Nothing is more satisfying or adrenaline-inducing than slaying fresh powder in the heart of the backcountry, but you’ll need the right gear to accomplish your ski objectives. Our detailed backcountry skiing checklist below covers everything from critical touring equipment (skis, boots, bindings, etc.) to recommended clothing, avalanche safety gear, and extras you won’t want to forget. For more information on each product category, many of the headings link to our detailed product round-ups, which are the result of years of testing and opinions. For all of our product recommendations in one place, see our ski gear reviews.
Whether you’re ascending freshly-cut skin track or blowing down the mountain through deep powder, you’ll need a good pair of planks on your feet. In terms of backcountry ski selection, your experience level and terrain preferences will dictate the right width, shape, and weight. A skinnier and lighter ski will be more efficient on the uphills, while fatter and heavier skis offer more stability and float on descents. Our favorite backcountry ski for 2018-2019 is the DPS Wailer 106 Tour1, which balances low weight for an enjoyable climb with good power and stability on the downhill.
Boots arguably are the most important piece of ski gear you’ll own, and choosing the right pair is crucial for all-day warmth and comfort. Similar to skis, the right backcountry boot should be dictated by skiing style, terrain preference, and fit (dialing in fit is super important for boots). Ski mountaineering enthusiasts should look for something with a substantial cuff rotation and low weight, while more downhill-focused skiers will want a stiffer build and sturdier design. Our top overall AT boot for 2018-2019 is the Scarpa Maestrale RS, which offers an impressive combination of uphill and downhill performance.
3. Ski Bindings
Regardless of the skis you choose, you’ll need touring-specific bindings to match. These AT models replace the traditional alpine toe piece with two pins that lock into tech-compatible ski boots, as well as a releasable heel, both of which allow for mobility on the uphill. Salomon’s new S/Lab Shift MNC provides an ideal combination of uphill prowess, downhill performance, and a full range of boot compatibility, making it our top touring binding for this season. And the Marker Kingpin has been a popular option for years that comes in about 7 ounces lighter than the Salomon.
4. Ski Poles
Ski poles help you balance on downhill turns, and even more importantly in the backcountry, they assist in powering up steep hills while skinning. Many backcountry-goers prefer collapsible poles that shorten or lengthen while side-hilling and stow easily while bootpacking. In addition, powder baskets will prevent your poles from sinking deep into the snow on each turn or step. Our top touring pick is the Black Diamond Razor Carbon Pro, a lightweight yet durable option with a strong and easy-to-use adjustment system.
5. Climbing Skins
Climbing skins attach to the bottom of your skis, allowing you to move uphill without sliding back down the slope. Here’s how it works: glue on the backside of the skin attaches to the base of the ski, while the snow-side provides one-way friction. Generally, nylon skins have more traction and thus are better for climbing, while mohair provides superior glide. Keep in mind that skins need to be custom cut to match the width and length of your skis, only exposing the edges at the waist. Cutting skins is a fun DIY project and each pair comes with a set of directions and tools (alternatively, ski shop technicians can cut them quickly and easily).
6. Sunglasses and/or Ski Goggles
Because the surface of the snow is one giant light reflector, eye protection is essential for skiing on both sunny and cloudy days. A quality pair of sunglasses can prevent snow blindness, discomfort from squinting, and even wind burn. In addition, sunglasses will not fog up like goggles on the skin track and work fairly well for skiing down. Some backcountry skiers prefer to bring goggles along for the descent, but we think purpose-built sunglasses are a viable one-stop option for the backcountry.
If you don’t mind carrying goggles in your pack, they certainly are nice for the ride down, and especially during heavy precipitation or in deep powder. When the snow is really falling, you’ll be thankful for quality pair like the Smith I/O ChromaPop, which have interchangeable lenses, great ventilation, and a very comfortable fit. Of course, they’ll come in handy for days at the resort too.
7. Ski Helmet
Wearing a ski helmet technically is optional, but it’s a smart thing to do nevertheless, and especially for the downhills. And given that the market is saturated with lightweight options these days, it makes a lot of sense to carry one. Our favorite option for 2018-2019 is the Salomon MTN Lab Helmet, which is reasonably light at 13.25 ounces, offers solid ventilation, and is rated for climbing too.
8. Ski Backpack
Backcountry skiing requires some serious gear and you’ll need a good pack to house it all. A ski backpack should feel secure and balanced on your back with compression straps for cinching down a load. Additionally, backcountry packs are designed with compartments specifically for avalanche equipment, which is important for safety, organization, and finding your gear quickly during an emergency. For day tours, a pack size of 25 to 35 liters should be adequate, and we love our CiloGear 30Z.
We’re also seeing more and more backpacks with built-in avalanche safety mechanisms, which can greatly increase your chance of survival should you get caught in a slide. Most popular are airbag designs like the Backcountry Access Float 2.0: similar to the way a parachute is deployed while skydiving, an airbag is stowed in the top of the backpack with an accessible pull trigger. When pulled, the airbag will either inflate from an internal fan (more expensive but can be used multiple times) or CO2 cartridge (can only be used once before requiring a refill). These types of packs are very expensive, but worthwhile for those who can afford them or spend serious time in the backcountry.
