A Day Kit for Backcountry Skiing

After having dodged the bullet of a few readers about coming up with a kit list for day skiing in the backcountry using off-the-shelf gear, I finally caved. I’m neck deep in winter gear testing this year, and it’s been fun, and enlightening (no pun intended) to see the products that are not only designed to shave weight, but really work.

Here are my picks for ’06.

Skis. Goode Carbon 82’s. I’m skiing on 166’s this year (I’m 5’8" & 155 lbs) mounted with Dynafit TLT Comforts and lovin’ it. Semi-fats that weigh less than a kilo at this length is unheard of. They replace Dynafit Carve Lites (and their awful Tri-Step binding toe pieces that I mounted on them). The 82’s are an all (OK, mostly) carbon ski with a soft(er) tip and tail. That means they turn beautifully in powder. They also have longitudinal ribs for torsional stiffness for hanging edges in crud and ice. Right. A powder and an ice ski? OK, it does work, but you better change your style. Some tips for making these skis work for you: lighten up your boot, they are easy to overpower, and ski aggressively forward in the crud. You’ll never "go back" as they say.

Boots. Boots need to match skis. The 82’s are light, they are no place for a four buckle boot. I’m skiing TLT700’s on them, and that’s a smidge too much. I think the TLT 4 Light and Race would be better options, and for light touring and downhilling low angles, my MLT4’s with Thermofits are a dream – a combo that’s even lighter than the TLT 4 Race boots.

Poles. Life-Link Carbon Pro Guides (14 oz) are my off-the shelf choice, but I don’t actually ski them anymore, having switched over to the 06-07 Stix Pro BC poles at 9 oz/pr, a single piece brutally stiff carbon pole with foam grip, wrist strap, and ski basket, to be launched in fall 06.

Pack. Day ski packs from the major manufacturers pretty much all suck. Having had gear stripped out of my "secure" attachment points in a slide or crash, I don’t accept anything that can’t keep my probe and shovel inside. My favorite rig is an outside zippered pocket a la GoLite Lift-Less. Too bad the pocket isn’t tall enough for probe and handle. The GoLite Powder 8 works if you strip off all the outside stuff, but it’s a little big for OB. The BD Frenzy 18 has it dialed in pretty well – if it fits. But as long as you don’t need a parka, it’s pretty tough to beat the Life-Link Boundary Pack for the gate-accessed backcountry. It’s simple, durable, and it works.

Parka. C-c-c-old days and longer tours demand something extra. My two hot picks: MontBell Thermawrap Parka (14 oz but lousy tiny coil zippers wholly unsuitable for winter, be prepared – but 14 oz for a full-zip synth? Right on!) and the beautiful Cloudveil Bivouac – 15 oz, down, and one of the most water resistant "breathable" shells I’ve seen. They did that one right.

Probe. Ortovox Carbon 200 if you can cope with a shorty, or the Life-Link Carbon 246 for that much more. Both are less than 6 oz and burly enough for stout debris.

Shovel. SnowClaws are great, but be prepared to trade with your as-yet-convinced and cautious partner. To avoid carrying their monster Voile’s, the BCA Tour (sans probe and handle extension) is a good bet. Ditch the webbing and drill holes in the blade to bring it in at a pound.

Skins. Ascensions are hard to beat for climbing ability, but they are dead dog weight in your pack. Glidelites by BD are the lightweight standard, but BCA Low-Fats grab the gram-shaving edge. Their limitations: a poor cold-weather glue (but easier to take off) and heavy tip-and-tail clips. If you have fat skis, ditch the tail. In any case, replace the tip with a length of 2.5mm AirCore Pro Spectra Rope. My favorite tip from Mike Clelland!: forget about the 3-4 inch overhang of skin-on-skin at the tip. Trim it to an inch and staple it (use a heavy duty stapler). And, don’t skimp on width. Trim-to-ski-shape is the way to go to keep from sliding.

Helmet. I don’t wear a foam "bike helmet" climbing for the same reason I don’t wear one skiing: lack of impact resistance. So-called "superlight" helmets have miserable impact ratings, but somehow, they fulfill some contrived requirement invented by an international organization known only by its acronyms rather than by its personality. It’s no different with ski helmets: foam is invading (contaminating) this market as well. Backcountry skiers may do better by saving weight elsewhere rather than their dome, to better survive the avalanche in the first place. My choice: not the race-qualified Dynafit Race Pro (at 310g, perhaps the lightest ski helmet on the market), but the Sweet Rooster (400g, all-carbon).

Most Important Necessities. GPS (for speed back to the gate in a whiteout), Clarity Wipes (for seeing the gate), and a firestarting kit (for when you can’t find the gate).