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The Anatomy of a Backcountry Ski Set-Up

Want to backcountry ski but need to review the basics? We’ve got you covered. End of season sales are starting to pop up and now is the time to build your backcountry quiver with deals and steals you won’t find when the snow starts to fall later this year.

Backcountry skiing is your ticket to ditch that pesky lift line and hoards of downhillers, but there are a few checkboxes to tick before embarking on a journey out of bounds.

The Anatomy of Backcountry Ski Set-Up

A skier’s experience in the backcountry fully depends on the gear and training. Without the right equipment in your quiver, it’s guaranteed you’ll find yourself in an uncomfortable situation amidst unnerving terrain. Before heading out of bounds, it is imperative to invest in avalanche & backcountry education – your life depends on it. Our friends and in-haus professional guiding service, Colorado Adventure Guides, can prepare you for the backcountry with these courses. Speaking of end-of-season sales, Colorado Adventure guides is running a Pandemania Sale on Avalanche Courses for next year!

We all want to be the next Glen Plake or Candide Thovex, but first things first, let’s discuss the rudimentary essentials of a skier’s backcountry setup.

Your backcountry setup is not a one-size-fits all purchase. Consider the years of skiing under your belt, how many days a year you clock, and what type of terrain you want to tackle. Have you slipped past a “you can die” sign or ventured into uncharted territory before, or merely cruised down a groomer? Know your skill level and build your quiver accordingly.

Choose a backcountry ski

Backcountry skis are typically lighter than a downhill ski to make the ascent easier. Ultimately, gear choice comes down to your goals in the backcountry and most importantly, having fun. Skiers that crave deeper snow and intense descents might choose a heavier set up with wider skis for surfing powder. The adventurer that seeks distance and a hefty climb is better off skiing with an ultra-light setup.

Find the right bindings

There are two different types of bindings to choose from. The less popular option is a telemark binding where a skier’s heels can move up and down the whole time. Backcountry skiers with telemark bindings turn with a bent-knee lunge when carving down a mountain.

If you’re new to backcountry skiing, we recommend alpine touring bindings which allow free movement to lift your heels up on the climb and lock them in for the ride down. This binding gives you a feeling most similar to downhill skiing on the descent.

Make sure to choose a boot that works with your bindings. You can have a very lightweight boot with a lot of ankle motion to make the ascent easier, but you may sacrifice downhill performance. Therefore, stiffer boots are heavier and ideal for control through deep powder. If you buy AT boots, they won’t work with telemark bindings. Even some AT boots can be incompatible with certain AT bindings. Not sure? Ask a professional with experience.

Skins

Skins are a vital component to a backcountry ski setup and turn your skis into “massive snowshoes.” In other words, backcountry skins clip onto your skis and allow you to cruise uphill. Skins have two sides: sticky and carpet. They are typically made of mohair for speed, or synthetics, which tend to have better traction. To combine the best of both worlds, go for a mohair/nylon blend.

Many skins include a do-it-yourself trimming tool for adjustments; others come pre-cut, but most use clips that can attach to any ski. At the summit, simply peel off the skins, fold them and tuck them away in your backpack for the ride down.

Collapsible poles are not necessary in a backcountry setup, but are more accommodating than downhill ski poles. The option to extend or shrink them down gives you better stability on steeper terrain. If you’re teetering near-budget, save the specialized poles for next season.

Backcountry ski backpack

The best ski packs include a purpose for everything you might need. For instance, an accessible place to house avalanche rescue gear, a compartment to hold extra layers and food, a sleeve for a hydration bladder and a function to strap on your skis if need be.

Don’t forget these backcountry ski essentials:

Beacon

This is your most valuable backcountry piece. A beacon is used in the event that you or a friend gets buried in the snow and should be kept on you at all times. As a precaution, find a digital, multi-burial beacon that can locate multiple bodies under an avalanche. Get hands-on training and know-how to use your beacon before you step foot in the backcountry.

Shovel

Avalanche shovels have metal blades to cut through concrete-like snow from an avalanche. Any old shovel won’t cut it so make sure to buy one fit for the backcountry.

Probe

After the beacon locates an avalanche victim, use your probe to pinpoint the exact depth. Probes provide a level of accuracy that a beacon cannot which saves you precious minutes.

Know before you go (KBYG)

Build your gear setup with the essentials, then take a class in the backcountry with your new equipment and an experienced avalanche instructor. A quiver of top-notch equipment goes to waste if you don’t have training, education and good judgment for the backcountry.

Skill, confidence, and adventures in the backcountry will flourish over time; bringing speechless summits, zero gravity euphoria, and a fierce gusto for great outdoors.

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