Instead of asking yourself what equipment you need to ski or snowboard off piste, perhaps you would be better off asking yourself what backcountry ski gear you need to ski safely off piste. Skiing or snowboarding outside of the managed slopes is exhilarating and exciting but it is also full of risk.
That’s obviously part of the fun but you need to make sure that you are protected in case something should happen. Fun and thrills can quickly turn in to tragedy in the unpredictable world of off piste skiing and snowboarding, with avalanches, hidden crevices and buried rocks being just some of the dangers lurking in the snow.
Before we get into the backcountry ski gear you need, the most important thing you will be taking with you off piste is local knowledge and experience. You should never set off without a qualified guide or a member of the group that has plenty of local knowledge and experience. You should also not head backcountry on an independent adventure unless all members have attended an avalanche training course.
Here is a guide to what equipment you should have to snowboard or ski safely off piste, as well as a few suggestions for other kit that might just save your life should your trip not go according to plan. Have this stuff in your backpack and you’re giving yourself the best chance of a safe and enjoyable off piste experience.
Backcountry ski gear – basics and essentials
If heading off for a backcountry skiing day you need to take as much food and water as you can safely carry including emergency rations. If you are only due to be backcountry for a short period this is less important, but you should at the very least take emergency energy food and water, plus of course a first aid kit just in case things go wrong.
Obviously you’ll need a good set of boots and skis (or board), with wider freeride skis or snowboard being preferable as they handle deep powder better. Some tools to adjust your kit and spares in case of damaged equipment should also be in your backpack – cable ties are often a good way to temporarily fix boots and bindings.
Depending on the type of off piste skiing you are doing you may need touring bindings or a splitboard. These are required for ‘proper’ backcountry skiing where there aren’t lifts to help with the uphills. With touring bindings or a splitboard and skins you can ski up the slope – just be prepared for some hard work.
You’ll need a backpack to carry your backcountry ski gear but no ordinary rucksack will do. It should be strong with a waist and chest strap for stability but also to avoid it being torn off should you be hit by an avalanche – it’s no good if it gets ripped off and carried down the mountain without you. ABS backpacks are designed to be four or five times more tear resistant than normal backpacks for this reason.
You will of course need an avalanche transceiver. Traditionally this should be worn under your outer layer or midlayer to avoid it being lost in an avalanche, although these days people are putting them in a pocket with a leash. The key is never to be separated from it, so don’t put it in a jacket pocket or backpack as you may take these off. If you get buried the transceiver is the only thing that’s going to save your life. It emits a pulse which can be tracked, helping rescuers to locate you.
A snow shovel is also an must-have part of kit. It is used to help check snow conditions but also for digging yourself and others out of trouble, plus it can also be used to dig yourself a shelter if things go wrong and you end up spending the night. A probe is also essential and is used to help you locate anyone buried in an avalanche.
Backcountry ski gear – the extras
In recent years, more tools and kit has been developed to keep you safe when enjoying the backcountry. The Avalanche ‘ABS’ airbag is the biggest most prominent, it uses compressed gas to inflate a pair of bags that increase your surface area to prevent you from getting completely buried should the worst happen.
This is increasingly becoming a must have for off piste skiers, and although not a legal requirement – like some of the other backcountry ski gear – if it saves your life then it will be the best investment you ever make.
Also popular are two-way radios for communicating within your group. Shouting and gesturing will not do particularly as you will be descending one at a time, and you may need to report back on conditions or potential dangers.
Blister pack radios are popular but generally only work within line of sight and certainly won’t be suitable for calling in help in an emergency. Be sure to take a fully charged mobile phone, and to have emergency numbers for the resort stored in your contacts – although be aware that you might be freeriding outside network coverage.
It is up to you but with the increased risk of falling when freeriding and a much higher chance of hitting submerged rocks it is recommended to also wear a helmet. Not only will a lid protect you in the case of an avalanche but also in anything from an innocuous fall to a full blown cartwheel.
Backcountry skiing and snowboarding provides plenty of thrills and part of that comes from the element of danger. But pack your bags with the above and you’ll have a better chance of talking up your off piste adventures in a bar at the end of the day, rather than being an unfortunate news item.
If you like this post then take a read of our Top 10 off-piste ski resorts to find out where to go for your next backcountry ski adventure.