A Brief Overview of Backcountry Skiing Gear

2014-12-22 18:40:15.000 – Mike Dorfman, Weather Observer/IT Specialist


It’s amazing the difference a couple of weeks makes! The current snow coverage here on the summit compares to what was here mid-winter last year! Even though there’s a large rain event headed our way this week, hopefully New Hampshire’s deep snowpack will survive. Ample natural snow, along with prime snow-making conditions have allowed ski areas across New Hampshire to build up quite the base of snow, which will hopefully stay solid through the rain event that is due to arrive Wednesday. We could see Bretton Woods making plenty of snow two days ago as the sun was setting.

I’m an avid backcountry skier and have been skiing in New England for much of my life. People who grew up skiing in the backcountry out West think that there isn’t much backcountry skiing in the East outside Tuckerman Ravine. While Tucks is one of the steepest and snowiest places in the East, there aren’t too many mid-winter days you can safely venture into the bowl without having your head on a swivel. Backcountry skiers are extremely protective of their secret backcountry stashes so, while I know a few different locations outside of the ever-so-popular White Mountains, I won’t mention them here. Suffice it to say, even on a wintry day when you would never consider venturing above tree line, there are many other places you can safely go to enjoy freshly-fallen snow.
While backcountry skiing may save on lift tickets, there is a whole quiver of backcountry gear that will equivalently empty a skier’s wallet. From head to toe, here are some details on the type of equipment backcountry skiers can’t go without:
Backcountry skis are defined by what you’re intending to ski. Short skis perform well in most areas of the backcountry, whether you’re doing kick-turns down (or up) an extremely steep slope or navigating through natural glades. A few different types of Alpine Touring bindings can be mounted onto these skis, depending on your desires for cost, weight, and durability. The most important part about these bindings is that they give the skier the ability to lift their heel off their ski and allowing their toe to pivot around a connection attached to the ski. This allows the skier to easily trudge uphill with their skis on their feet.
Along with skis and bindings, a pair of climbing skins is what allows the ski to slide forward and uphill, but not backwards and downhill. Consisting of either natural or synthetic fibers pointing in one direction, the skin acts a lot like a snake’s mouth; the fibers point downhill to engage and stick in the snow when the ski is pushed back, and they disengage and slide along the snow when the ski is pushed forward.
If you’re heading into avalanche terrain, there’s a whole additional set of gear that is necessary to keep you safe. The basic avalanche rescue equipment consists of a beacon, probe, and shovel. An avalanche beacon has two modes: emitting and receiving. When a skier travels on or near avalanche terrain, always have the beacon on transmit mode. If someone is buried in an avalanche, everyone in the party turns their beacon off send and onto receive, so that the receiving beacons can detect the emitting beacon on the buried person. After narrowing down the person’s location, the probes come out to try to find where, specifically, the person is located under the snow. Once the probe hits the buried person, shoveling commences as quickly as possible to get the person out and get their airway free of snow. Although this process sounds simple and straightforward, even professionals who have years of experience can have a hard time with it. The most important thing to keep a skier safe in the backcountry isn’t knowing how to use the gear necessary for a rescue. Rather, it’s important to have the knowledge and experience so that you don’t need to use the gear. This is a brief review of this process and isn’t anywhere near adequate training to use this equipment. If you’re interested in learning more, take an avalanche course to get hands-on training from someone who has experience in this field.

Whether in the backcountry or the frontcountry, this year has been great so far for skiing! Whether you’re skiing the greens at Bretton Woods or Mittersill at Cannon Mountain, there’s something out there for you right now! Time to get out and enjoy it while it lasts!


Before you can even think about venturing out into the backcountry on skis, you’ll need extensive front-country skiing experience. So head to the slopes and get practicing!


Mike Dorfman, Weather Observer/IT Specialist

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