Written by Eric Layton
Phantom Team Rider
Ski season is upon us once again, and that means that it's time to dust off and dial in our backpacks for the backcountry! Make sure you’re prepared for winter ski and splitboard trips with this comprehensive gear list on how to properly pack for your next tour.
Your backpack can often be referred to as the angry midget, always trying to take you out! This little guy, riding your shoulders during a backcountry outing, can turn your trip into a nightmare or be one of your best companions out there! This all comes down to a few tips and what you stuff inside.
Here are a few things to think about before you pack the contents into your bag this season. Ask yourself where you will be skiing/splitboarding and the type of terrain you’ll most often encounter. What size pack should I get? It depends on how long your adventure will be and how technical the terrain is. I use a 40-liter pack while day ski guiding and for most backcountry uses, but can get away with a 30-liter for less technical or supported trips. I will often use a 75-liter pack on multi-day overnights, but have gotten away with 50-60 liters. There are many variables, but I find it best to have a pack that holds everything comfortably, without having to stuff everything in so tight that the pack is practically bursting at the seams and you almost have to start over every time you pull something out.
Get yourself a pack that is comfortable to wear and can hold the gear that is appropriate for the outing. Go as light as you can find. A lot of packs out there are streamlined and a bit lighter, but they don't have all the bells and whistles. If you want to look pro, the more you have inside the pack the better. Yes, put everything on the inside of your pack, including all water bottles, etc that dangle. A separate compartment for your shovel, beacon and probe is also mandatory for me on day trips. While not always possible with the bigger packs needed for multi-day trips, the separate compartment allows me to easily perform snow tests and not have wet gear It also makes for quicker access to my emergency gear. As far as other compartments go, it is a personal preference, but keep in mind that every pocket adds weight, so I personally like less pockets for an overall lighter pack.
The difference between my normal backcountry pack and my guide pack comes down to a few items that are split between my backcountry partners and myself. The additional weight in my own pack when guiding is mostly rescue and medical equipment. So essentially the same things should be in every party traveling in the same terrain, but may be dispersed differently depending on the type of trip. These items usually include equipment needed to manage and take care of a serious situation (first aid kit, GPS/Sat phone and extensive repair kit, tarp/sled) as well as extra items that come in handy if the unexpected happens, like a change in weather, or an item being lost or non-functional such as extra gloves, layers, goggles. Hot tea and extra snacks can be a lifesaver when morale starts to slip!
As for backcountry rescue sleds, I like a fast and versatile sled/tarp combo that is rescue ready. The added few pounds are nothing compared to the benefits of having a quality sled. I cannot stress enough that you need proper rescue gear, get a big shovel and sturdy probe too! Don't skimp on these two items; try to lighten your load other ways. I go with a shovel that has durability season after season and gives smooth butter pit walls. Probes are equally important. Get a big sturdy probe that also covers the appropriate depth of the snowpack that you will be encountering. Debris can pile up BIG, try and go with a probe of at least 280cm! In this case bigger is better!
When guiding, or contemplating approaching difficult terrain in the backcountry, you need to make the decision to bring a rope kit and technical gear i.e. harness, crampons/ice ax, ice screws, needed to ascend/descend safely. This could include a full 60-meter rope or just a 30m 6-8mm half rope. The decision to bring the rope or not can mean the difference between being able to get yourself out-of or through a sticky situation or it can just end up weighing you down so much that you ultimately can’t reach your objective due to the over weighted pack or taking too much time using a rope when it was not appropriate. There are many variables that play into what technical gear you will need, drawing a fine line on what to pack and what not to pack. Knowing exactly what you need and don’t need can all be learned through courses and gaining experience in the backcountry with savvy users and guides.
So let's look at the basics. I like to refer to my everyday tools that I use in my pack as my base weight. Below is a list of the essential gear you’ll need to pack before you head into the backcountry in the winter. Your list will become more personalized and fine tuned as you gain experience.