BACKCOUNTRY ESSENTIALS GUIDE: HOW TO GET STARTED IN THE BACKCOUNTRY
The idea of escaping into the wilderness, away from the crowds to enjoy untouched powder is becoming increasingly popular. People are branching out further and further off piste to find the hidden, untouched treasures of the mountains, but where do you start when beginning you first backcountry adventure?
Know Before You Go
When exploring the backcountry, it is important to remember that you are there to have fun but staying safe is your main priority. The most important thing you bring into the backcountry is knowledge and good judgment. Good judgement keeps you out of trouble and knowledge may save your life when judgement fails. Unfortunately, judgement comes from experience.
So how can you survive the learning curve? Although judgement can take time to develop, knowledge can be relatively easy to acquirer. Every year we at Snow + Rock hold avalanche talks to help provide our customers with the knowledge needed to explore the backcountry. Your first time in the backcountry with all of your equipment, should be with an avalanche instructor such as ISTA, to help educate yourself on how to stay safe. If you are unable to do this, we strongly recommend seeking out a local, fully qualified mountain guide whenever you head into the backcountry. Mountain guides will have a wealth of local knowledge and will help to keep you safe in the backcountry. Then take a course as soon as you possible can.
Knowledge and judgement are just one of the two essentials needed within the backcountry. The second, of what we are going to tackle the basics of is equipment. Before we look at equipment, you need to think about where you will be skiing, how you plan to ski, the type of terrain you will encounter. Most backcountry skiers can be separated into three categories:
This type of skier spends their time mostly on the piste, venturing into the backcountry occasionally, when there is fresh snow. They usually do not hike or search endlessly for fresh snow.
This skier dedicates their life to the search of bottomless powder. Spending the majority of their time in the backcountry, the backcountry skier will usually boot pack or skin short distances to find fresh, untouched powder.
The touring skier is the most adventurous, sometime hiking for days, from hut to hut, to reach an untouched peak, spending more time traveling up a face than skiing down it. For these skiers it is just as much about the journey than it is the ski down.
In theory, a piste ski can be used in the backcountry, but the geometry of the ski offers a lack of floatation, that make life in the backcountry more difficult. Backcountry specifically designed skis makes the experience far more enjoyable. Different skis will suit different skiers needs.
A side-country skier is best suited to a slightly wider (90mm-100mm waist) all-mountain ski with rocker. The Atomic Vantage 95 is a great example of an all mountain ski for the side-country skier. An all mountain ski blends both on and off-piste performance, making them ideal to ski in fresh powder but can also be used every day on the piste.
Backcountry skiers will opt for skis with a waist larger than 100mm. A wider waist maximises floatation when in powder, giving the backcountry skier a more enjoyable ride in deeper powder, but sacrificing piste performance drastically.
Touring skis range from supercut back skis, primarily focused on uphill mobility and speed, to more freeride focused models, that offer the same dimensions and rocker profiles found on inbound powder skis. These skis are built to be lightweight, however, this reduction in weight has some drawbacks. Touring skis are usually unable to remain chatter free on hard snow, and are more prone to impact damage to the base and edges. So if you are not planning on spending the majority of your time hiking for untracked lines, you might be better off with a backcountry ski.
Skins are pre-cut sections of adhesive-backed material that sticks to the bottom of your ski, held in place with attachments for the tip and tail of your ski. Skins allow you to ascend snowy terrain without sliding back down. This is accomplished by the use of a napped fabric, that helps to grip the snow one way but allows the fabric to glide the other way.
Skins are a must for any touring skier to help them hike up a snowy face. Some backcountry skiers will opt to use skins to reach terrain most cannot without skins. It is important to mention that the use of skins must be accompanied by frame or tech bindings, that help to assist in hiking, these bindings are mentioned below.
MOHAIR VS SYNTHETIC
Skins adopted their name from originally being made out of seal skin. Today, skins are comprised of two fibres, Mohair (a natural fibre from angora goats) and Synthetic (usually nylon). Synthetic skins are proven to be the best for uphill grip and durability, whilst Mohair has the best glide but wears faster than nylon.
