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Backcountry 101

Need a few basics? Here's a few steps to help, but know this is not a comprehensive guide.

Step 1 - AIARE

Hopefully you've heard of AIARE, but if not, this is a great starting point. Whether your friends have taken you out or you're completely new to the idea of backcountry touring: take an AIARE. You'll find courses hosted by the Community groups listed under this site's Community page. But for a comprehensive course search, please look into these resources:

Step 1.5 - Backcountry Courses (optional step)

I didn't take one, but perhaps I would have had I known. Many people begin their sense for backcountry skiing by heading out the backcountry gates at a resort. But, many of us would like a more intentional approach. If you do want this intentional approach, which could also connect you with potential partners, then here are some backcountry skiing courses to look into in order to jump start your backcountry ski experiences:

Step 2 - Partners

Partnerships can be dependent on a variable mix of ski route interests, risk tolerances, and skill levels. Some folks have dedicated partners, while others ski with many groups: the important thing in finding your partners is to communicate your comfort level and interests. Communication is an important skill to develop in any partnership. And keep in mind: We're all learning, including experienced backcountry skiers. Keeping a regular line of communication open during tours is a great way to make good decisions.

So where do we find partners? Many suggest your AIARE course will introduce you to potential long term partners. But maybe your schedule or route interests differ from your AIARE course mates. If that's the case, community organizations and forums like the ones listed on this site's Communtiy page are a great place to start. Joining an organization will introduce you to an array of folks with different skill sets while giving you a chance to be part of a broader alpine community. Additionally, forums like TAY can be a source of both partners and current beta.

Step 3 - Go skiing!

You've taken an AIARE, found partners and you're ready to go skiing. Now you can look through the Route Guide for tours that sound like a fun way to explore the backcountry. Additionally: check NWAC forecasts, NWAC Obs and community forums for beta. 

Gear you'll need

Okay, you've signed up for an AIARE and you have partners ready to head out: what do you need? Here's a brief overview of gear you will need to head out on a tour. You can find this gear at your local ski shop, or major retailers like REI. Some retailers will also provide more guidance about the specifics of different gear items.

  • Beacon

    • Beacon, also called a Transceiver, is a battery powered transmitter that backcountry users wear in order to constantly send a signal of their location (you'll hear partners ask that you're in "Send mode.") If an avalanche happens, partners will switch to "Search mode" in order to locate a skier that's been pulled under an avalanche. This equipment should even be worn if you're entering backcountry gates at the resort.

  • Shovel

    • From rescues to digging pits in order to assess the snowpack, you'll need one of these in your pack. Each partner in your group should carry a shovel to ensure each person above an avalanche can dig someone out. It's also useful for winter camping setups.

  • Probe

    • A long stick that breaks down like a tent pole, backcountry skiers use probes once they've narrowed down the search for a skier via their transmitter. It has measurements along the shaft, so it can also be useful for measuring the different depths of layers in the snowpack.

  • Skins

    • Often made of nylon, these stick to the bottom of your skis to enable uphill travel.

  • AT Bindings

    • Ski bindings that have an uphill mode in which you release the heel in order to walk uphill with the toe still clipped in view pins. You'll transition at the top of your route by locking down the heel and the toe. There are a few varieties of this style of binding so make sure to check Boot compatibility. 

  • Skis

    • Perhaps an obvious piece of gear being on a ski website. But many discussions will consider the weight of your ski selection since it will impact your time uphill. There are trade-offs with downhill performance if you go super light, but finding a good balance for your uphill and downhill enjoyment is important to consider. Also, keep in mind the weight of other gear like your boots and bindings: skis are just another part of the equation.

  • Poles

    • There are collapsable ski poles and bamboo ski poles. And you'll find grips that run down your pole to help with different hand positions as you work uphill. Personally, I still just use a cheap set cause all this gear is expensive enough and I've seen enough expensive ski poles break that I'm fine with cheapo aluminums. That said... I do want some bamboo poles.

  • Backpack

    • You will probably want a pack in the 30 Liter - 32 Liter range in order to carry everything. Nicely designed packs have separate compartments to store wet gear/tools while keeping extra clothing layers and food in a dry compartment. Additionally, it is nice to have ski carry straps on the pack in case you simply need to bootpack sections of a route.

  • Voile Straps

    • Such a useful piece of gear! They work for attaching things to packs, carrying skis, or potential binding breakdowns. While not an "essential", it probably should be. Plus, they're not too expensive at various outdoor gear shops which will likely have shop branded straps available for a reasonable price.

  • Food

    • This isn't resort skiing where you stop for lunch mid-day. Stash some trail mix or granola bars in youe hip belt and pack a lunch with extra snacks. You'll want to replensih calories and water throughout a tour.

  • Headlamp

    • Winter features the shortest days. Make sure you bring a headlamp, or better yet a bicycle light to ensure you always have enough light to get back to the car.​

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