The thrill of riding backcountry terrain is undeniable. It’s an untouched, quiet, immense land that’s all yours. Of course, with any technical adventure, there is gear that can make or break your ride. Before you strap on your snowboard, make sure you have these essential, and sometimes lifesaving, pieces of gear.
Beacon, Shovel and Probe
According to the U.S. Avalanche Accidents Reports, the 2015-2016 season had 29 avalanche fatalities. The previous season claimed 11 lives. Avalanches occur frequently in the backcountry, but you can keep yourself, and your snowboarding partners, safer by carrying a beacon, shovel and probe. Don’t leave home without these items, and be sure you know how to use them. Outdoorgearlab.com did a comprehensive review of multiple beacons, to help you choose the one best suited to your needs.
Snowshoes, crampons, microspikes, split board or a combination? Knowing your snow conditions is the key. If it’s a hard pack, you’re better off in microspikes or full crampons. A softer, deeper snowpack warrants a split board or snowshoes. For the best flotation, a splitboard is the way to go. It’s also the best option for long distances, because you’re carrying less weight. Snowshoes are more cost effective and are simply easier to use. The learning curve is much higher for a splitboard.
Save your legs and keep your balance. When your legs are burnt out, you can gently use your poles to pull some of your weight up. Don’t rely heavily on this, though.
Helmet and Eyewear
Protect your noggin and eyes at all costs. Nothing will ruin your day faster than a traumatic brain injury or snow blindness. Not only do helmets provide protection, they also provide warmth, and can be quite comfortable. Before heading off, make sure your goggles and/or sunglasses are compatible with your helmet.
A properly fitting bag is crucial. You want it to distribute your gear weight just right, so you can carry your load uphill and then ride downhill. Choose a pack that has adequate straps to carry your gear easily, and suits your hydration needs. Will you be carrying water bottles or a cold-temperature water bladder? Some models come with safety equipment built in, such as airbags or Avalung.
A GPS, map, and compass should be part of your navigation arsenal. With all of the GPS technology out there, it can be easy to think that you’re covered with this one piece of navigation equipment. But technology sometimes fails, and having a map and compass (along with knowing how to use them) is indispensable. If you’re lacking in these skills, there are multiple online tutorials and videos that will help you build a navigational foundation—then practice, practice, practice!
Beware of frostbite and hypothermia, and take special care in selecting your layering system. Your layering needs will change depending on your exertion and weather conditions. It’s important to be able to shed and add layers easily. Start with a base-layer top made out of synthetic material or wool. Remember, cotton kills and you want to wick away moisture. Your next top layer should be a lightweight fleece or wind shirt followed by a light insulating top, made out of Primaloft, down or breathable fleece. Follow these layers up with two jackets: a Primaloft or down insulating jacket rated for the temperature, and a Gortex shell that is waterproof, lightweight, breathable and can fit over all of your layers.
Your lower half will have a similar base-layer bottom, an insulating softshell layer and a lightweight, waterproof shell. Your hands should also have a layering system—glove liners are great when you need dexterity, but not an exposed hand. Follow this up with an insulating glove and a waterproof, yet breathable shell.
A first aid kit, fire starter, headlamp, and bivy sack should always be part of your backcountry emergency gear. The fact is, as much as we prepare, sometimes things can go wrong. It’s important to be prepared in the event of an emergency, or to be able to stop a mishap from becoming an emergency.
Packing an extra set of base layers, pair of socks, gloves and a hat can keep you in the backcountry lap of luxury. In the event of a temperature change or wet layer, you’re covered. Staying warm is one of your primary concerns in the backcountry. Since batteries tend to lose their charge faster in cold weather, don’t forget extra batteries for your beacon, GPS and headlamp.
This is your most important piece of equipment. Knowing how to use your equipment, where your equipment is in your bag, how much food and water you should pack, what the weather and avalanche conditions are—these are your most valuable piece of gear. Before you go into the backcountry, study. Learn everything you can. Take an Avalanche Safety Course from an AIARE provider and peruse the website’s vast array of resources. Know your map. Ask questions. Research which gear is appropriate for you and your circumstances. Leave your itinerary with someone outside of your adventure. There are hundreds of minute details that can make or break your backcountry experience. Take the time to learn them, find a teacher or hire a professional guide. The more knowledge you have, the more adventures open up to you.
Your time in the backcountry will be rewarding, challenging and memorable. Take the opportunity to thoroughly research your gear, and to learn about equipment you’ve purchased and how to pack it. Your preparation beforehand will leave you with peace of mind and a safer, more enjoyable experience.
Do you have a backcountry tip you can share with our readers? We love hearing your stories of your own experiences.