With the changing of the seasons, I like to remind myself what I’ve been carting around.
My “overnight” bag
Huge, thick trash bag
Two-person emergency bag
Three different ways to start a fire – I’ve used my stove to light a fire during an unexpected night out. My stove was the difference between a wet, miserable night and an interesting adventure.
Length of cord
Add enough clothes/layers to keep me, and my son, alive in the emergency bag for the night. This usually isn’t more than a back up shell, ultralight down pants, spare jacket and some booties.
My first aid kit:
General, backcountry first aid kit – scissors and moleskin are a great way to make new friends…
Hot packs for hands and feet – essential for doing anything with kids, always carry in my pocket when I ski
Tourniquet with my belt as back up – insurance against having someone bleed out in front of me. I also carry in my car and under my bike saddle.
Field dressing and elastic bandage
Water purification tablets (back up to the LifeStraw)
Pulse oximeter (batteries separate as they corrode if left in the unit)
Selection of meds including antihistamine & high dose aspirins – I carry albuterol at the top of my pack
I don’t carry an epipen in Colorado but do carry one when I’m near the ocean. I have a jellyfish allergy that sent me to hospital a few years back.
When I’m on snow, add a high-quality metal shovel.
Knife matched to what I’m going to be doing and the local wildlife. I have a SOG Seal Pup mounted upside down on my left backpack strap, the sheath lets me carry a multitool.
Gloves on, hands out of pockets => family policy as long as my kids can remember. I like leather sailing gloves on rock and mixed terrain.
When I’ll be out of cellphone range add InReach satellite communicator – always tracking me with 10-minute pings when I’m alone. Carried in the top pocket of my pack & backed up with a lanyard and quickdraw.
The InReach is an easy way to send messages home, regardless of location. I took a course from a heart-attack survivor who called in an evac on his unit. Small price to pay for the comfort it gives my family.
Zipped, exterior pockets – I like to wear mountain bike shorts, year round, as the pockets are great for quick access to my phone, which I use for navigation and photos.
This is the gear for when I don’t expect to stay out.
Lots of articles about the pandemic nudging newbies into the backcountry. With that in mind, I thought I’d share a handful of thoughts that should be front and center of your mind.
Here’s a weird stat – attending an avalanche safety course is correlated with avalanche fatalities. In Colorado, we even had a course get swept.
I have a theory – it may be because the techniques taught don’t work very well.
Avoidance is the only safe strategy for avalanche terrain – at my last avy class, we carefully dug four pits on the same slope. Each pit gave a different snapshot of the slope. None agreed – hands down the best lesson of the course.
Don’t trust a pit.
Do know your slope angle. Caltopo.Com is a great research tool => check “slope angle shading” as a “Map Overlay”.
Even if you are not on a slope, you can get killed from above. I was reminded of that because I read every single accident report on the CAIC’s website.
Such a great site – it’s a shame we don’t see the lives saved and accidents avoided. The CAIC team do very good work.
A Better Place To Learn
One of the best developments of the last few years is resorts opening their terrain to uphill skiing. Lots of positive impact from this:
You can travel light and choose your effort => typically, with a backcountry setup and avy gear, the slope chooses your effort.
You benefit from the resort’s avy control and grooming.
There’s usually a parking lot below you and other skiers around you.
You can follow your uphill effort with a couple hours of lift-assisted turns – making turns after a long climb is a different type of fitness. It reminds me of running off the bike.
The last point is fundamental. It will take forever to learn your turns in the backcountry. There isn’t enough opportunity to make turns.
If you want to become proficient then 100 days on snow, split 50/50 between alpine/uphill, focus on tress/steeps/bumps on the resort. Two seasons of that protocol, with a year-round strength program, and you’ll be decent. Four seasons and you could be skiing like an instructor.
Maybe you don’t want to be a great skier. It does take a lot of time!
What follows will help you enjoy yourself and avoid unforced errors.
In the backcountry, if you get wet and lose your ability to move then you will find yourself in a survival situation.
My family thinks I’m an absolute nut about shelter from the wind and not getting damp. That’s because they’ve never found themselves in an unplanned survival situation!
Shovel, puffy in a dry bag, sil-tarp, headlamp, spare batteries => don’t die because you left a few pounds at home.
I once had to start a fire on top of my stove to keep myself from freezing. I was trying to ski from Silverthorne to Winter Park and found myself at the bottom of a snowy valley. Day light was running short and I came to a river swollen with spring run off. Running the risk of getting soaked, solo, seemed stupid so I went to Plan B. The ability to hunker down, light a fire and sleep turned a potential survival situation into a moderately entertaining adventure. I retraced my steps in the morning.
Don’t want to carry safety gear? Easy, skin at the resort.
Buy a middle of the road, lightweight touring setup then ski it at the resort. This was the best decision I made at the start of my backcountry career. My setup didn’t do anything “just right” but it let me figure things out.
Many resorts will allow you to practice in lower-stakes, but realistic, backcountry conditions by skinning up through the trees before the lifts start spinning.
Microspikes – I use them year-round on steep dirt and snow.