Backcountry Ski Equipment is specific to the sport, is highly evolved, and can be basically broken down into two groups: freeheel-Telemark and fixed heel-Randonee. Telemark boots have a flexible toe and Randonne Boots have a stiff sole for the entire length ( for the most part). Telemark Bindings leave the heel free during the ascent and descent while Randonee has a free heel for the ascent and then fixes for the descent. Both telemark and randonne boots and bindings come in a variety of makes and models most prevalent in the U.S. and Canada being Dynafit, Scarpa, Garmont, and Lowa, for boots and Dynafit, Fritschi, Silvretta, Naxo, Black Diamond, G3, Karhu, and Voile, for randonee and telemark bindings.
Choosing between a Randonee and Freeheel setup is likely the most important style decision to be made when gearing up for backcountry skiing. If a skier is already better at telemark or parallel turns then this may drive the decision, but there are many factors to consider. Weight conscious back country ski tourers are inclined towards the Dynafit binding and boot combination as it is by far the lightest backcountry ski setup. Telemarkers can use their ski area equipment in an easy crossover, and backcountry freeriders want a beefy setup and prefer Fritschi and Naxo bindings. So first get a handle on your priorities and then do more research here.
I recommend releasable bindings for all backcountry activity. Whether tele or randonne there are good options for having a fully releasable binding with an adjustable DIN setting. Karhu makes the best models of releasable tele binding on the market. For the all the reasons we want a releasable binding it is even more important in the backcountrybackcountry. I have used both Fritschi and Dynafit randonnee bindings and prefer the Dynafit for touring comfort (the pivot point is further back and therefore more natural), light weight, and sensitivity. Fritschis are obviously better for hard riding and aerials, but for everyday backcountry specific use go with Dynafit. More on this later.
For boots, I recommend a good fit which is best achieved with a thermoflex liner. Intuition makes the best heat moldable liners in many people's opinion including mine. I felt like I had a totally different boot when I invested in a pair of these, plus they are very warm. For the backcountry, fit them for comfort with a good sized toe cap and do not tighten the boots down too much while molding them. Beware of performance junkie 20 year old salesmen.
Backcountry skis distinguish themselves by generally being lighter and softer than their ski area counterparts. All around skis perform well in most conditions and have medium dimensions and moderate stiffness, whereas powder skis are longer and wider and softer overall and perform best in deep, untracked snow. Spring skis are similar to all around skis except that they are generally sized shorter and narrower to allow better edge control on spring corn and hardpack as well as offering a weight savings. Choose them a bit stiffer especially if you are downsizing. Generally speaking, choose a ski to match the conditions you most regularly see backcountry skiing. If you end up with multiple skis you will find yourself choosing the lightest weight ski that will perform well in the conditions you are heading out to enjoy. Most people choose an all around ski which they can use in most conditions and will perform admirably well in a variety of backcountry skiing situations.
All backcountry skis need a pair of ski skins for climbing to the top. Skins were historically made from seal skins, angorra goats, and other convenient animals, until recent develoments in Nylon technologies afforded a man made alternative. Buy skins with tip and tail kits at full width to the tip of your ski. Trim the excess of the sidecut according to the manufacturer's guidlines and you will have a pair of climbing machines. Whatever you do, do not try to shortcut owning a good pair of skins that fit your skis; following this advice will save you and your partners much suffering on the uphill trails out in the cold.
Backcountry ski poles are lightweight and adjustable. Some poles convert into snow probes (more later). In powder season powder baskets are chosen while in spring hardpack, it is safe to choose smaller hardpack baskets. Adjustability is nice as it allows the user to change the length of the poles to fit the changing conditions of both uphill travel as well as the downhill schush.
After you have geared up with skis, bindings, boots and poles there is still a laundry list of equipment necessary to get you safely and comfortably on your way into the backcountry. Let's stay focused on the specialized equipment before discussing the clothing wardrobe.
Backcountry Skiing Backpack:
This item is as important as the contents you put in it and should reflect a size capable of carrying all of your gear for a day trip plus. For daily use choose a lightweight pack that fits right, has a couple of pockets, a shovel stow, a hydration/probe pole pocket, a light frame sheet, and you like. The size should be about 3000 cubic inches. I have used great packs from Go-Lite, Gregory, DaKine, and the North Face and have coveted packs by Blackdiamond, Backcountry Access, Dana Design, and Arcteryx. Buy a pack that you will be happy with for five years and before you plunk down the coin make sure you can fit all your gear inside it comfortably. There is nothing worse than having that helme bulging into your backbone as you hike up the hill. Your backpack should not have to weigh more than 3 lbs, and lightweight specialists like Backcountry access and Go-lite have superlite models that function and hold up well if taken care of properly.
