Notes from a Backcountry Ski Expert: What's in My Backpack
Make sure your ski touring backpack is well stocked with the essentials this season by checking out this list of must-bring items from Ski Expert Michael Bennett!
Heading out for backcountry ski adventures requires preparation and the right gear. However, that can vary depending on what you may be doing, and the conditions you may encounter. I have broken down my preparation to essentially three different levels of gear and supplies that I bring with me on a day of ski touring in the backcountry. These levels are based on what I will be doing that day. In this article, I will give an in-depth breakdown of those levels and how they equip me for the activities I plan to do on different types of days. Along with that, I will give specific product recommendations, and let you know the absolute essentials you should bring into the backcountry.
Before we get into my backpack we should talk about what backcountry skiing is first. Wikipedia describes backcountry skiing as “off-piste” or alpine touring. Essentially, skiing that is usually done on unpatrolled areas outside a ski area's boundaries. This is in contrast to alpine skiing, which is typically on groomed trails and has all the benefits of avalanche control and ski patrol. Over the past few years, many advancements have made backcountry skiing more popular to the masses.
In general usage, backcountry skiers are combining the terms “ski touring” and “backcountry skiing” to mean that we are climbing hills and mountains under our own power to enjoy the descents. To do this, we need certain setups and types of gear that can perform many different functions. Our equipment needs to be lightweight enough to go uphill, and also have features that allow it to be able to provide downhill performance as well. Backcountry skiers now have touring-specific skis, bindings, boots, and poles, as well as an assortment of other “hard goods” that we use to travel through the mountains. These are not necessarily the items we have “in our pack” but they are the main tools used for skiing.
The list of basic backcountry ski gear hard goods you need for ski touring is:
- Lightweight Skis: Lighter skis make the uphills easier as there is less weight for you to carry. Shorter skis also make maneuvering around switchbacks and through trees easier.
- Climbing Skins: Skins are applied to your skis to make it easier to ascend, i.e., “hike” up the mountain while wearing them.
- Touring Bindings: These are tech bindings or hybrids, for example, Atomic Shift bindings.
- Ski Boots: It is preferable to have boots that work with your specific touring bindings. This is an optional feature but it is useful to have boots with walk mode for comfort.
- Adjustable Ski Poles: Useful when traversing across a slope as your uphill side needs a much shorter pole.
- Ski Helmet: Key in the backcountry from falling debris from trees as well protecting in the event of a fall.
On every ski touring outing, you should always be equipped with skins, a transceiver, a probe, and a shovel, as well as the knowledge to use them properly, meaning avalanche training. Many ski towns offer beginner training, as well as AST Level 1 and 2 courses. At the minimum, it is advised that you complete AST Level 1 before heading out ski touring. In addition to these essentials for every ski trip, we can then get into gear specifics of each “level”.
Level 1: Slackcountry
For those unfamiliar with the term “slackcountry”, it is ski touring just beyond the in-bounds area at a ski resort where access is easy and you aren’t officially out in the middle of nowhere. Crucially, there is still access to ski patrol and mountain safety services. This baby step is how many people catch the bug for ski touring before moving on to more challenging terrain.
If I am just going out for a quick lap or two in the slackcountry, I can get away with a slightly smaller pack and a bit less gear. For those short two- to three-hour trips, I won’t take a full lunch, only a liter or two of water, and I may leave out my heavier baselayers.
One such trip would be to a route on Mt. Bachelor called “The Cone”. It is an inbound, ski-touring favorite for both beginners and seasoned backcountry lovers. What makes “slackcountry” ski touring in places like this appealing is the quick access, relatively low danger, and the ability to get your gear and transitions dialed before you head out on bigger trips. You can also crank out lap after lap all day or just get in a quick lap or two fix before work.
What’s in My “Slackcountry Pack”
- Avalanche Safety Gear: This includes a transceiver (or avalanche beacon), an avalanche probe, and a shovel. I am using Ortovox but there are many other brands to choose from.
- Climbing Skins: I use the Black Crows Pomoca skins and I love them!
