Geartrade: Gear you’ll need to get into touring.
If you’re interested in ski touring, you’re not alone. Backcountry skiing is booming, as a form of exercise and a way to get powder turns away from the crowds. The gear list for backcountry skiing may feel intimidating, but we’ll run through it here to help it make sense (and feel doable). You probably already have a lot that you’ll need, such as head-to-toe ski clothing, so all you need now is the specialty stuff.
Caveat número uno: learn to ski first!
Keep in mind that backcountry skiing is not a good way to learn how to ski. Do yourself a huge favor and learn to ski inbounds at a resort. When you’re backcountry skiing, you’ll encounter all sorts of terrain, and none of it is marked with signs or rope lines. You’ll encounter every possible kind of snow conditions, too—sometimes all within the same ski run! So you’ve absolutely got to be a proficient skier before you venture out.
Your technique doesn’t have to look amazing, but you do need to be able to comfortably get down any black-diamond-level ski run, including dense tree runs and occasional shrubbery-dodging. If you’re not a competent skier when you venture into the backcountry, not only will you be incredibly stressed out, but you’ll also be very slow—which slows your entire group and affects risk and decision-making.
Caveat número dos: take some basic avalanche training first!
We know, it feels like a lot to invest in full avalanche training before you even decide if you like ski touring. If you’re positive you want to do it, go ahead and sign up for a proper Avalanche Level 1 Recreational course. It’s an amazing way to properly equip yourself with the basic knowledge you’ll need to safely ski tour. If that feels like a huge upfront investment right out of the gate, we understand—but you should still at least take a shorter one- or two-day course like a Backcountry 101 course just to get oriented.
Be thoughtful about choosing whom to go touring with for your first outings. It should be someone with Avalanche Level 1 training or beyond, and someone whom you trust to make conservative decisions. They should be able to explain in detail why they’re taking you where they’re taking you, and why it’s safe. (“I’ve skied this a million times” does not count as a reason it’s safe.)
Now: gear up!
While you’re deciding if you even like ski touring—you probably will!—we recommend borrowing or renting as much of the necessary gear as possible for your first couple of outings. If you have friends who tour, you can rustle up a beacon, shovel, probe, and pack to borrow. You may even have a friend with the same size boot as you, in which case you could borrow their skis, boots, and skins pretty easily. (Have them show you how to use them ahead of time! The bindings will work differently than what you’re used to, and you need to be shown how to take the skins off and on and how to store them in your pack!)
Here’s a checklist of what you’ll need:
You can technically throw a touring binding on any ski you like skiing on! But, many skis are made with touring in mind because they’re lighter weight and still ski nicely. If you can, opt for the lightest ski that will still give you the downhill ride you’re looking for. Your muscles will thank you.
There are a couple of different kinds of ski touring bindings, which hold your foot in place when you’re skiing down, but when you’re hiking up, they let your heel swing free comfortably. Some of the heavier touring bindings on the market can be used with your regular resort ski boots, which is a huge bonus if you don’t want to buy a specialized pair of touring boots yet. These clunky-yet-resort-boot-friendly bindings include “plate” bindings from Marker (like the Baron and Duke), Marker’s more recent Kingpin, F10, and F12, as well as Salomon’s Shift bindings. These are fine if you’re new to touring, especially if you want to be able to use the same skis/boots inbounds and in the backcountry. But you’ll eventually want to upgrade, because that extra weight starts to get you down—especially if your companions are all on lighter gear than you and you’re trying to keep up!
The lighter kind of touring bindings, which requires special “tech” touring boots, are much more minimalist and secure into two little “pin” holes in the toe of your boot. These are made by quite a few brands, including G3, Plum, Dynafit, and others. They’re not cheap, nor are the tech boots they go with … but you’ll be far less tired by the time you get to the top of the hill. That means happier muscles, better skiing, and more laps!
Boots to tour in:
As mentioned above, you can tour in your regular resort ski boots if you get a binding that works with them. However, this gets tiring and uncomfortable in the long haul. Resort boots are stiff and don’t flex or hinge nicely at the ankle, which forces you to skin up in a slightly forced zombie-like foot motion. Not ideal, but it’ll do for your first season if you need to get by.
Eventually, you’ll want to upgrade to some nice, flexy “tech” touring boots with a walk mode that frees up the ankle to hinge as you stride. The boot will lock into its stiff upright shape when it’s time to ski down, so you can still experience a nice, powerful ride. Touring boots are made by quite a few brands, including Atomic, Dynafit, La Sportiva, Dalbello, Fischer, and Scarpa. Like any boot, do a lot of research and ask plenty of questions before buying. If you can try them on in person, great, and if you’re buying online, get very informed about what kind of foot shape the boot is well suited for.
