If you've made your way here, then I’m guessing the time has come to duck the ropes, leave the ski pass at home and begin your days as a backcountry adventurer. It takes a certain kind of person to leave all their fears behind and take the plunge into the backcountry. For most of us, it’s the last bastion of true expression where rules and regulations don’t apply, scores and sponsorships mean nothing and only the mountain decides who can and cannot ride it.
Becoming a backcountry rider is about preparation as much as it is about freedom. The first thing you'll need is a ski backpack, and this guide is about everything else you'll need. Ultimately, making a mistake out there or taking the mountain for granted are both great ways of getting into trouble in places where few people dare to travel, so it is essential to always be prepared and minimize the risk.
Be honest with yourself
Take a moment (or several) to ask yourself whether or not you are out of your depth, because at the end of the day we can quickly become our own worst enemy. It's easy to forget all the work that goes on in a resort on a daily basis to make it safe for you to ski/board. While most of us sleep the day's exhaustion away, crews work tirelessly into the night creating a controlled environment for you each morning. This will never occur when out of bounds, which means terrain you would typically feel comfortable riding in is totally unpredictable and may be prone to avalanches etc.
Never ride alone
No matter how good you may be or how many backcountry trips you have done, NEVER RIDE ALONE. This is probably the easiest way to turn an innocent day on the mountain into a lifelong (or life ending) nightmare. Without a buddy (or 5) you are totally 100% on your own, if you injure yourself or become trapped under snow, even if you have a radio/phone there is little guarantee anyone will find you.
Know the mountain/slab/weather
This is really the make-or-break aspect of your backcountry adventure so do your research. Make sure you are familiar with the weather conditions leading up to your ride. Ask yourself, how is the slab likely to behave and why? How have temperatures been recently? Is the mountain prone to slab shifts? If you can’t answer these questions, you probably shouldn't drop.
BACKCOUNTRY KIT PACKING LIST
Now that we have the boring stuff out of the way, it's time to prepare your kit! Just like everything else, it's best to start from the ground up with your backcountry kit, tick off the essentials and then go big. Here we will list backcountry essentials and why you should have them in your arsenal. Want to pick the best backpack for your needs? See our Ski and Snowboard Backpack Guide.
This is your lifeline! Without this, your best bet is to start praying. In an avalanche, a beacon is going to notify your fellow riders where you might be (provided you are using them correctly). Establishing an effective grid to work through speeds up this process and minimizes the time you may spend under the packed snow, in just 15 minutes you’re already sitting at 92% chance of rescue and at 35 mins your survival chance drops to 30%.
This is a multi-purpose, generally collapsible pole that measures snow depth and slab density, you’re also going to be using it in the case of an avalanche. Once a victim of an avalanche has been located using beacons, utilise your probe to then check the victim's location and leave it in the snow to mark exact location and snow depth for an effective recovery operation to commence.
Apart from using this for the obvious reason of digging your victim out of the avalanche, they are great for building backcountry jumps (see, it's not all just about safety reasons). When using in the backcountry, always dig BELOW your avi victim and aim to make the dig spot roughly the same width and length of your estimated victim depth. For jumps...build to desired gnar level.
FOOD and WATER
At cold temperatures, your body works into overdrive to keep itself warm and mobile, so you're going to need plenty of water and food throughout the day. It's easy to get dehydrated in the cold, so keep up regular water breaks and don’t push through fatigue. Keeping some MREs in your pack is also a good way of ensuring you have something to eat in worst-case scenarios. (They don’t taste amazing, but it's better than nothing.)
SURVIVAL/FIRST AID KIT
So let’s for a moment picture yourself slashing through the deepest powder, through the gnarliest forest, on your dream run that took 5 hrs to hike out to. The sun's setting just as you’re dropping, then halfway through your run you collect one of the trees, resulting in an injury that leaves you stuck out there for the night. At this point you have one of two options, either roll over, cry for your mother and accept defeat or grab that survival kit you brought with you and hunker down for a long night of surviving. Cold weather or extreme climate kits are the best to take as they cover a broad array of situations and generally contain basic first aid kits as well. All quality kits should come with flint and a thermal blanket too.
Now we’re entering serious territory. These systems, both unique in their own right are designed to increase the chances of survival in an avalanche. The airbag systems inflate when trapped by sliding avalanche debris with the intention of keeping a trapped skier/snowboarder towards the top of the debris pack, preventing deep burials. The Avalung system, on the other hand, stores a small amount of O2 while directing exhaled CO2 away from the storage system. Both are recommended but not an essential, unless riding in a zone expected to shift.
Climbing gear is extremely useful in the backcountry, particularly if your journey involves multiple ascents/descents. Carrying some carabiners and climbing rope isn't a bad idea. If you’re more of a ski mountaineering purist, then packing a harness, anchors and set of crampons will be the way to go. With all climbing-related gear, remember this as a general rule: “If you don’t know what it does, you probably shouldn't be in a situation where you use it”.
POCKET KNIFE AND NAV EQUIPMENT
Carrying a pocket knife (multi-tool varieties are the best) can be an absolute lifesaver, even if its just using it for something as simple as tightening a screw or snipping a pesky thread. It's important to think about what kind of tasks you are expecting the knife to handle as this will help you to determine the size of the knife and what type of blade steel would be best. Stainless steel is usually a safe option as it won't rust if it gets wet in your backpack.
Navigation equipment is just common sense, a simple compass and map at the very least is generally enough to get most of us back to where we need to be...MOST of us. Of course, a GPS is always an option too. However, these are susceptible to things like power loss and outdated maps, so bring some batteries and have up-to-date data files.
SKI AND SNOWBOARD BACKPACK
Now that you've got all the essentials, it's time to find a pack worthy of carrying your life-saving tools. When selecting a backcountry pack from Snowcentral's range, it's imperative to consider the following conditions:
- Is the pack volume enough to carry everything you would need to survive for a few days on the mountain? (Just in case).
- Does the pack have multiple access points? If so, become familiar with how you pack your bag and where each item is located to save time.
- Hydration packs are crucial, 2 litres and above is what you should be looking at.
- Ski/Board ties and waist/chest harnesses for support when walking fully loaded.
- Shovel/Ice Axe storage for….Shovel and Ice Axe storage.
WHERE TO BUY BACKCOUNTRY GEAR
Now you’re ready to hit the mountain, hopefully loaded with all the information you need to make the plunge into the backcountry, or at least to begin entertaining the idea. Once you have gathered all your essentials (and know how to use them), it's time to pack your lunch and start the trek.
Respect for the mountain is key, at the end of the day all the technology in the world can’t save you from Mother Nature, so be humble, be safe and be confident because the rest is out of our hands. See Snowcentral's variety of ski and snowboarding gear for all the gear you'll need for your backcountry trip.