • Puffy
  • Mid-layer
  • Baselayer

These all change depending on the time of the year, temperature, and location (ie: Rockies vs. PNW). Depending on that, my kit changes and I may opt for thicker or thinner layers, more or less down insulation, more or less waterproof layers, or I might even switch between wool and synthetic. Wool is nicer for multi-days because it’s natural, comfortable, and doesn’t stink. And it keeps you warmer when it’s wet. But it also takes longer to dry. So if I’m in a tent, I may opt for synthetic, whereas if I’m on a hut trip and can dry it out, I’ll take wool.

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