Keep in mind that you can fine-tune the fit later if you go to a skilled bootfitter who can mold the liners and adjust the plastic shells.
Skins to hike with:
You’ll need climbing “skins” that hook onto your ski tip and stick to its base with a nice tacky glue while you hike along. The fuzzy “skin” surface adheres beautifully to the snow, and you can walk uphill on your skis on surprisingly steep skintrack trails. If you buy a used touring setup, these may come included. Otherwise, buy new ones or gently used ones that are wider than your ski, then follow the brand’s instructional videos to trim the skins down to be just a tad narrower than your ski. (This gives you as much skin-to-snow contact as possible, increasing your grip on the snow, while leaving your skis’ metal edges exposed to help grip the snow too.)
Skins come in nylon, mohair, or a blend of the two. A very generalized rule of thumb is that nylon is a little heavier but very grippy; mohair is super light but not quite as grippy; and a blend combines the best of both worlds. If you live in a place like the Wasatch that’s notorious for its steep skin tracks, you may want to opt for nylon skins like the Black Diamond Ascensions, which is many a local’s choice.
There are many avalanche beacons on the market, and the most important buying tip is to actually practice searching with the one you choose. You can read up on the various brands’ technologies; all have their merits. But choose an interface that makes sense for your brain, keeping in mind that you’ll be using the beacon in high-stress situations, and if the beacon has too many bells, whistles, and blipping lights and sounds, it could get more confusing than helpful.
Fortunately, shovels aren’t too complicated! Metal is more resilient than plastic, which could snap as you dig in heavy avalanche debris. Big shovels can dig out more snow faster in a rescue situation, but weigh a bit more to carry. Find a happy medium of a mid-sized, reasonably lightweight shovel, and call it good. The handle should separate from the shovel’s scoop so it stows compactly in your bag.
Probes are also not too complex, but make sure you get a long one if possible—and especially if you live in a part of the country that gets a deep snowpack. Probes collapse like tent poles for storage in your pack, then unfurl and pop into place when you need to poke them into the snow to pinpoint an avalanche victim’s location. If it’s longer, you’ll be able to find a person even if the snow is very deep.
If you’re a newbie and just making do, you can use a regular hiking day-pack for touring. But as soon as you can swing it, get a dedicated ski touring backpack that has a compartment for your shovel and probe. This will make them fast to access in the event of a rescue situation—you don’t want to fumble around looking for your shovel handle if a friend is buried. You’ll also want a pack to have plenty of room for extra layers, water, and an easy-stow compartment or mesh holder for your helmet …. Hiking up in your helmet gets hot and manky quick, so most people like taking theirs off for the hike up.
Again, if you’re just getting started, your regular resort ski poles will do just fine. When you can afford it, invest in some collapsible ski poles with generously sized powder baskets. The larger baskets give you something firm to push off of when you’re pressing down on your poles on steep skin tracks, and if you can adjust the poles’ height, you can shorten them for the up and restore them to your typical preference on the way down.
Here’s our checklist of good things to have, on top of the list above:
Lots of water:
You’ll sweat a lot while skinning. It’s the workout of the century. Bring water and electrolytes.
While you sweat a lot, you’re also burning a lot of calories. Hundreds if not thousands per day beyond what you’d burn normally. Pack high-calorie snacks.
If you forget this, you’ll want to die after the first hour out and will feel your body shriveling dry, starting with your face.
Direction (“slope aspect”) matters considerably when making avalanche terrain decisions. Don’t rely on your best guess–just bring a compass to confirm.
A paper map:
Yes, the digital maps on your iPhone apps are rad, and those are usually useful. But when your phone battery dies due to the cold, you’ll be very glad you brought a paper map too.
A trip plan:
Most people don’t write out their trip plan, although it’s a great idea to. Just be sure to make a firm plan for the day’s objective, risks, hazards, trip leader, route, and intended pace. Everyone in the group should be on board.
Layered ski clothing:
If you’re already a skier, you know that if you get wet, you get cold. And touring, you’ll get very sweaty, only to freeze as soon as you stop and hold still. Wear a very light layer for the hike up (and that includes glove liners and a ballcap instead of your full gloves and ski helmet). Then throw on a puffy and/or shell for the ride down.
First aid kit with emergency blanket:
Be prepared if things take an unexpected turn for the worse!
A simple multi-tool, powder strap, and bit of duct tape can save the day if someone has a gear failure.
Even if you don’t plan on needing it, you don’t want to find yourself out after sunset without one. Bring it just in case something funky happens.
You can shop almost everything listed in this article UnNew™ from Geartrade, so once you decide to take the plunge and become a backcountry skier, we’re here for you!
Stay tuned for our next article, which covers safety basics for ski touring, including what you need to learn before you head out.
Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.