Go Big, Pack Small

Essential Gear for Heli-Skiing


May 13, 2015 Buying Guides By Photo by Henry Phillips
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Packing for a four-day Canadian heli-skiing trip in the middle of April is a bit of an exercise in blind faith. Weather reports range anywhere from 25 to 55 degrees, snow conditions could be slushy or foot-deep powder, and even if you do guess right it’ll be completely different an hour later. The solution then is equal measures creative layering and gear that can handle such variable conditions, leaving you to focus on the skiing instead of being ill prepared. Not to mention the added curveball of all the photo gear we needed to lug along to document the trip. As it turned out the snow stayed deep, the temperatures stayed high and skies stayed blue, making for a perfect test of the gear that came along for the ride.

Atomic Automatic 117

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The fattest ski in Atomic’s big mountain Automatic lineup, the 117 offers a gigantic 117mm waist that felt right at home in the variable conditions that came up during the week. The huge tip and tail rocker made the ski playfully surf over the deep stuff but there was just enough stiffness and sidecut to keep its composure while carving turns on steeper terrain. For less snow or daily resort use, the Automatic 109 might be a better bet, but when it’s all fresh snow all day the 117 waist is absolutely perfect.

Black Diamond Front Point Shell

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With warm weather and quickly changing temperatures a big down jacket was out of the question, and a technical shell was just what I needed. They don’t come much more technical than the Front Point line from outdoor experts Black Diamond. The lightweight shell is a study in materials, cut and minimalism that results in one of the best jackets on the market (and you’d hope so for $600). The Front Point is trim-fitting and offers Gore-Tex Pro fabric, along with an ingenious system to deal with adjustment cords and not much else, keeping your focus on powder skiing instead of adjusting your powder skirt.

Black Diamond Front Point Pants

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Just like the jacket that shares the same name, Black Diamond’s Front Point pants are everything you need and nothing you don’t. A trim fit makes for easy movement, durable scuff guards on the lower leg keep things intact, Gore-Tex Pro keeps you dry and side zips keep you from overheating or looking too prudish.

Helly Hansen Regulate Midlayer

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A perfect mid layer for toasty conditions, the Regulate incorporates H2flow tech (basically using air to either insulate or cool depending on whether you have the vents open) and just the right amount of Primaloft insulation to keep out the chills going down and cool off while waiting for your ride back up.

POC Wrist Freeride Gloves

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Most days on the mountain you’ll catch me with Hestra’s fantastic Gore-Tex XCR gloves, but when the weather gets warmer POC’s goatskin freeride gloves are just the ticket. A little bit of insulation paired with a water-resistant membrane (these gloves probably aren’t your best bet when it’s dumping snow) and a ton of dexterity make these perfect for warmer days. The thinner glove was perfect for shooting a quick photo without having to pull them off in a hurry.

POC Fornix Backcountry MIPS Helmet and IRIS X Goggles

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POC (like its Swedish auto compatriots) has always been focused on its users’ safety even if that means shaking things up a bit. The Fornix helmet is no exception, with aramid (aka Kevlar) inserts and an EPS liner, but the star of the show is the new MIPS system, which cuts down on rotational forces on the head should you take a particularly rough tumble. Luckily, I didn’t put the helmet to too big of a test, but the copious venting and easy size adjustment meant that there wasn’t any question whether I’d wear it out. The Iris goggles were no slouches either, integrating with the helmet perfectly to stay fog-free even when the temps hit 50.

Safety Gear

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Arguably the most essential part of the whole kit, snow safety gear is an absolute must when you’re venturing outside of tightly controlled resort terrain. I packed a shovel and probe from Black Diamond, a radio beacon from Mammut and a radio for easy communication. Any backcountry skiing is inherently dangerous, but with the right gear and proper training you can minimize risk and be able to react quickly and efficiently should anything happen.

Hasselblad CFV-50c

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It wouldn’t be Gear Patrol if I didn’t take an absolute beast of a camera to capture an amazing four days of heli-skiing. The easy choice was the insane Hasselblad CFV-50c medium-format digital back paired with a 500c/m camera. The back houses a 50-megapixel CMOS sensor that’s nearly twice the size of a full-frame DSLR sensor. The result is amazing detail, massive dynamic range, and a humbling shooting experience. Manual focus, manual exposure and a shooting speed that’s officially listed as “as fast as you can crank the winder” means I was forced to slow down and think before shooting, but the results were more than I could have ever hoped for.

F-Stop Loka UL

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If you’re looking for a camera bag that’s designed especially for the great outdoors, then F-Stop should be your first destination. The company offers a range of different sizes and shapes for any quantity of gear. The pack of choice for this trip was the Loka UL, which takes their standard mid-sized Loka pack and strips off all the excess to get the bag down to a featherweight 2.5 pounds — perfect for when you aren’t carrying much more than a camera and daily essentials. Even so, it managed to store all the above — safety gear, the Hasselblad, three gigantic lenses and a Fuji XE-2 that I was (slightly) less terrified of dropping into the snow. As an added bonus, since the camera pod is accessed from the back and the waist strap is super strong, you can just pivot the bag around and access all your gear without having to set the bag in the snow.