Winter is upon us. From the Wasatch to the Tetons, the Sierra and up to the Cascades, ranges across the country have collectively started to the season with a bang – that is, if you like snow. As days start to lengthen, the snowpack stabilizes, and temps rise, the best time for skiing backcountry is already here.
While the vast majority of skiers and snowboarders still ride at resorts, the explosion of backcountry travel is undeniable. Resorts, fighting to keep customers, are colluding to offer better deals (I see you IKON and Mountain Collective). Brands, sniffing out an opportunity to make a quick buck, are materializing product lines out of ether to cater to this new crowd. And, for better or worse, accessible backcountry zones are getting tracked out faster than ever. These trends are just getting started.
But, with more riders comes more risk. Many avalanches are caused by human error, naivety, and hubris – especially in groups of new backcountry users. While solitude, freedom, and fresh tracks are a high-priced commodity on social media, the risk isn’t always worth it. For new backcountry riders, the single best thing to do to mitigate the possibility of peril is to take a snow safety class. Offered in most ski towns and many big cities, these multi-day classes teach the skills to test snow quality, the knowledge to plan safe ski routes, and the processes to avoid dangerous groupthink behavior.
Acquiring the knowledge is step one. Getting the right gear is step two. A good jacket will keep you warm and dry. A good backpack will keep your gear organized. Reliable avy tools will help keep you safer when things go wrong. Below are our suggestions for the gear that’ll keep you both comfortable and safe on your next backcountry ski tour.
Jacket & Bibs
The Powder Bowl Jacket ($399) by Patagonia features a 2-layer GORE-TEX fabric made from 100-percent recycled polyester. A great shell for on and off-piste, the Powder Bowl provides waterproof yet breathable protection in all conditions. Patagonia estimates that one jacket diverts 35 plastic bottles from the landfill. Patagonia’s PowSlayer Bibs ($599) pair perfectly with the jacket, and are also made from recycled GORE-TEX. They are a lightweight and minimalist design, designed for the backcountry. Together, these pieces will help you stay cool on the up, and dry on the way down, even when you fall.
With roughly one million pack options to choose from, it’s easy to overthink this choice. Don’t let that abundance confuse you; as with any good product, simplicity is key. The Descensionist ($107 – $179) is a ski variant to one of the most popular technical packs of all time, the Ascensionist, by Patagonia. It’s a purpose-built touring pack that intuitively accommodates safety tools without adding excessive weight. And with most things Patagonia, it’s not over-engineered, making it light and intuitive to use. My backup pack is the Light Protection Airbag ($729.95) from Mammut. With the airbag included, this pack increases safety, while adding only a slight amount of weight.
Skis & Bindings
The options for a good pair of sticks are robust as well – you could spend the rest of your life testing skis with different shapes, materials, and lengths. We’re partial to skis that offer versatility, and can perform in a variety of conditions: slop, ice, corn, and powder – and even corduroy. The best all-mountain ski we’ve put under our feet is the Faction Prime 2.0 ($1,149). It’s a reverse camber, big rocker, stiff ski that excels almost anywhere you can take it. Our favorite binding to slap on it is the Marker Kingpin ($649), which changed the game when it launched in 2016 and has been our favorite since then.
Conventional logic for most pieces of ski touring equipment follows that it can either be light and therefore good for the way up, or heavier and more rigid, making it preferable for the way down. Products that do both well are rare, and more often marketing spin than true product innovation. Many boots tout a performance-to-weight ratio, insider slang that translates to good for both turns and skin tracks. One pair that actually lives up to that lofty promise? S/LAB MTN Boot ($799.99) from Salomon, which is a hybrid of their ultralight X-LAB and more rigid alpine boots.
If there is one category in which one should avoid being frugal, it’s safety gear. Having a transceiver that is easy to use, reliable, and has a far-reaching range can save lives in the worst case scenario. I use the Barryvox S Beacon ($499.95) by Mammut, with a 70-meter range and smart features. Paired with this is the full Mammut kit, which works well together. This includes the Alugator Pro Light Shovel ($74.95) and Carbon Probe ($94.95).
Helmet & Goggles
Some will argue that the best backcountry helmets are ultra-lightweight climbing ones. Others may say that a hybrid helmet – one that keeps you safe while skiing and breathes well while climbing – is the ticket to success. For me, a few extra ounces is worth carrying one of the strongest helmets ever, the POC Obex Spin ($200). I pair this with POC’s Orb Clarity Goggles ($250), which nestle perfectly together. This provides me a great range of vision, and the comfort knowing that if (read: when) I fall, it’ll be ok.
Radios & GPS Communication
Maybe the most important part of backcountry safety is communication, both between the group, and when things go wrong, with the outside world. Reliable 2-way radios with excellent range can help groups stay out of danger, share snow reports, discuss scenarios, and when needed, mobilize rescues. The Garmin Rino 750 ($549.99) offers a 20-mile range either by voice or unit-to-unit texting. With the added bonus of maps and pinpoint positioning, they are worth the upgrade from your cheap box store radios. And when things go truly wrong, I use the Somewhere Labs Hotspot ($349.99) to contact emergency services, which allows me to connect my smartphone to the web, anywhere in the world.
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