When looking at backcountry equipment bindings are an important component. Getting the right binding for your backcountry adventure will help you get where you are going quicker and help you enjoy your skiing far more.
If you are a side-country skier, who pops in and out of the backcountry and blasts through the trees, a traditional alpine binding will more than meet your needs. When you start to progress further into your backcountry adventures binding selection becomes more important.
The backcountry skiers’ choice of binding depends on how far you are willing to go for the powder. A traditional alpine binding can meet the needs of most backcountry skiers, however this means that you usually have to boot pack hike to find remote untouched powder. Boot packing in deep snow can be energy sapping, frustrating and time consuming.
Recently more and more backcountry skiers have been swaying to the use of skins and frame bindings. A frame binding is essentially a traditional alpine binding, connected to a frame or rail that runs from the toe to the heel. This frame allows the heel to be release, whilst still clipped in at the toe, creating the ability to walk naturally uphill on skis.
Due to frame bindings being designed from traditional alpine bindings, frame bindings offer great downhill performance.
For touring skiers, the ability to free the heel and walk uphill is a necessity; this necessity leads to two binding types, frame bindings or tech bindings.
As discussed above, frame bindings offer the ability to ascend uphill with great downhill performance, however, they do have their drawbacks when it comes to ski touring. Because of the traditional interface with the boot, the heel carries a lot of weight, when lifting the heel thousands of times over the day this extra weight can fatigue the skier. Most hardcore ski tourers put a massive emphasis on the lightweight kit, to minimise fatigue. The benefit of using a frame over a tech binding is that they compatible with both traditional alpine soles and lugged AT soles.
Tech bindings, originally released in 1986 by Dynafit, are a minimalistic, ultra-lightweight binding that only works with ski touring boots that have a tech-compatible heel and toe fittings. These bindings use two pins to attach to the tech component of the boot. When hiking, these two pins are the only component in contact with the boot, far lighter heel. This lightweight design lends itself to be a much faster and more efficient uphill climb over downhill performance.
Whether you are just starting to explore the backcountry or you are a full out ski tourer, a ski boot with a walk mode is beneficial. When navigating difficult terrain whilst boot packing or skinning up a face, the freely pivoting cuff helps with both comfort and manoeuvrable.
HIKE AND RIDE BOOTS
In recent years, alpine hike and ride boots have become increasingly popular with the backcountry skiers. The boots allow the cuff to pivot freely with minimal impact on the downhill performance, mimicking touring boots with an alpine sole and. These boots are great for short tours and boot packing.
When compared to alpine hike and ride boots, touring boots have a more advanced walk mode, offering a far greater range of movement. These boots usually have thicker, lugged rubber soles and a lightweight shell, making it easier to gain altitude in them. However, this thicker sole means that the boots will not work within traditional alpine bindings.
Backcountry ski poles are essentially the same as regular ski pole, but ideally they be adjustable or collapsible to adapt to changing terrain. For flat terrain, a longer pole is needed, whilst on steeper ascents, a shorter pole is best.
A backcountry backpack in an essential, not only should the pack offer a means of carrying your skis when boot packing and allow extra capacity for layers and other essentials, it should allow quick and easy access to your shovel and probe. You may also be interested in extras such as hydration bladder and helmet attachment points.
A key function of a backcountry backpack is to allow quick access to your avalanche safety equipment, however, some backpacks can help save your life. Avalanche airbag systems were created to save your life by preventing you from becoming buried. If you find yourself in a slide, you pull the handle and an airbag deploys to increase your mass and helps you to stay on top of the debris. However, an airbag is not a reason to travel into dangerous territory, no amount of equipment can save you from harm, an airbag is simply a tool to supplement good decision making.
Whether you’re a tourer, backcountry or side-country skier a transceiver is an absolute necessity. Without it, you cannot search for someone who is buried in the event of an avalanche while no one would be able to detect you should you become buried. There is a variety of transceivers on the market, some with a lot of unique features. It is important that you know how to work the transceiver that you have. No matter how technically advanced a transceiver is, it is only as good as the user, so you need to practice with the transceiver until it becomes second nature.
