Off-Piste Advice

16 Things You Need to Get Into Backcountry Skiing


February 14, 2020 Sports and Outdoors By Photo by REI
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Man’s greatest inventions are, in no particular order, the wheel, fire, farming, the letterpress and the backcountry ski. Each fills a basic and essential need — transport, food, knowledge and fresh tracks on a powder day.

You may ask, why a ski? Because, at the dawn of this new decade, there aren’t many blank spaces left on the map. Real adventure, and the freedom that comes with it, is a rare and highly coveted commodity — if you don’t believe me, just scroll through Instagram. One of the best ways to capture this elusive good is skiing out-of-bounds.

Picking the right alpine touring setup is the first big and likely overwhelming step. Mohair skins for uphill traction? Pin bindings and airbag packs? Waxless bases, transceivers and Crayola-colored waterproof shells? With technology rapidly improving, it can be challenging for weekend warriors to figure out what skis, tools, and clothing to invest in. The options are endless, price tags high and opinions abound.

We’re here to help you simplify. If you’re ready to ditch the lift line, here’s what you need to get started, sorted by how far from the resort you plan to go.

Sidecountry

Sidecountry is terrain you get to by using lifts to get up the mountain and then leaving the patrolled area to access the goods. Most ski areas require you to have backcountry safety gear — a shovel, probe, transceiver (and a partner) — with you to ski out of bounds. Even if they don’t require it, we strongly urge you to bring these tools along.

Mammut Pro X 35

The data strongly backs up the case for airbag packs — while they aren’t perfect, they do significantly improve your chances of survival if caught in an avalanche. There are many other factors, of course, but this isn’t an investment you’ll regret. At 35 liters, the new Pro X is a great all-around size, suitable for almost any type of ski touring. The removable airbag allows you to fly with it, and it comes with all the standard features of a good ski pack — goggle pocket, helmet, poles, and ice axe carry, and a pocket for avy tools.

Backcountry Access T S Avalanche Rescue Package

One of the most trusted names in the industry, Backcountry Access, offers this kit with the three essentials of backcountry skiing: a transceiver (also called a beacon), shovel and probe. Durable, lightweight and reliable, each component is a necessary tool to have while skiing out of bounds. I’ve used the Tracker S for a couple of years and love the ease of use, battery life, and extended search range.

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Smith Quantum MIPS

I’d recommend strapping on a helmet whenever you click into skis, whether at a resort or on a remote backcountry trip. The dangers may vary, but the risk is the same. If you crash and hit your head, bad things happen, and if you’re out of bounds, help is a lot farther away. To avoid this doom and gloom scenario, the new Quantum is comfortable, easy to use, light to pack and carry, breaths well (for those sweaty uphill climbs), and most importantly, offers high-level protection.

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Smith 4D Mag

A natural skeptic, I didn’t believe the marketing when I first read about the 4D launch. Twenty-five percent more vision than any other goggle? Psssh. Yet, curiosity eventually won me over, and I decided to test these new eye covers — and holy cow do they actually work! I’ve been impressed with their durable lens and lack of fogging, too.

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Slackcountry

Among skiers, slackcountry is understood as easy-to-reach backcountry terrain. Some say it’s the lazy man’s backcountry, but I believe it’s the smart man’s zone, too. If you want to avoid the chaos of a resort but still maximize your turns, find yourself an easy-to-access slackcountry area. My favorite is Teton Pass, just outside of Jackson, Wyoming. Drive to the parking lot, hike as high as you want, rip turns down to the road, hitch back to your car and repeat. You’ll need to add a few essentials to your kit.

BioLite HeadLamp 200

With no resort overlords forbidding turns before the lifts spin at 9 AM, you can wake up and ski as early as you want — even a lap or two before work. Dawn patrol in the winter often means hiking uphill in the darkness, though. Luckily, the newly launched HeadLamp 200 is featherweight and as bright as a car headlight, which should help you from losing your way. Even if you don’t start before dawn, stashing a headlamp in your backpack is a good idea, in case a day out proves longer than anticipated.

Patagonia Nano-Air Hoody

Heat management is essential for all off-piste ski missions. Staying warm while not overheating is a delicate balance for anyone to strike; sweating too much can lead to getting dangerously cold when you take a break and thus should be avoided. I’ve found the Nano-Air, a lightweight and breathable puffy for aerobic activities, adept at preventing such a scenario.

