Backcountry Essentials

Do you know what you're going to need the next time you venture into the backcountry? SOL's Chris Hansen goes overthe items that you absolutely must have before you duck out.

As with anything that eventually achieves main-stream status, there is almostalways a counter-revolution trying to take it back to its roots. Such isthe case with snowboarding, and those roots originally took hold in thebackcountry. Whether it’s the eternal search for fresh snow, skyrocketinglift-ticket prices or the main-stream’s desire for a hip, new venue, backcountrysnowboarding is quickly becoming all the rage.

Getting into the backcountry can be as simple as hiking out of bounds forsome untracked powder or as involved as a multi-day tour, but most do itone day at a time. Assuming you have the proper equipment for snowboardingat the area, there are only a few essential items a snowboarder must acquirefor the backcountry.

Your first step into the backcountry should be superseded by another life-savingstep: take an avalanche course. It will get you ready for the backcountry,introducing you to aspects of the outdoors and snow characteristics you maynot have considered before. A good course will familiarize you with the properequipment and how to use it. It may also introduce you to some prospectivebackcountry partners.

The clothing you wear is the first key to comfort and survival in thebackcountry. Some fashion-oriented snowboard clothing just won’t cut it inless-than-desirable conditions. Dress in layers and use clothing that insulateswell and dries quickly. Loosely translated: No Cotton! The simplest effectivecombination is usually polypropylene underwear and an insulating layer ofpile covered with a waterproof/breathable shell.

The item that will take most effort to buy is the backpack. There are manyexcellent packs on the market within a broad price range. The optimum packshould carry your board secure and stable, allow enough room (but not toomuch room) for essential items, and fit and carry comfortably enough to useall day. Research them carefully and pick the right pack for you, becauseif carrying your board and all your stuff is a painful event, you probablywon’t enjoy your backcountry experience to the fullest.

Now that you have a pack, what to carry inside? On any trip into the backcountrythe common list of ten essentials is a good place to start. According tothe fifth edition of Mountaineering:The Freedom of the Hills by The Mountaineers, they are as follows:


  • Map

  • Compass

  • Flashlight/headlamp w/ spare bulbs and batteries

  • Extra Food

  • Extra clothing

  • Sunglasses

  • First-aid supplies

  • Pocket-knife

  • Matches in waterproof container

  • Fire starter


Although you probably won’t need all of these items on every trip, you’llbe glad you had them in a time of need. Three other items they mention butdo not include as essential (though you may use them more than the essentials)are extra water and water bottles, sunscreen and a small repair kit. Therepair kit can be as simple as a screwdriver, extra binding hardware andsome duct tape.

Every turn in the backcountry is probably equal to several hundred stepsyou took to get up the hill. But how to travel? With the board on your back,you’ll have to walk up the hill in your boots or using snowshoes. The bootsI’m sure you have, but the snowshoes you’ll have to buy. Passable shoes areavailable for as little as $40. A good pair will cost anywhere from $100to $200 or more.

But wait, there is another option. There are two backcountry-specific boardson the market that split lengthwise down the middle so you can use them likemountaineering skis and skin up the hill instead of shoeing. The Nitro TourBoard and the Voile Split Decision offer the convenience of skinning up andthe joy of snowboarding down. If you have ever compared snowshoeing to skinning,it’s an option you might consider.

Either way you go, you’re going to need poles. They will help you conserveenergy and give you better balance on uneven or steep terrain. Adjustablesare a must&emdash;go with a three-piece for compactability.

A convenient option on many adjustable poles is a probe conversion. You will(hopefully never) need it for finding avalanche victims and testing snowlayers. Convertible probe-poles save weight, but a collapsible snow probeis the quickest, most effective tool.

This brings us to the items essential in your defense against avalanches.The most important item you carry into the backcountry is a transceiver.Unlike the battle of standard vs. metric, the U.S. is currently changingover to the stronger, universal frequency of 457 kHz from 2,275 kHz. Thereare transceivers that handle both, but unless you have friends with the oldfrequency go with the single, new frequency. But remember, it will only helpyou if you know how to use it!

You will also need a shovel for digging snow. There are some small Lexan-bladedunits available, but a large metal blade will get the job done easier andis worth its weight if you have to dig anyone out of debris.

Having fun in the backcountry is the easy part. Getting there and stayingsafe take some work. Go with experienced backcountry travelers, glean allthe knowledge you can and spare no expense on life-saving tools. Then comeback and tell us about it.