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Alpine, Survival / February 11, 2016

What to carry on a winter day in the backcountry

Written by: Eric Hockman

The latest issue of your favorite snow sports publication just showed up in your mailbox and the local snow report is raving about all of the freshly fallen snow.  Needless to say, your stoke meter to find fresh tracks is hitting red-line. But wait just a hot minute; are you prepared to venture out in a safe manner? The term “ignorance is bliss” should certainly not apply to jumping head first into snowy back-country terrain, but should in fact drive you to do just the opposite. We preach to always err on the side of safety, because with rapidly changing conditions and potentially hazardous terrain, ignorance is certainly not bliss.

The trek in is a great way to strengthen relationships with friends. Ari stops for a breather en route to the Harry Gates hut in the Sawatch Range, CO.

One of the most important foundational building blocks for winter back-country travel is being prepared with the correct gear and having the knowledge on how to utilize your equipment when it’s needed. When snow and ever-changing conditions are involved, any number of issues could potentially arise while on a single to multi-day tour beneath the frosty peaks of your favorite zone. Additionally, your chosen mode of travel on snow may vary, but the items in your pack should remain consistent with each trip you take.

The list of gear you carry with you may vary slightly depending on the region you live in or the length of time you intend on spending in the back-country. Here is what I consider to be fairly essential for any person that is planning to travel in their favorite back-country winter wonderland.

First and foremost, bring your brain – in any back-country situation both summertime or winter, your mind is the tool used for deciding when to swallow your pride, turn around, and go home safely.

“First and foremost, bring your brain ”

Knowing your current location on the map is helpful when you're on your feet all day. Donna and Ari pinpoint our current location on a day-long approach.

Some of the items you carry with you may get used once, used religiously, or never used at all; yet, each and every piece has a reason to be carried along and should be considered equally important. The contents from my personal bag follow. I’ll start off with the beacon, probe and shovel. Time is of the essence when it comes to an avalanche rescue. Buy a reputable beacon that will help you quickly detect and find a buried comrade. Probes come in different lengths and materials – Buy your probe length based on how deep the snowpack is in your area, and instead of shaving grams with a carbon probe, choose aluminum as it tends to deflect less than carbon – a probe that is too short is not effective and might as well be used to make campfire s’mores. Lastly, stray away from plastic blade shovels at all costs – an aluminum blade shovel is strong, light and won’t deflect off of stone hard avalanche debris. Do yourself a solid favor and invest in reliable gear – these are life saving devices, after all. Once you own this equipment, make sure to be very familiar with each piece. Practice deploying your probe in your front yard, extending your shovel and moving some snow around, and doing some beacon searches with a friend or at a BCA beacon park. Did I mention to practice religiously?

Watching the light change as you move through the mountains can be magical. Time to rip skins and let gravity do the work.

Other essentials:

  • Head lamp and spare batteries for early mornings or long days
  • Pocket knife and multi tool (Leatherman) for cutting tasks and binding/equipment repair
  • Snow saw (mine stows inside shovel handle) for cutting wood, snow blocks, or doing snow pit tests
  • Voile straps for an infinite number of different uses
  • Paracord (25-50ft) for the Boyscout at heart
  • Spare pole basket (not required; however, poles are useless without them)
  • Binding spare parts repair kit (specific to your bindings)
  • Steel wool – for when a skier friend rips a binding from their ski – stuff some household steel wool in a stripped binding screw hole and tighten the hardware back down – works enough to get you home.
  • Fire source – Lighter/waterproof matches or flint – (a spark will ignite fine steel wool)
  • Fire starter – SOL Tinder Quik or cotton balls coated in Vaseline (housed in a film canister)
  • Emergency blanket or ski tarp (aka rescue sled) in case you have to pull an injured body back to the trail head.
  • Hand warmers for bitter cold days or emergencies
  • First aid kit/spare pain relief (NSAID, Acetaminophen, Antihistamine)
  • SAM splint
  • Athletic tape
  • Toilet paper for obvious, or not so obvious reasons
  • Carabiner(s)
  • Water bottle with rounds of duct tape
  • Zip ties/bailing wire
  • Thermos and flask (optional, but highly recommended for warmth on different levels)
  • Sun protection – face cover, sunglasses, sunscreen/lip balm
  • High energy food/snacks to keep from getting cranky
  • Spare gloves, jacket and layers
  • Cell phone, or communication device/emergency whistle
  • Compass/maps/AIARE Avalanche hand-book


Finally, to lug all of your sick new gear around, a back-country specific back pack will go a long ways for organizing and comfortably carrying the essentials. The size of your pack can vary depending on whether or not you plan on doing single or multi day trips on the snow. A larger volume pack can always be loaded with less gear and cinched down for shorter tours; however, a smaller volume pack is more difficult to fit everything you need for longer trips – definitely something to consider before investing in a good bag. I personally carry a BCA Float 42L airbag pack for additional peace of mind.

Once you’ve sufficiently depleted your checking account and switched to Top Ramen and oatmeal because all your money is in your new gear, it’s important to recap what you’ve got in your bag and organize it in a meaningful way. Most back-country packs have a dedicated rescue or snow tool pocket for carrying your rescue gear and spare parts, while a main compartment can be used for layers, hydration, and provisions for your trek. Keeping your pack organized will make a huge difference when the clock is ticking – know where your rescue pocket is located and practice deploying critical gear before you venture out. A simple layout of your gear will serve as a visual checklist, as well as give you the opportunity to snap a photo and brag to your friends on social media about the sexy new gear you’ve just collected along with the adventure you’re about to embark on.

In addition to all of the techy new bits you get to pick out at your local outfitter, an equally important thing to carry along with you is the knowledge and information you can gain from various local resources. A level one avalanche course (AIARE course list), local backcountry talks, or the American Avalanche Association website can provide invaluable information to backcountry travelers. While checking the news over morning coffee and your social media feed, consider making it a habit to read the avalanche forecast from your local organization. When it comes to traveling in potentially hazardous winter terrain, knowledge is power.

Venturing into the backcountry during the winter months can be an extremely gratifying and self-rewarding experience for yourself and your friends; however, it’s important to go prepared to face any challenge you might have thrown your way. Spending due time up front will allow you to gather the correct equipment and knowledge that not only could save a life, but will inevitably allow you to have a fun and memorable experience on the snow. As our good friend John Muir said, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” So gather your gear, educate yourself, and go home.

A small zippered pouch is very helpful for housing the smaller items and helps keep your pack tidy inside.

A simple layout of your gear will serve as a visual checklist, as well as give you the opportunity to snap a photo and brag to your friends on social media about the sexy new gear you’ve just collected.

about the author

Eric Hockman

From epic backcountry journeys on the mountain bike to splitboarding tours through snow-covered peaks, Eric constantly craves what’s just around the bend. A professional ski tuner and cycling mechanic by trade, he now works for a local cycling company in Golden, where he takes off on the weekends and maxes out his vacation schedule, seeking adventures around the mountains of Colorado and other regions of the country.

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