How To: Backcountry Ski (Part 2)

Posted by on Dec 14, 2010 in How To, Ski | 4 Comments

Box Elder Peak

In part 1 I covered some of the basics in gear, and in mindset. I wanted to go into a little more detail about gear. As a gear nerd I am constantly on the look-out for cool gadgets, tools, clothing, and whatever else I can find that will have some minor or rare use in any given situation. For the most part, however, there are several items that are regularly useful, and easy enough to carry in your pack, that there is really no reason not to have them. Or at least, some of them. Of course, when it comes to gear that you will be hauling around on your back while trudging up tall mountains, weight is always an issue.

Snow Study Gear.

Study Kit: A snow study kit can be quite extensive. It can include crystal cards, a microscope, and thermometers. Why? One of the primary causes of weak snow is faceting. Temperature gradients in the snow can cause the snow crystals to mutate in shape and cohesive bonding power. Generally speaking, round crystals bond better, while pointed, faceted ones do not. Snow crystal cards are plastic cards that contain information and rulers for identifying and measuring the snow crystals. The thermometer is used to determine the different temperature gradients within the snowpack. Large gradients, especially in shallow snow (see, 2009, Utah), are a major cause of weak snow, and avalanches.

Do you need a snow study kit? That depends on your intent to actually stop and study the snow. I don’t carry one. In the pits and the analysis we’ve done in the field, looking at the snow in that sort of detail hasn’t been needed. Dawn Patrols are usually an in and out experience as well, which means that time is usually at a premium (That, and much of the time we are in the dark). However, if detailed snow study is something you are planning to engage in, a snow study kit is a lightweight addition to your pack. One that can illuminate the details of your snow pit quite remarkably.

Slope Meter: A slope meter, or inclinometer, performs a basic, but vital task: it measures your slope angle. the magic number in the avalanche world is 30. As in 30 degrees. Any slope steeper than that is capable of sliding. That doesn’t mean that slopes shallower than 30 degrees will not slide—only that the probability is significantly less. Many compasses (another very useful item), and even some newer models of beacons, have slope meters built into them. Learn how to use the one you’ve got, and use it often. Especially if you are touring in unfamiliar terrain.

Snow saw: A snow saw is a great tool when digging snow pits and performing various stability tests. Mine attaches to the end of my pole, for an extended reach. It slips nicely, and flatly into my pack and I hardly know it’s there. So, like the other snow study items, carry one if you plan to use one.

Repair, Emergency, and Safety Gear:

Rope: A solid length of rope is infinitely useful in the backcountry. Cut cornices or snow pits and columns with it. Belay your partner so he can stomp a cornice. Rappel a cliffband or other obstacle. Rescue a partner. Repair gear. It’s inexpensive and relatively light. It should sit nicely in the bottom of your pack.

Voile Straps: These little rubber straps are amazing. Cheap, durable, and weightless. You’ll use them to bind your ski tips together when you are booting, and probably in the car, to keep them from rattling around. I’ve seen skiers repair bindings with them. They are the duct tape of the wintery backcountry. Carry a few with you everywhere you go.

First-Aid Kit: For obvious reasons, find a decent backpacking kit and slip it into your pack.

Skin Wax: At some point your skins will become saturated with heavy, wet snow. Some Glop Stopper wax will put an end to that.


Maps: Find a good map of your local mountains. It will come in handy more often than you think. My favorite for the Wasatch Mountains are the touring maps from Alpentech.

GPS: If you have one, carry it. Even the bike-centric Edge series from Garmin can be useful, especially so if you have the 605/705 loaded with topo maps.

Compass: Useful for more than just navigation, a compass is a great tool for learning your slope aspect, and if it is capable, your slope angle.

SPOT: While the SPOT locator is becoming a popular way to follow along with ultra-endurance bike races, they are still, first and foremost, a safety device. If you have one, carry one, especialaly for long tours. But in the event of a burial, it won’t help anyone rescue you, although it may help in recovering your body. And pushing 911 on a SPOT won’t help you dig out anyone else. Why? Time. Avalanche victims have about 15 minutes before they black out. A SPOT won’t bring anyone to you that quickly. And that’s why rescues have to be performed by you and your partners.

And finally…

Bring a camera. For obvious reasons:

backcountry bonkers



  1. Jonnie J
    December 14, 2010

    If you have an iPhone check out the Mammut app. Its free and it has a great clinometer on it. Let’s get out together this year so you can take some cool photos of me skiing!

  2. mark
    December 14, 2010

    I’ve used rope for belaying partners, rappelling cliffs, field repairs, and cutting cornices. But you’ll have to show me the trick for using one to repel obstacles. Will it also work for repelling rodents and insects, because if so, I could use one in my basement.

    • Grizzly Adam
      December 14, 2010

      It was late when I was typing… since fixed. Thanks for pointing it out.

  3. My Life Outdoors
    January 9, 2011

    Thanks for the info! As a Texan who has resort skiied for 22 years I find myself wanting to ski the backcountry but I dont know where (or how) to start. In all that time I have only been lucky enough to ski a few inches of powder on top of packed snow. Do you have any advice on a safe way to experice some real powder before jumping in neck deep? I feel I have the skills but don’t want to bet my life on it. Glad I found your blog.


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