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Gear Reviews

What's In My Backcountry Skiing Pack?

Our backcountry skiing expert shares what he keeps in his pack for a day-long backcountry skiing tour—the 20 Essentials.

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Essential #1: Headlamp

In most ways, a backcountry ski tour is like a dayhike. You still want to take the 10 Essentials, but since you’re in avalanche territory, the list grows a bit**. So, without further ado, I present to you the 20 Essentials of ski touring (with some specific picks). First, a headlamp. Doesn’t matter which one you go with, but we like ones with LED bulbs, which last longer.

Essential #2: First-aid Kit

Don’t get caught in a sticky situation without one.

Essential #3: Sunblock

You’ve heard of cancer, haven’t you? Furthermore, the UV rays that refract off snow are more intense than those off a sandy beach. True story.

Essential #4: Trail food

They say you need more calories in order to stay warm in winter (up to 5,000 a day); well, add in the absolute brawn required to power up a mountain on skis, whilst hauling your pack (which contains these Essentials, of course) no less, and you should be packing extremely calorie-dense food. For delicious, on-the-go energy, I reach for Bogg’s Trail Butter, which is resealable—and did I mention delicious?

Essential #5: Fire

Keep a lighter in your pack…

Essential #6: Knife

…or a multitool.

Essential #7: Water

I like using a 70-ounce hydration bladder so I can drink on the move, but make sure to tuck the hose against your back if it’s below freezing.

Essential #8: Insulation

You probably won’t be wearing your insulation while you’re touring, but don’t forget to bring it along. Those ridges can be windy! Also, for some people (cough, my wife, cough), coldness sets in approximately 1 second after they stop climbing. “Ryan, what puffy is that?” Good question. It’s the Big Agnes Ellis, a synthetic-fill (great for skiing for its water-resistance), hoodless (fits better under a shell) jacket.

Essential #9: Navigation

There’s no substitute for a real, physical map and compass.

Essential #10: Raingear

“Raingear” here means “shell.” You’re either wearing it or stowing it near the top of your pack.

Essential #11: Extra Batteries

Whatever your headlamp and beacon take, make sure you always have extras.

Essential #12: Probe

Avy gear is kind of a sore subject because you need it, yet hope to never use it. That said, I like the Black Diamond QuickDraw Tour Probe 280 for its sturdiness. For a super-packable one (great for quick tours in shallow snowpack), look no further than the Arva Compact 240, which folds down smaller than most probes.

Essential #13: Shovel

Hoe mode is a nice feature (check out the Ortovox Pro Alu III), but for quick tours, I like the Black Diamond Deploy 3 Shovel for its quick-action deployment and compactness.

Essential #14: Beacon

Any will do (as long as you know how it works), but I like the Pieps Pro DSP (multiple burials, great transmission) and the BCA Tracker2 (simplicity).

Essential #15: Emergency Heat

This isn’t for keeping your toes toasty; this is a hope-you-never-need-it option. Should you get caught out in the backcountry for an unexpected, unknown amount of time, you’ll need heat. I carry the (fittingly named) Survive Outdoors Longer Thermal Bivvy from Adventure Medical Kits, which is both supremely packable and affordable.

Essential #16: Extra Gloves

You’ve had extra gloves this whole time? Seriously, though. You’ll thank me later.

Essential #17: Radio

Not really an “Essential,” but skiing in the backcountry with some means of communicating with your partner(s) is a good idea. In lieu of a cell phone (which likely won’t have service), I really like the BC Link radios, which also make me feel powerful, like a Top Gun pilot. Tower, this is Ghost Rider requesting a flyby.

Essential #18: Ski Strap

A-frame ski carries are the most conducive to easy bootpacks, but you’ll want to cinch the ski tips together for a wobble-free carry.

Essential #19: Backpack

And you’ll of course need a vessel to carry it all in. Day-long tours usually require a pack of around 30 liters; I like the Mammut Light Protection, which is air-bag-ready.

Essential #20: Friend

Friends don’t let friends tour alone! Let’s go shred together!

**This gear is only as useful as the person carrying it. Make sure you know how to use your gear before actually going backcountry skiing. I recommend taking an AIARE I course to familiarize yourself with snow safety. If you live in Colorado, I can’t say good enough things about the Climbing Life Guides course in Estes Park. Eli Helmuth is the man.