- An Emergency Blanket or Bivy: In the event of an overnight stay, bring this bivvy!
- One to Two Liters of Water: I really like this Hydroflask bottle.
- Energy Food: Your favorite, high-calorie snacks for a day in the backcountry.
- Puffy Jacket (small and compact): This North Face one will do the trick!
- Headlamp: I have always used Petzl but there are many great brands out there.
- First-Aid Kit: I usually get a large first-aid kit and break it down into a few of each of the essentials.
- Swiss Army knife: A classic backcountry essential!
- Compass: Most smartphones have an app for this but I like to carry a small analog version.
- Backcountry Trail Map with GPS: The Powder Project or Gaia are two great apps for tracking your routes.
Level 2: Backcountry
For most days of true backcountry skiing, I will make sure I am bringing everything necessary for a full day in the backcountry but also survival for at least one overnighter in case something goes wrong. Even though I am only planning on six to eight hours of skiing, I am preparing for longer because you just never know. It is better to be prepared than freezing cold and clinging to survival on sub-freezing winter nights and needing a mountain rescue. To be prepared means you are packing heavy, but it is worth it. Here is my list for a typical full day in the backcountry:
What’s in my “Backcountry Pack”
All of the Level 1 items plus…
- Two Additional Liters of Water (Four Total)
- Food: Tea and instant noodle soup powder
- Small Camp Stove and Pot: For boiling snow for water and heating up emergency food
- Aqua Tabs: For purifying water
- Dry Base Layers: I prefer wool so Smartwool is my choice!
- Extra Gloves: Usually I carry a heavier pair in case temperatures drop
- Battery Bank: For charging the headlamp and/or phone
- Small Bit of Duct tape
- Airbags (optional)
Level 3: Backcountry Plus
Some days I choose to get farther out into the backcountry and access terrain that is not reachable within one day of skiing. On those days, I utilize a snowmobile to make the long approaches a breeze—and super fun! I pack everything I would usually take in the above Level 2 “backcountry pack”, but with some additions so that I am prepared for any possible mechanical issues that can happen when utilizing a snowmobile. These additions include tools for fixing malfunctions, tow straps, extra fuel, and so on.
What’s In My “Backcountry Plus Pack”
All of the Level 1 and 2 items plus…
- Extra Voile Ski Straps: The best straps for securing anything on your person or pack!
- Tow Straps: For when the sled breaks down or you get stuck—because it is inevitable
- Two to Three Gallons of Extra Fuel
- Full Tool Kit: For making repairs
Bonus: My Backpack
What Is My Backpack?
I’ve talked a lot about what’s in my backpack, but what is my backpack? I use a 30-liter Dynafit Ski Touring Backpack (similar to this one) and a 60L Mountain Equipment Co-Op Multi-Day Backpack. The amount of gear I am taking and how long I will out dictate if I opt for the 30L pack or a 60L pack. Both of these packs have specific compartments to help store gear securely and keep things separated. Choose your pack wisely for the day to avoid carrying extra weight, or struggling to fit all your gear in your pack.
This look into my backpack is just a template to give you ideas and help you make the right decisions for what you should bring—your backpack’s contents may look very different. There are many other resources out there to help you figure out what gear is best for ski touring in your area. This video with ski guide David Marchi shows what a mountain guide packs to ski in the Central Oregon Backcountry. If you think my gear list is exhausting, wait until you see what is needed to make sure you keep your clients alive on some of the biggest mountains and terrain in the world!
Although this article is a current breakdown of what I typically bring on my outings, it is an ever-evolving list. The most important step is making sure you pack the essentials, and from there you will develop your own personal preferences, tips, and tricks that will ensure you have what you need to have the best possible day in the backcountry.
If you have any questions please feel free to reach out to me or another Ski Expert at Curated. I am not a guide, just a passionate recreationalist who has spent many years enjoying the outdoors skiing. I have a pretty good handle on what to bring in the PNW and Cascade mountains, and I would be happy to share this knowledge with anyone looking to get out into the backcountry. Thanks for reading and PRAY FOR SNOW!