By: Tarin O'Donnell
Whether you are typically an over packer or pride yourself on packing as light as possible, there are a few essential items that should always be in your backcountry pack.
The planned length of your adventure, where, time of year, and personal needs will determine a few extra things, however, there are a few items that should basically never leave your pack (which makes it easier to never forget them).
First and foremost will be your rescue gear! As we go through this list, remember these are suggestions and you can tailor this list to fit your personal needs/wants.
Rescue Gear & Must Haves
A beacon, shovel, and probe are non-negotiables when venturing into the backcountry in the winter. Your beacon, of course, should be on your person, and never in your pack.
There are all kinds of options for each one of these pieces of gear. Such as the length of your probe, whether it's carbon or aluminum, shovels with a "hoe mode", and what is in your first aid kid.
A few things to consider to determine these things are where you recreate most or if weight is really important to you. For instance, are you often traveling in an area with a deep snow pack? If so, you may opt for a longer probe. Does every ounce count? Maybe you opt for a lightweight carbon probe.
First aid kits can vary greatly and it's easy to make your own! Remember to replenish them as often as needed. Key items in a backcountry first aid kit (winter or not) are:
- Athletic tape
- Elastic wrap
- Antiseptic wipes
- Nonstick sterile pads
- SAM splint
- Extra batteries (for headlamps or beacons - I usually have a few AA & AAA)
- Ski straps
- Skin wax & Rub on wax (especially in the spring or warm temps)
- Multitool (w/knife, screwdriver, plier options)
- Duct Tape - I keep some wrapped around a pen in my first aid kit. The pen is if I need to write down info, like vitals, in an emergency. I also keep a bit wrapped around my ski pole.
Remember, some items could be weather/conditions dependent. Knowing what you personally need is key. Does your internal body temp run hot or cold? On cold days I pack mittens for the ride down and use a lighter weight, breathable glove for the skin up. I also pack my shell jacket in my bag and maybe a lightweight puffy too, while I again, wear a more breathable option while climbing.
Know where you are going and what's been going on. Stay up to date with conditions by checking the local avalanche forecast (local to where you will be traveling) and reading recent observations to get an idea of conditions. That may help in deciding whether you need extra tools like crampons or an ice axe.
- Gloves - potentially 2 pairs, 1 for touring, 1 for skiing down
- Puffy jacket
- Ski shell
- Hat w/brim for sun protection
Conditions/Terrain Dependent Gear
- Ski crampons
- Ice axe
- Snow saw
The Pack Itself
These days, having an airbag has become standard. As with everything else, there are many options out there and the technology continues to advance. Many brands are moving away from canisters and going to an electric system. There are many benefits to an electric system from ease of traveling (on a plane) and charging them. But either option is better than none!
The size of the pack you choose will also determine how much you can carry comfortably. When deciding on the size you need ask yourself a couple of questions: Are you often going on long or overnight tours? Or, do you typically do short tours in the spring? Maybe you are somewhere in the middle. Best advice, go into a store, (like TMS!), and try packs on. Often, they will have weights, like sandbags, to put in the pack so you can get the full effect of how it will feel when packed. They can also measure you to find the best torso length.
Airbag or not, it's important to have a backcountry ski specific pack so you have the separate compartment for your shovel and probe that is easily accessible. You don't want anything else in this pocket. Many packs make this pocket easily to identify by having bright red or orange colored zippers. Every second counts in a rescue, so being able to go straight to this compartment without any other gear getting in the way is imperative.
Get Out and Have Fun
Once you've got the gear, the education, and good partners get out there and have some fun! Don't forget to check and update your gear regularly!
New to backcountry skiing? Check out 7 Do's and Don'ts of Backcountry Skiing
Author: Tarin O'Donnell
Tarin considers herself a Jane of all trades, dabbling in a little bit of everything. She is the TMS marketing director, has a remote personal training business, and a hosts a podcast. You can find her outside mountain biking, paddleboarding, snowboarding/splitboarding, snowmobiling, and on her bc nordic skis with her dogs.