Lets take a look now inside that backcpack. In my Go-lite pack I store my Life-link shovel handle, snow saw, and probe in the hydration sleeve. At the bottom of my pack resides my Giro Nine helmet with Outdoor Research balaclava and Smith Goggles tucked inside. Next to the helmet for the full day is a JetBoil stove with tea bag and soup mix packed into the unit. To fill out the bottom I carry the Patagonia Spectre pullover full storm shell and I may have my Outdoor Research overmitts and a smart-wool light weight t-shirt. On top of the helmet rides my Outdoor Research half liter thermos, a Marmot Down vest, Patagonia's Micro-Puff Parka, and the blackdiamond glide-lite skins.Tucked in on the side is a Black Diamond avalung. Riding in the shovel pocket is the blade only. In the backpocket I carry a couple of Clif bars, an Adams PB and Nutella sandwich, an original leatherman, a small first aid kit and firestarter in a Ziploc bag, and I store my Ortovox beacon here when not wearing it on the entire tour.This pocket works well for holding the map as well. The top pocket holds a bag of gorp, a Recta compass/inclinometer, a Rite in the Rain weatherproof journal, mechanical pencil, snowmetrics snow thermometer, snow brush, Petzl micro headlamp, and sunglasses. There are waistbelt pockets on my Go-lite pack that I carry my GZone cell phone in as well as attach a small Suunto thermometer. One of the pockets is ripped now so I do not put anything there! Attached to the shoulder strap and hanging by my waist is an Outdoor Research liter-sized insulated water bottle holder for access without removing the pack. When skiing downhill I put this item in the pack for streamlining. This pack has side zips so I can access gear without undoing the top pouch. It also has a simple lightweight side ski carrying setup that does not interfere with accessing the inside of the pack. I have been using it very hard for three seasons now and other than a few wear holes which are patched it is performing as well as on day one. Phew, that is a bunch of stuff to carry. That is why I recommend a bigger pack and a lightweight pack. Some of these items can be left out for shorter, safer tours: Jetboil, thermos, helmet, avalung, probe, saw, cell phone, thermometer, notebook, and inclinometer. I recommend always carrying extra warm layers, first aid kit, firestarter, snowshovel, map and compass, and extra food. Since we rely on movement to keep us warm on tours, should you ever have to deal with any accident, the cold will quickly become your enemy and you will require the food, firestarter, warmclothes, and shovel to dig a snow shelter to survive hypothermia. In this case a JetBoil will make an unplanned night out fairly comfortable. Dehydration can sap much energy and leave us prone to hypothermia.
Dressing in layers is the fundamental principle behind staying warm but not overheating. Drive to the trailhead in a cool car with just enough layers to keep you warm. Throw on your warm up parka before heading outside the house and leave it on until you are thoroughly warm in the car or from the skin up the trail. As soon as your are quite warm stop and pack away the parka, mitten or glove shells, and neck gaiter.
In the morning I dress in a pair of heavy weight wool longjohn bottoms from Ullfrotte or Ibex and a Smartwool t-shirt and Ibex wool zip neck long sleeve. Before heading outside I put on a pair of heavyweight Wigwam Hiker socks, LL Bean insulated pac boots, softshell pants from Mammut or Patagonia, and a lighweight Cloudveil softshell jacket over the base layer(s). Over this I put on the Patagonia Micropuff jacket and I wear a pair of insulated work gloves until I depart on the tour. A wool hat knit by my wife sits on my head and I wear a Smartwool neckgaiter. With all these clothes on I drive to the trailhead with the heat on low. If I overheat driving, I stop and remove the Parka, hat, and neck gaiter. At the trailhead I switch into a pair of lighterweight ski socks from Smartwool or Bridgedale, and I wear produce bags over my socks to keep my Intuition boot liners from getting wet from my sweaty feet. I try to have put my skins on my skis at home in the warmth of my house. I leave the work gloves in the car and with light liner gloves, Cloudveil gloves or Dachstein wool mitts I hit the trail. In my pack is a down sweater or vest, mitten shells, balaclava and storm shell for the ridgetop winds or deepening cold. With all this clothes and equipment it pays to have the lightest weight possible clothing and gear. From skis and boots you can save ten pounds by going lighter. Another ten pounds can be saved as well by investing in lightweight clothes, pack, and contents. Losing this twenty pounds will make for a more enjoyable outing and allow you to help break trail for the others in your party.