9. Ski Jacket
The ideal ski jacket largely depends on the temperature, conditions (wind and precipitation), and activity level for that day (serious skiers often have a quiver). But in general, backcountry ski jackets are lighter and more streamlined than their resort-specific counterparts and include both hardshell and softshell options. The Outdoor Research Skyward II offers impressive performance at a reasonable price, and the Arc’teryx Sabre (and women’s Sentinel) is our top-ranked ski jacket overall for those who also ski a lot of days at the resort. Keep in mind that most alpine-centric hardshells make great crossover ski jackets too.
10. Ski Pants
Most resort-bound skiers wear insulated ski pants to keep them warm while sitting on the chairlift, but in the backcountry, this can lead to overheating on the skin track. Instead, our favorite pants for touring are of the waterproof hardshell variety with side zips that allow you to dump excess heat on the go. For warmer days or for folks who tend to heat up quickly, softshell pants can be a great option. For 2018-2019, our top backcountry pick is the Patagonia Descencionist for its high-end performance and quality construction.
A good pair of insulated ski gloves or mittens is crucial for keeping your hands warm and protected in cold winter conditions. All things considered, we prefer gloves for their dexterity, and opt for models that are waterproof, insulated, and designed with grippy palms. Many of our favorite backcountry gloves also have gauntlets that extend up the forearm for more coverage and weather protection—our top pick being the Hestra Heli Glove. We also find it useful to bring along a pair of thin liner gloves for simple motor tasks (adjusting your boots or bindings, grabbing a snack, taking off skins, etc.).
Your next-to-skin layer is designed to both insulate and wick moisture when you sweat. Most baselayers are made of either ultra-soft and odor-resistant merino wool, or durable, less comfortable, and cheaper polyester. When temperatures drop into the teens and below, we typically opt for heavy to midweight baselayers, both on top and bottom. On warmer days, we stick with something lighter. All in all, we like the Smartwool Merino 250 ¼-Zip for its superior comfort, but a synthetic like the Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck will be more durable at the sacrifice of some softness and stink prevention.
In the standard three-layer ski clothing system (shell, midlayer, and baselayer), the midlayer is the key insulator and traps warmth close to your body. Midlayers generally are worn even during high-exertion activities like skinning, so along with their insulating powers, it’s important that they are breathable and resist moisture. Synthetic jackets like the popular Patagonia Nano-Air and Outdoor Research Ascendant are two leading midlayer options for the backcountry, and we prefer this type of jacket over down for active use.
14. Down Jacket
During transitions or snack breaks, you should try your best to retain the heat you generated from skinning uphill or bombing down the slope. The best way is to add a lightweight and packable down jacket that will win out in warmth-to-weight over a synthetic. The Arc’teryx Cerium LT is our favorite down puffy and offers quite a bit of warmth at under 10 ounces, or you can go with a full-on parka like the Arc’teryx Firebee. The decision comes down to the conditions and how much time you’ll be spending exposed. Day trippers may be fine with a lightweight down jacket, while overnight and multi-day excursions likely will require more warmth.
15. Ski Socks
Ski socks are great: they extend up the calf higher than hiking socks and are more comfortable for wearing under ski boots. Additionally, modern ski socks are relatively thin and lightweight (the boot liner is largely responsible for warmth) and have padding in areas prone to rubbing like the shin and toes. In terms of materials, we love merino wool for its luxuriously soft feel and odor-fighting ability, and highly recommend the comfortable and durable Darn Tough Over-the-Calf Padded Light.
You can lose a lot of body heat through your head quickly, so it’s important to keep it covered on cold days. For backcountry skiing, we like to bring a lightweight beanie or buff for the skin track and a warmer beanie for the way down. This way, you can sweat as much as you want on the ascent without worrying about your hat growing cold with moisture on the descent. Alternatively, you can bring a helmet for the ride down, many of which offer a solid amount of warmth and protection from the elements (and you often can close the vents).
At any given ski resort, a team of professionals manages avalanche hazards by bombing and ski-cutting slopes, as well as closing terrain that cannot be controlled. In the backcountry, however, it is up to us to manage the risk. Avalanche gear is critical for assessing snow conditions, and in the unfortunate event that we make a bad decision or get unlucky, helping skiers get out alive. We’ll jump right into the equipment required for now, but please read our important note on avalanche safety later on.
A beacon, also known as a transceiver, is a critical tool for finding someone buried in an avalanche. In the backcountry, it’s imperative to keep it on “transmit” mode so that in the event of an avalanche, the buried beacon can be located by setting others to “receive” mode. As with all avalanche gear, it is important to practice before heading out. The more efficient the search, the greater chance of saving a life.
