The snow is falling and the mountains are calling. Skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry is an amazing experience and a great way to stay physically fit. It allows you to reach the best ski lines in the area, without waiting in a lift line. As exciting as backcountry adventure is though, it is not inherently safe and requires a certain amount of specialized equipment and knowledge. Our goal here is to introduce you to the gear you need to get started and exploring on your own. Keep in mind however this is a VERY brief overview and I highly encourage you to seek further information if backcountry riding is something that interests you.
First and foremost the key to safe and enjoyable backcountry travel is having the proper knowledge to know when to go and when to turn back. There are a number of organizations and companies throughout the country which offer avalanche information and courses. Being that we live in beautiful Central Oregon we want to support the best darned avalanche association around. COAA has extremely knowledgeable staff and offer many courses to Know Before You Go. In addition to their course offerings, COAA has also raised money and put in Central Oregon’s first full weather station to get the most up to date information possible. Before venturing out into the wilderness I recommend taking a class from these fine folks and familiarizing yourself with proper backcountry travel and avalanche rescue techniques. You’ll be doing yourself, and everyone around you, a huge favor by doing so.
Once educated it’s time to start looking into the proper gear that you will need to get you out and back safely and effectively. Having an avalanche beacon that works for you is one of the most important pieces of equipment you can own. Avalanche beacons (also called avalanche transceivers) are wearable devices which send and receive signals if you or your friends were to be buried in a slide. There are many different manufacturers which have a variety of different features, however every modern beacon transmits and receives on the same frequency. The key to selecting an avalanche transceiver is to buy one which you feel completely comfortable using. Don’t purchase a beacon that has an abundance of features if you’re new to the game and might be hesitant to train with it on a regular basis. It is highly important to know and truly understand the functions of your beacon and to practice regularly.
Once you have your beacon, the next piece in the puzzle is your avalanche rescue equipment. If someone were to get caught in an avalanche you need to have the right gear to locate and unbury them. Once found with your beacon, you will need a probe to locate them and a shovel to remove the snow. Probes and shovels vary in price based upon weight, functions and other features, however in general they all do the same thing and should provide relatively equal results. As with a beacon the most important thing is familiarity and practice. Since you now have all this specialized rescue equipment you’ll need somewhere to carry all of it. A backcountry specific backpack is a must have and will feature a separate compartment for you avalanche rescue gear which will be easy to access. Many will also have various attachment points for skis/snowboards, helmets, ice axes and other equipment. For those who are looking for the safest option, avalanche airbags are becoming increasingly popular and have been proven to save lives. Airbags are expensive and fragile so selecting the proper one and maintaining it are a huge priority. I recommend speaking with multiple people and doing research before purchasing an airbag.
Now that you know most of the rescue gear you need, it’s time to start talking about how to actually get into the backcountry. This post is only a vary general overview, and I will not go into the details of selecting specific equipment at this time. However you can expect further posts regarding the selection of specific items and I always encourage you to swing by the shop and chat in person! If you’re a skier, you’ll want to pick up a pair of lighter-weight touring skis. Backcountry skis are almost always lighter than resort skis and have features which make them easier to go uphill with as well as back down. Having proper touring bindings will greatly enhance your uphill performance because they feature a light weight system and are designed for optimal climbing efficiency. Touring specific bindings will also require touring specific boots. These boots are of course lighter weight than their alpine counterparts, but also feature a greater range of motion and touring specific sole.
Backcountry snowboarding has grown in popularity by leaps and bounds the past few years, mostly thanks to huge improvements with gear. A backcountry snowboard is typically called a splitboard, because…it splits in half! These boards separate in two pieces and have binding mounts which essentially turn the two pieces into a pair of skis. This is used for climbing uphill and allows for fast and effective travel. When you reach the top of the mountain you simply put your board back together, slide your bindings on the traditional way and rip downhill like nothing ever happened. The shapes and designs of splitboards vary just as much as traditional snowboards, so it’s important to know what you’re looking for before buying. Splitboard bindings are designed specifically to transition quickly from touring to riding mode. There are a few different brands which have company specific features, so familiarize yourself with the different options before committing. Standard snowboard boots are the most common to be used when splitboarding, however touring boots are on the market and have features such as extended range of motion, virbram soles and crampon welts.
The last couple pieces of the puzzle are skins and poles. Backcountry skins come in different options depending on skis/snowboard, and also have various attachment methods depending on the manufacturer. The hairs on the skins all vary and can be selected on desired grip, glide and terrain use. As with everything else, I recommend researching the options to understand what would fit your needs best. Touring poles are adjustable ski poles and typically come in two or three pieces. Their prices vary be weight and features, but again the majority of poles will work the same way.
Once again this post is meant as a basic introduction to the main pieces of backcountry ski and snowboard equipment. There are vast options to choose from and all will have different features, positives and negatives. Our staff at Crow’s Feet Commons is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about backcountry travel and would love to chat with you more about any questions or concerns. We will be having in store clinics monthly which will introduce and dive deeper into detail about the products we carry and the gear you need. Don’t hesitate to call or stop in.
See you in the mountains!