Find out more about transceivers here.
Another necessity, to dig test pits for snow pack analysis and to excavate other skiers in the event of an avalanche is a shovel. A strong aluminium blade is the only choice for any backcountry skier, anything less will not be able to stand up to the stress of moving avalanche debris. Blade size and shape depends on the type of skiing you intend to do and your personal preference. Remember to consider your backpack when purchasing your shovel, as it should easily fit within it.
Find out more about shovels here.
The final necessity of your avalanche safety equipment is the probe. Probes are used in an avalanche rescue scenario to probe the snowpack for buried skiers once they have located their general position, enabling the search part to zero in on their location to cut digging time. Probes come in a variety of sizes, just like the shovel, the type of probe you choose will come down to the type of skiing you intend to do.
Find out more about probes here.
Not bring an extra pair of gloves is where most new backcountry skiers go wrong and they pay the price for it. Your hands get a lot more snow coverage when skiing in deep powder than when on the piste and your hands will sweat more due to a higher aerobic output when hiking. When gloves get wet, they are next to impossible to dry on the mountain, and when gloves get wet they get cold, really quickly. Having a spare change of gloves to change, either a thinner pair of gloves to use when hiking or a thick pair for when your gloves get wet will keep you warm and comfortable in the backcountry.
What layering you wear on any given day varies greatly, depending on the weather but even on the hottest of spring days, a good warm insulation jacket in the bottom of your pack is a great idea. Weather can change quickly and you may find yourself standing around in the event of an accident, keeping yourself and other warm is critical in those situations.
Find out more about mid-layers here.
Any backcountry skiers will take an extra pair of goggles with them, or at least a spare lens. The weather conditions in the backcountry can be unpredictable and change rapidly, so carrying an extra lens for a different light is recommended. An extra pair of goggles is also a great item to take, to avoid skiing in foggy goggle in the event that they get wet.
Food & Water
This may seem obvious to some people but it is often overlooked. Whether boot packing or skinning to get away from the crowds, you will be burning energy faster than just skiing. Even if it’s a sandwich or a couple of food bars and energy gels, make sure you have a means of boosting your energy and water to hydrate yourself when you need to.
Items in your emergency essentials kit will come down to personal preference and experience. For those with little experience, a headlamp if you get caught in the dark, duct tape to patch outerwear rips, a lighter to start a fire, a multi-tool with a knife and a couple of ski straps is a good start.
Everyone has their own list of necessities that they take with them, derived from experience. For myself, an avid backcountry skier, part-time ski tourer, I like to take a little saw to help build snow pits and cut away tree branches that may cause problems. When touring I tend to take a flask of hot water (or tea) to defrost hut locks. These little things can save you a lot of time and pain but have all been learnt the hard way; experience is the real teacher in the mountains.
Now you know the basic essentials needed for the backcountry, it is time to go out and practice with them, grab a couple of friends and practice finding a transceiver in the snow. Remember the most important thing about skiing the backcountry is to do it safely, so go and educate yourself with an instructor.
Whether you are a seasoned backcountry skier, hiking to ski an untouched face or you are simply just starting to explore the backcountry in order to find a new adventure in mountains, one thing is for sure, your outerwear needs to stand up to the challenging conditions found in the backcountry. To help you be more prepared we've put together a little list of brands we think you should look at when choosing your next jacket or pants.
Ifyou’re backcountry skiing or snowboarding this season, experience combined with the correct clothing and safety equipment (avalanche airbag, avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel) and a fully-qualified mountain guide are essential for staying safe and having fun off the piste. Read these top tips before heading out on your next adventure into the backcountry.
Following our hugely successful The North Face Avalanche Awareness Lecture Series, British Mountain Guide and Head of Snowsports at Glenmore Lodge, Andy Townsend, tells us how to prep for the season, how to spot hazards and what safety equipment we need on the mountain:
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