A beacon can help you pinpoint a small area, but there certainly are limits to the precision of its signal. After locating a buried person with your beacon, you’ll need to continue your search under the snow by using your probe to poke around. With measurement ticks along its body, a probe also is useful for measuring the total depth of the snow and the dimensions of a data pit. In this category, we prefer easy-to-use models like the Black Diamond Quickdraw Tour Probe 240.
A shovel is an essential piece of avalanche gear, both for creating snow-study pits to analyze the snowpack and for digging out an avalanche victim. And on multi-day winter expeditions, your shovel will be invaluable tool for creating snow kitchens, tent sites, and more (see our winter camping checklist for more on this). It’s important to choose a shovel that is tough enough to chop through rock-hard snow, but also light and collapsible enough to fit into a ski backpack. The Black Diamond Deploy is one of our favorites for its compact design and durability, and the Backcountry Access B-1 EXT is an excellent budget choice.
An avalung is an optional device that helps avalanche victims breathe when buried. While many trapped under the snow die of asphyxiation from breathing in their own carbon dioxide, avalungs solve this problem by sending your CO2 behind you, allowing you to breathe while you await rescue. Some companies claim it will give victims up to an extra hour, but it’s not the most comfortable device—you have to keep it in your mouth (like a snorkel) while skiing down.
21. Navigation: Map, App, or GPS
A topographical map always is a good idea for keeping you on track and getting you back to your car safely, especially as you travel into unfamiliar terrain. For day tours, we are huge fans of cell phone apps like Gaia and Topo Maps that detail almost every area in the U.S. and can track your location even without service. GPS devices also have become popular among those who like the extra peace of mind.
Most backcountry skiers stick to day tours, but winter days are short and you’ll need a headlamp in case you get turned around or your afternoon runs unexpectedly long. If it’s particularly cold, consider keeping your headlamp in a pocket close to your body to keep the batteries warm. The Black Diamond Spot and Petzl Actik Core top our list for their combination of brightness, low weight, and durability.
Bring plenty. When it’s cold, you tend to expend more energy than usual just to stay warm. Skinning is a much more intense workout than sitting on a chairlift, and earning your turns means you’re earning your calories, too. We like bars for their convenience and calorie-to-weight ratio, and never complain about carrying a hot thermos of soup or a big sandwich. At the end of the day, it’s not very often that we have food left over.
24. Water Bottles
Unlike backpacking, backcountry skiers rarely have the option of refilling water from a stream or lake—water sources are likely to be frozen in the winter. For a full day in the mountains, two liters usually does the trick. Generally, plastic water bottles like Nalgenes are a great, lightweight choice, and the water shouldn’t freeze as long as it stays close to your body. A water bladder with a hose can be convenient for drinking on the go, but make sure the hose is insulated and specifically-designed for winter use, otherwise it may freeze up quickly. For longer stretches or those who need more water, consider bringing a lightweight backpacking stove for melting snow.
Winter is a special time to be outdoors: landscapes are beautiful and the potential for wildlife viewing is high. We get asked about cameras all the time and there is no simple answer: professional-grade cameras are heavy and expensive, but also take far better photos than point-and-shoots or iPhones. For 2018, the lightest and most compact option relative to image quality is a mirrorless camera, and there are plenty of high-end compacts like Sony’s RX100 V that perform extremely well for their size. For the best of the best, see our article on the best full-frame cameras.
Our list above covers the essentials, but the items below also can be important for a comfortable, fun day of ski touring. Some—like crampons and two-way radios—are up to you and may be dependent on where you’re headed for the day. But we bring along most of these bits and pieces during our big winter outings when we’re miles from the trailhead.
- Lip balm
- First aid kit
- Brimmed hat (for sun)
- Knife or multi-tool
- Crampons/ski crampons (depending on the terrain)
- Inclinometer (to measure slopes)
- Emergency shelter/blanket
- Neck gaiter or face mask
- Two-way radios
First and foremost, we always are in favor of buying at your local ski shop. It’s a great place to meet people and get information, learn about area trails, and support local businesses. If you do decide to buy online, there are a few standout options. We do much of our outdoor gear shopping at REI Co-op, which has a 10% annual dividend for members, over 150 brick-and-mortar stores, and helpful staff. Backcountry.com probably carries the most varied selection of backcountry ski gear and offers free 2-day shipping on orders of $50 of more. And Evo.com is another winter sports specialist that has an extensive selection of backcountry ski gear, a very helpful website in terms of specs and information, and stores in a few select locations around the country (Seattle, Portland, and Denver to date).
Even more important than avalanche gear is training, practice, and self-awareness. Winter can be a wonderful time to recreate, but it can also be very dangerous if you don’t have an understanding of current snowpack conditions and the slopes you plan to ski and traverse. If your adventures will include slopes greater than 30 degrees—both those that you’ll be skiing and those that you’ll be near—you’ll need to be hyper aware of your surroundings and know how to use your avalanche safety gear. In addition, we strongly recommend taking an avalanche course (level 1 at the least) from a reputable organization like AIARE, which offers country-wide classes throughout the winter and early spring. We hope you get outside this winter, but please do it safely!