"Wanna Get Away" went viral in the mid-2000s as the punchy tagline of Southwest Airlines, encouraging people trapped in awkward moments to say ‘yes’ to travel. But I’d like to make the case it arrived a decade or so early.
As we near the end of 2020 — a lap around the sun I affectionately call The Dumpster Fire — we’re unified behind almost nothing, other than a search for a respite. We all need a damn break. With a chaotic present and unknown future, our collective blood pressure is on par with a chase scene from a Mad Max movie. Over the summer, this hunger for escape created historic booms in RVing, camping and cycling, activities deemed safe and... free.
With winter looming and resorts taking steps to space out the humans, I’m predicting many skiers – maybe even you – will consider a foray into backcountry touring. Doing so safely requires the right cocktail of skills, knowledge and gear. Each ingredient takes time to figure out and master. I’m not here to offer you the cheat codes, but rather to get you started on the right [skin] track.
Backcountry ski equipment is made for a wide variety of styles and types of adventures, from deep sidecountry pow days to light-and-fast spring volcano missions. While some skis are able to handle double duty, even they come with compromises. Here are a few recommendations to get started.
Staying warm after heavy exertion by staying dry. The key is finding an outer shell that breathes well while keeping moisture out. A durable and stretch 3-layer Gore-Tex jacket like Mountain Hardwear's High Exposure is your ticket. A clever design including large pockets for gloves and a hood fit for a ski helmet make it great for going up and down, on cold and warm days alike.
Finding the perfect mid-insulation layer has been my lifelong holy grail. I could write a book on the matter, but I’ll spare you the details and just get to the point. Patagonia’s Nano Air Hoody will keep you warm while ripping down the backcountry slopes — without leaving overheated on the uphill skintrack. It’s great for cool mornings and quick breaks, and it's easy to pack when not in use.
For the frigid days when getting out of a bed is a challenge unto itself, a pair of Axino Knickers from Arc'teryx are a cozy way to keep your legs warm all day. A simple design that doesn’t interfere with your boots is barely noticeable after you put them on. I often find myself wearing them all day, even after the tour has ended.
Thanks to years of education and advocacy efforts, almost all backcountry skiers bring along a shovel, beacon and probe, which are often called “the essentials.” This is a big step forward – except it’s missing one thing, an airbag pack. These packs help skiers caught in an avalanche float to the top. The Mammut Pro X 3.0 is built to deploy in seconds and helps keep you safer. It's also loaded with technical features that ease long days in the backcountry.
Conditions change quickly and frequently in the backcountry, meaning versatile and durable gear is indispensable. The Orb Clarity from POC has a dual frame that’s great in a variety of snow and light conditions, and it's easy to switch when a different lens is needed.
A bad set of poles can ruin an otherwise lovely ski day. Finding a set that is light yet strong is important. It's even better if they can be packed down and stowed for easy transport — especially useful for you splitboarders out there. I prefer Leki's Guide Extreme V. It has a solid grip and comfortable strap, plus a basket designed to flip touring bindings without bending over.
Nothing is worse than having to call it early because your fingers are frozen solid. The solution is a well insulated pair of gloves that offer enough dexterity to fiddle with bindings and unzip jackets, without taking them off. My go-to pair is the Fall Line from Hestra, a leather glove with an excellent pole grip.
If you’re looking for advice on the one-quiver ski, you’ve come to the wrong place. I've searched long and hard and frankly, it doesn’t exist, despite what some ski makers will advertise. Instead, here are a few options for different styles of backcountry touring. If you’re just getting into the sport and splitting time between slackcountry and the resort, I’d suggest some Agent 3.0s from Faction. You can lay them over on groomers just as easily as you can punch through absolute crud. If you’re hunting the deepest pow stashes, find yourself a pair of Pagoda Tour 112s from DPS. Light and wide, these sticks will float over almost anything. If you’re on a mission to bag every peak possible and willing to sacrifice slaying powder, check out the Endurance 88s from Renoun, which punch well above their weight class.
Like skis, the ideal binding depends on your style of skiing and your type of terrain. But if you’re in the market for a versatile, sturdy, no-fuss option, I’d suggest the Core Pro 12 from Hagan Mountaineering. Produced by a small outfit often overshadowed by larger players with big advertising dollars, these simple, smart bindings will serve you well.
I’m all about carefully cutting weight to help me go faster and farther, but there are a few places I make exceptions. One of those is a quality pair of skins that enables me to climb steep slopes without slipping. My favorite are G3's Alpinist+ Grip Skins, which are made with nylon and perfect for icy slopes and skin tracks.
Whether you’re keeping tabs on your party in a whiteout or lining up the perfect shot for the 'gram, good communication is key. I encourage every person I ski with to carry a radio. I rely on a BCA Link 2.0 myself because it’s reliable, simple to use and mounts easily onto the shoulder strap of just about any pack. For emergency situations I bring a Global Satellite from Somewear Labs, which allows me to text from just about anywhere or send an SOS if needed.
I’d be remiss not to mention the most important piece of ski touring gear, the car beer (please drink responsibly). Smooth and tasty Long Root Ale is ethically produced by Patagonia, so you can celebrate a good day in the backcountry while using your dollars to support the preservation of the places we all love.