The basic recap might read: Heavyweight baselayer (unless Spring touring or temps near freezing then substitute lightweight) bottoms and tops- wool or synthetic. Wool smells better after a couple years, modulates heat better, and is biodegradable, but it is a tad heavier and more expensive. And don't mess with the system by wearing cotton boxers, briefs or panties, they make these in silk, wool and capilene. A soft shell or hard shell pant depending on conditions (softshell better for all but very cold or wet conditions). A softshell jacket, down vest or sweater, lightweight hooded parka, and finally a storm shell completes the layer system. The basic combination is two layers for the legs (unless below 0F then add another base layer), two base layers depending on temperature, a lightweight windbreaker/softshell, vest, parka, and storm shell. Don't forget the gloves, overmitts, balaclava and knit hat.
Obvious Tip: When organizing for a day skiing pack your bags the night before, and do your double check then as well as in the morning. Lay your baselayers out so they are easy to find in the dark and get your coffee ready to go. The more you do in preparation the easier your morning chores will be. As for me its midnight I am planning to ski with Jenny tomorrow and I have to finish packing my bags and skinning up my skis!
Retro skiers and those on a tight budget can find much of this clothing and equipment in the Goodwill type stores at your favorite overpriced ski area or regional supply center including Army Navy stores.The basics include non-cotton longjohns, mid to heavyweight wool pants, wool socks, wool boxers (or none for retro!), wool t-shirt, longsleeve shirt, and zip neck sweater, add a wool jacket, wool balaclava and hat, and those famous Dachstein mitts and you are going to be warm even when wet. The one item a retro skier should have hidden in the Army surplus pack is a storm jacket in case you encounter wet or windy conditions. And maybe a down vest.Well fitted boots should not be compromised, though used ones are possible to find especially as clearance demos at retail shops in the spring. Same goes with skis. Remember though that you want to be happy with your equipment, rather than casting it aside shortly after purchase because it just did not fit, ski well, stick to your skis, adjust properly or any other problem. This could be the end of your backcountry lifestyle if the first few experiences are frought with gear problems in the cold with impatient partners.
GEAR FOR SALE: Page dedicated to used or unwanted gear.
Gear Review** Patagonia Down Sweater. You have seen it this winter at the ski area in the backcountry and at the bar and in church. Weighing in at under a pound, filled with top quality 800 weight down and packing to the size of a melon in its own inside pocket what is there not to like? For me, I will be saving mine for the backcountry, mostly. While not the definitive answer to bitter cold this layer serves well where the vest used to but with the addition of arm insulation and exceptional lightweight. If you are in the market for a warmth layer that will work all year round this may be your answer. It has two hand warmer pockets and the inside pack pocket. Bring it on your next trip and leave the vest behind. The down sweater wears well under a softshell or over top as the final layer as it has good wind shedding ability. With lightweight fabric beware of the trees and rocks however. Patagonia offers a full line of top quality products and their outlet store in Dillon provides Montanans with an economical location for purchase
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February 8, 2008- First Gear Review: Cloudveil Inertia Peak Jacket. Cloudveil delivers again with lighweight, stretchy softshell performance. From the tightening neck cuff to the trim fit and water repellency, the Inertia Jacket has become my favored second layer. Its breathability is remarkable and the storm shedding fabric keeps me dry even in a snowstorm. The exterior chest pocket is a valuable feature in which I like to carry a lens cloth or ski scraper. I have found wearing this layer over my base layer best for backcountry, uphill sojourns. It is often then fitted over a down sweater or vest and worn as my exterior layer for the downhill. At 150 bucks it should last numerous years and many adventures. I chose a jacket without a hood looking for a lighter weight jacket for all but the stormiest days in the backcountry. For full storm days I still prefer a hooded softshell for the extra protection. For the full line at Cloudveil. You will not be disappointed.