Have you ever been on a winter backcountry excursion? Whether ski, splitboard or snowshoe, if someone invited you, would you know what gear to bring?
Let’s go over the basic equipment you need for a human–powered day trip into the mountains during the winter. No matter your chosen mode of transportation, these are the essentials that you should always bring with you.
Let’s get something out of the way first – if you are travelling into the backcountry, you need to know if you will be in avalanche terrain. We always suggest bringing least the four avalanche safety essentials – beacon, shovel, probe, and knowledge – even if you think you’ll be avoiding avalanche terrain.
Next, you’ll need a few more pieces of essential gear. Always bring water and food, even if you only plan to be out for an hour. Most packs have a special sleeve to hold a water bladder. We suggest bladders because your water is always accessible and you’re more likely to drink it and stay hydrated. Food is a personal choice. Some people bring bars like Clif or Kind. Others bring real food along, like cheese, cured meat, or granola. Whatever you bring, make sure you have enough calories to match the nature of the activity; you’ll need more calories to skin up a steep mountain than you will for a leisurely snowshoe on a flat, groomed path. You may also want to bring an insulated bottle with some hot coffee or tea for a special treat.
Because you never know when the weather will turn, especially in the mountains where you can’t always see clouds roll in, you should always carry extra clothing. Your kit may vary, but you should at least have an extra insulating layer, heavier gloves, a warm hat, and a neck gaiter or balaclava. We always suggest using goggles. You may want to carry an extra lens for changing light conditions.
There are a few other things that you should always have with you in the backcountry. We always have a small first aid kit, an extra ski strap or two, some chemical hand warmers, a posi-drive screwdriver, a knife, and some duct tape and zip ties.
Sounds like a lot to carry, right? The right backpack can make it a light load. We suggest a pack somewhere in the 25-45 liter (1500-2800 cubic inches) range. There are plenty of brands to choose from – select based on fit and function. Gearhead Sean uses a Black Diamond Outlaw pack. It holds all of his extra gear and has straps that allow him to carry his splitboard both vertically and in an A-frame configuration. Most winter packs have touring-specific features that make a trip easier – straps to carry skis or boards, helmet carry, a shovel pocket for avalanche gear, and panel access. Panel access is essential so you don’t have to dump all your gear in the snow to get to something at the bottom of the pack.
So, all of that is on your back. What do you wear on your body? We’ll start from the skin and work our way out. (We’re going to avoid getting into the why of layering in this post.)
Against your skin, you need a base layer. Our Gearheads differ in their preferences when it comes to base layers – Sean likes synthetics and Dave likes merino blends. Each has its pros and cons that we argue about constantly. But, we absolutely agree that cotton is a craptastic base layer. Stay away! Socks are very specific to your sport. We like merino blends.
Over that, you’ll need an insulating layer. This layer will depend on the weather and how your body responds to temperature. On warm days, you may toss it in your pack on the way up and throw it on for the descent. On colder days, you may need to wear a thicker layer or double up. Some people can get away with insulating only their upper body and skipping it on their legs. We’ve only seen a few companies that make separate insulating layers for legs. Most incorporate insulation directly into shell pants.
Finally, on top of it all, you need a shell to protect you from the elements. Both of our Gearheads use the Arc’teryx Stinger bib on their bottoms. The Stingers are made from burly Gore ProShell fabric that takes a lot of abuse. On top, we tend to switch things up depending on conditions. In nice weather, the shell gets stashed in the pack. For cold, dry days, we like insulated softshells. When the snow starts falling, we switch to a hard shell.
You’ll also need to keep your hands warm. Do you choose gloves or mittens? We like thinner gloves for more strenuous activities. A minimal running glove or a Marmot Basic Work Glove gets the job done without your hands overheating. On colder days or on the way back down, we stick with insulated leather gloves. On super cold days, or when hanging around on a windy summet, it’s time to bust out the mittens. You can throw an overmitt on top of your gloves or carry an entire mitten system.
There are few other essential pieces we’ll mention briefly. Adjustable poles are the bees’ knees! Sean. as a splitboarder, needs to be able to stash his poles when he’s riding down. He carries Black Diamond’s Carbon Compactor poles that fold into three pieces and pack up nicely. Dave uses an old pair of Black Diamond Traverse pole uppers with BD’s Carbon Probe pole lowers. Both offer multiple grip options to account for variable conditions and slopes.
Overwhelmed? Don’t feel like reading reviews for the next three months just to buy something that doesn’t fit? Let our Gear Concierge take care of it for you!