What should you carry in your backcountry ski pack?

With ski resorts opening across the continent in the next couple of weeks, it won’t be long before we can start hitting the backcountry again.

While escaping into the mountains for multiple days and nights often yields the biggest snow bounty, it’s not always practical. Hauling heavy packs with tents, sleeping gear, food and fuel (to cook and to melt snow) can take away precious ski time.

ski touring essentials
Earning powder turns, one step at a time. Photo: Courtesy of Vince Shuley

Backcountry huts eliminate much of that weight, but many of us have to get back to civilization and our responsibilities. Sometimes the only option is single-day touring: Start early, finish late, come home and crack a beer with exhausted satisfaction.

When you go, pack these ski-touring must-haves.

The essentials

ski touring essentials
Communication in the backcountry adds an extra layer of safety. Image: Courtesy of Spot and Delorme

What gear should we take for these out-and-back forays into the backcountry? Let’s start with the essentials.

Avalanche probe and shovel: These are the requisite tools to perform self-rescue if an avalanche occurs. Your transceiver should be worn on your body or in a closed jacket or pants pocket. Never put your transceiver in your backpack, as it can be torn off your body in an avalanche.

Extra clothing: Many people underestimate how cold it can get in the mountains when the weather turns. Always pack a warm layer (like a puffy down jacket) in case someone gets hurt and you have to sit and wait until the rescue arrives.

Space blanket: You may never use it, but having a single-use space blanket in the bottom of your pack may help you survive when a day trip inadvertently turns into an overnight trip.

ski touring essentials
In case of emergency, have one of these stowed in your pack. Photo: Courtesy of Adventure Medical Kits

Food and water: When exercising in dry mountain air, it’s essential to stay hydrated. Wide-mouth bottles let you add snow during the day (if temperature allows) to top up the water level. Always pack more food than you think you’ll need to stay sufficiently nourished.

Communication device: Even when travelling off the grid, a charged cell phone should always be with you. If you spend a lot of time in the backcountry, consider picking up a satellite communicator such as a Spot or inReach device. These allow you to check in with next of kin and, if an incident occurs, call in the cavalry promptly.

Waterproof jacket: If you’re not wearing it already, have one in the pack in case conditions get wet.

The extras

Not just for binding skis together. Photo: Courtesy of G3
Not just for binding skis together. Photo: Courtesy of G3
Now that the essentials are out of the way, here are a few items that can make life a bit more comfortable on the skin track.

Light gloves for skinning: Ski gloves can be too hot. Bare hands are too cold. A light and breathable pair of gloves is just right.

Ball cap: When spring touring, this is the best thing to keep you cool and keep your face protected from the sun.

Repair kit: Not always needed for short trips, but gear breakdowns can occur anytime. A few zip ties and a small roll of duct tape weigh very little and can get you out of trouble.

Ski/utility straps: These handy strips of rubber don’t just hold your skis together. Fix a tourniquet, strap gear to your bike for that early season approach or even tie your boot down to your skis if a binding fails.

Second pair of goggles: There’s no washroom hand dryer in the backcountry to defog, so have a second pair at the ready. Sunglasses are also fine as a backup.

It’s great to be prepared for everything, but remember: It all has to fit in your pack.

Don’t go overboard on packing. Stick to the essentials and a few other items and you’ll have a great time in the backcountry this winter.

— Vince Shuley

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