The idea of escaping into nature and away from the crowds and enjoying untouched snow may sound really good, but where do you start? There are two essential components, education and gear. We’ll tackle the equipment question in this article.
Before you consider what equipment you’ll want to acquire, think about where you’ll be skiing, how you plan on skiing, and the type of terrain you’ll most often encounter while skiing. The difference between a ski-mo/randonee racing rig (super lightweight, designed more for speedy ascents) and a sidecountry rig (resort-friendly and not intended for a lot of skinning) is vast. While often-heard logic of “light is right” will generally hold true for most touring setups, the balance of lightness and fun is crucial and largely dependent on your end goal. A heavier setup will likely require at least one solo rest day in the hut during your five-day tour while the rest of the crew is slaying; similarly, a race rig will leave you sinking and wallowing on the deepest days of the year. Remember, you’re aiming for fun—don’t let peer pressure or bargains steer your decision.
Below is a list of the essential gear you’ll need to head out on your first ski tour. Always remember, however, that no gear is substitute for training and experience—take an avalanche safety course and practice regularly with your avalanche beacons before heading into backcountry ski terrain.
Any downhill ski can theoretically be set up for use in the backcountry, but alpine touring skis designed specifically for backcountry use usually feature lighter weight designs that make hiking uphill drastically easier. We rent AT skis here at Straightline, as well as skins, boots and poles.
Skins are pre-cut sections of plush material that stick to the bottom of your skis and allow you to travel uphill without sliding back down. This is because they have a ‘nap’ that helps grip the snow in one direction, and glide in the other. Skins are made of mohair, synthetics or a synthetic/mohair blend. Synthetics are durable and grippy, while mohair skins glide with superior speed and efficiency, but don’t grip as well as synthetics. Skins with a blend of mohair and synthetic offer a balance of these qualities. Clips at the tip and tail and a sticky, non-permanent glue compound keep a skin attached to your ski. Most skins use clips that will universally attach to any ski, although pre-cut skins are often designed to interface with holes or notches in particular models of ski. More and more skins are being manufactured to fit specific ski models. If one is not available for your ski, you’ll need to buy a skin that’s longer and wider than your ski at its widest point (usually the tip) and trim it to fit. Most skins ship with an easy-to-use trimming tool and instructions.
Backcountry touring bindings allow the heel to move freely off of the ski while you’re skinning uphill for an easier, more natural stride. When it’s time to ski down, the bindings lock down in the heel. There are two main types of touring binding: low-profile, lightweight tech bindings that are only compatible with AT boots with dimpled tech inserts, and frame-style AT bindings that are compatible with traditional alpine boots.
Touring boots feature a walk mode that allows the cuff to pivot freely for better range of motion when you’re hiking and skinning. They also usually include aggressively lugged rubber soles and lightweight shell material, all of which make the alpine touring boot suitable for gaining altitude. A carbon cuff or tongue, lightweight plastic shell, minimalist buckle design, or honeycomb structure help reduce the weight of an AT boot so you can move faster and feel less fatigued during a long tour.
Backcountry ski poles are essentially the same as your regular ski poles, but they ideally will have an adjustable or collapsible design to adapt to changing terrain. For example, you may want them longer than normal for flat terrain (so you can swing them like cross-country poles), and shorter when you’re ascending steeper terrain. Now that you have your equipment assembled, what else do you bring along? It will depend on how long you expect to be out and how far you are going, among other things. There are, however, some things you shouldn’t leave home without.