Every year, more and more people venture into the backcountry. For many of us who ski or snowboard, the incredible opportunity to ride untracked, and uncrowded, powder is worth taking on risk. Fortunately, with the uptick in user days comes gear updated each season to protect us while exploring wild terrain. Here’s my quick caveat: Gear is only a small part of the larger process of understanding avalanche conditions, always a very complex mix of different elements including (but certainly not limited to) temperature, precipitation, and terrain. Gear alone won’t save you. You’ve got to be savvy. Take an avalanche course. Learn in safe terrain and know what that means before you go out.
That said, we’ve broken down the essential pieces of gear that anyone accessing the backcountry should have and I’ve given my favorite options in the category. Have fun out there. Wild snow is a beautiful thing. But learn how to use this stuff wisely.
Having a quality pack is the foundation of your backcountry kit. While a number of companies offer a wide range of pack options the best backcountry bags will have comfortable carrying compartments for your shovel, probes, and extra essential gear like food, extra layers, and water. In recent years most backcountry safety equipment companies have developed packs with deployable airbags that can help riders caught in a slide stay on top of the moving snow when inflated. They’re genius. But obviously never full proof.
Good- Dakine Poacher 36 Liter
There are two main functions of a beacon: to transmit and receive radio signals that help you find a buried partner (avoid this scenario at all costs) or if you are the unfortunate one caught in a slide (this one, too). When in motion, the group is in transmit, if shit hits the fan, the unburied switch their beacons to search. Practice with these babies all the time, in the grocery store, the yard, etc. But make good decisions out there so you never have to use them.
A shovel is a basic but essential piece of backcountry equipment. While shovels are versatile and can be used to slap down cliff drops, build kickers, and get your car unstuck, they serve dual purpose when it comes to avalanche preparedness as they’re key in both rescues and in digging pits to analyze snow stability. You should never venture into the backcountry without one.
Good- Voile Telepro Shovel
Great- Mammut Alugator Guide Shovel
The probe rounds out the essential backcountry gear you’ll need before heading out this winter. A probe is a collapsable pole that aids in search efforts when someone is buried by allowing a searcher to “probe” into the snow. Probes are alos used to simply measure snow depth when making avalanche safety analysis in the field.
Great- PIEPS IProbe II 300
Non-Essential, But Highly-Advised Gear
While some still choose to access the backcountry without a helmet, it’s obviously highly-advised to protect your cone when you’re riding anywhere.
Black Diamond Avalung
The Avalung is becoming a normal part most backcountry enthusiasts’ safety set-up. The Avalung allows those caught in a slide to breathe fresh air directly from the snowpack and diverts CO2 away from the fresh air intake.
When it comes to digging pits for analysis, a good saw goes a long way. With the ability to cut through snow and ice, they’re also great for making igloos. Seriously.
Slope Meter and Snow Study Kit
These two small and easy-to-carry pieces of equipment are critical for assessing conditions in the backcountry.
Editor’s Note: Please take advantage of organizations like the American Avalanche Association, American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, and the National Avalanche Center for classes and reports on conditions near you.