Hestra Army Leather Couloir

Finding the perfect glove can feel like finding a needle in a haystack. I generally run warm and prioritize dexterity — it’s nice to grab a snack or buckle a pack without taking my gloves off and exposing them to the cold air. For fast-and-light slackcountry touring, I use a pair of Army Leather Couloir gloves that are waterproof, durable and warm on both the up and the down.

Garmin Fenix 6

Great for a variety of outdoor sports, the Fenix 6 has become an essential tool in my backcountry ski kit. It has a ski-specific profile that can differentiate skiing from climbing and automatically shows metrics like total ascent and distance covered, whether you’re going up or down. More importantly, it has a robust GPS-supported mapping feature, so you can quickly figure out where you are.

Frontcountry

Easy access off-piste skiing is not to be looked down upon. Frontcountry ski zones are often close to urban areas, and they’re user-friendly, relatively safe and great for getting into the sport. You still have to hike or skin up to earn your turns, but if things do go wrong, it’s easy to hike back to your car. The frontcountry is where a dedicated touring setup starts to become essential.

Black Crows Ferox Freebird

The latest touring ski from Black Crows, the Ferox is a lightweight, floaty, fun-making machine. Designed for a variety of mountain adventures, the ski performs well on resorts and big mountains but truly excels in deep powder. Double rocker, classic camber, new lightweight fibers, and an extended sidecut add up to one of the best backcountry skis on the market. The Freebird makes touring easy on the way up and a party on the way down.

Marker M-Werks 12

Building on the success of its predecessor, the Kingpin, the M-Werks makes some critical improvements to weight and usability. This binding is the best crossover for the resort, as well as frontcountry and backcountry skiing. Efficient power transfer, easy transitions from uphill mode to downhill, burly build quality and an anti-icing design make the M-Werks my go-to binding for nearly everything.

Black Crows Duos Freebird

Sometimes less is more. The Duo uses a two-part alloy composite that adjusts easily and offers an extended grip that’s great for steep climbs and long traverses. Because these poles are durable, straightforward and functional, I use them for just about everything from hot laps to multi-day trips.

G3 Minimist Glide

The most under-appreciated yet necessary tool of a backcountry ski setup is a good pair of climbing skins. They need to stick to the base of your skis — lap after lap and season after season — and grip on steep slopes without adding a ton of weight or getting clumped up with snow and ice. I rely on G3’s Minimist Glide, made up of a mix of 70 percent mohair and 30 percent nylon, and it’s taken me up (and down) many a peak.

Backcountry

Technically, anywhere you ski without patrollers working to control avalanche risks is the backcountry. For our purposes here, backcountry skiing refers to far-out tours and overnight trips in remote places. Big mountain skiing requires a high level of skill, knowledge and risk assessment ability, not to mention trust in your partners. None of it should be underestimated. Neither should bringing the right gear.

Mountain Hardwear High Exposure Gore-Tex C-Knit Anorak & Bibs

An excellent waterproof shell keeps you dry on deep days while letting your body breathe on long climbs. It has ample vents and pockets while staying light and straightforward. It’s a sweet spot that’s hard to hit — and Mountain Hardwear’s new High Exposure kit nails it. After weeks of touring in these bibs and anorak, I’m impressed with how well it works in all conditions, without showing signs of wear and tear.

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Dynafit Hoji Pro Tour

It’s nearly impossible to have a lightweight and flexible backcountry boot that skis like a stiff and stable race boot, but the new Hoji Pro gets awfully close. The design provides a rigid boot that transfers power well while allowing a 55-degree cuff rotation for more natural uphill walking, giving you maximum freedom of movement. What’s more, the locking mechanism is easy and quick, making transitions a breeze.

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DPS Phantom 2.0

Of the entire list, Phantom wins the award for the best bang for your buck. Some waxing diehards may sneer, but this new waxless base is a real game-changer. Apply it once and have skis that slide faster on any surface, from hardpack to crud, corn and corduroy, forever. Even better, Phantom adds durability, and unlike most waxes, it doesn’t pollute the environment with nasty chemicals.

Pro Bar Meal

Last but not least, you should always bring food and water along while backcountry skiing. Whether it be an hour, a full day or more, extra snacks and water can be the difference between a fun and safe day out, and a giant, exhausting mistake. My go-to snack for long tours is a hardy Pro Bar Meal because it’s made of real food ingredients, is nutrient-dense and delicious.

The 10 Best Skis of Winter 2020

We reviewed and tested countless pairs of skis to compile this list of the 10 skis that are worth your hard-earned coin. Read the Story

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

Andy Cochrane

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