For many, this self-inflicted question arrives after years of waiting in over-crowded lift lines at popular ski resorts. Most of us enjoy the sport of shredding for many reasons, but I am willing to bet that one of them isn't sharing the snow with hundreds of people. Am I right?!
For me, this conundrum peaked two years ago and I have spent the past 24 months prepping my skills and acquiring the gear needed for the backcountry. Am I a backcountry expert full of years of experience? Nope, not in the slightest. But, since I am enjoying my initial forays into the unexplored snowy wilderness, I can help you out with the basic safety gear that you will need before partaking in this sport. After all, we need to be safe in order to play in the snow!
If you are traveling into unexplored terrain, a beacon is an absolute essential! Every person in the party should carry one and be familiar with how to use it. In short, a beacon is a transceiver that has two settings: transmit and receive. While touring, everyone in the group will flip their beacon to "transmit" mode, sending out a signal. If a slide occurs and someone ends up buried, the mobile skiers then turn the beacon to "receive" mode in order to locate the lost friend. There are dozens of avalanche transceivers on the market that offer a variety of options, so do your research before making the purchase.
Although it may sound like some weird alien torture device, a probe is a critical piece of gear that you must have in your backcountry quiver. If the worst case scenario does occur and a friend ends up buried, you may not be able to see any of his body parts. After honing in on his location with your beacon, you can then use your probe to poke through the snow until you make contact with the skier. This allows you to safely locate your friend before digging him out with your shovel.
On that note, you will definitely need a backcountry shovel. No, we are not talking about the kind found in your garden! Avalanche shovels are lightweight and packable so that they can fit inside of your backpack. Once you locate your victim with the beacon and probe, you will need to quickly shovel away the snow to dig them out.
As with most gear, shovels come in a myriad of options, but steer clear of a tool made with plastic since it is more likely to fail when you need it. It is also critical to find a shovel that fits inside of your pack. Sure, you can strap it onto the outside, but this means you are far more likely to lose it during a fall.
Naturally, any backcountry rider is going to need a pack to carry all of their gear! Any backpack will technically work, but packs specifically designed for backcountry skiing will be easier and much safer for the user, so they are highly advised. Why? These sport-specific packs have specialized compartments for the previously mentioned avalanche gear. Not only does that make them easier to pack in the morning, but it also means that riders will be able to access their safety gear easily in case of emergency. This is critical during an avalanche when time is of the essence. Additionally, these packs have carrying systems on the outside for you to carry your skis or board while boot packing.
In addition to traditional backcountry backpacks, avalanche airbags have also made an impact on the market. Although they aren't a required piece of gear and many backcountry users do not own one, they are a wonderful tool to secure for your backcountry adventures. Basically, these are airbags that fit into your backcountry pack so that you can deploy the bag in case of a slide. The airbags work through the principle of inverse segregation which basically states that larger objects will work their way to the surface. In case of an avalanche, this deployed airbag will increase the size of the skier, and thus, hopefully make it to the top of the snow.
Unfortunately, the main deterrent for backcountry enthusiasts is the cost of the airbags. On average, the safety bags will cost $500-1000, and can run even higher.
Avalanche Certification Course
For anyone venturing into the backcountry, an Avy I course is required at minimum! This course is designed to introduce you to avalanche safety skills including how to analyze snowpack and avalanche hazards, route finding and terrain analysis, to name a few. Participants will also learn how to use the previously mentioned avalanche gear, so these courses are truly essential.
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*Featured image by Travel Nevada. This imag