Backcountry skiing, also known as ski touring and randonee skiing, is a highly enjoyable winter sport that will let you see the backcountry in a whole new way. You’ll leave the groomed ski trails of your local mountain and experience a winter wilderness, zooming through pristine forests and untouched powder. You’ll experience freedom that few will ever know as you ski up and down the fresh snow.
However, having the right gear for an adventure like this can be challenging, because you need more than your standard skiing equipment.
Here is your complete guide to your essential backcountry skiing gear, broken into categories for easy learning.
Avalanche gear is first on the list because it is the most important thing you take with you. Avalanches can be deadly; ski touring without it simply is not worth it.
There are three main pieces of gear you need for avalanche safety:
- Avalanche transceiver (aka beacon) – a small device that emits a radio signal that can be picked up by other beacons and can help people find you if you’re buried. This tool also allows you to find others that may get buried.
- Avalanche shovel – Lightweight metal shovel for digging out someone buried in snow
- Probe – A long, collapsible pole (should be at least six feet long) for searching for avalanche victims
You will also need other essentials, like a bag (we’ll discuss bags in the Clothing and Bags section), a first aid kit, water in an insulated bottle or hydration bladder with an insulated tube, and a topographic map.
Knowing how to read a topographic map is part of avalanche safety– you need to understand what’s slopes are not only where you are traveling, but above where you are traveling. You should not go backcountry skiing without taking a certified Avalanche Level 1 course, or at minimum, an online avalanche safety course. It could save your life or another’s. If you don’t have the avalanche education, you can go with other trained individuals that you trust with your life.
When choosing an avalanche transceiver, don’t get distracted by a copious quantity of features. Instead, choose a beacon that is straightforward and reliable– and pick a newer model (in the last 3-4 years ideally). Technology continues to advance which improves the distance and accuracy of transceiver communication.
Backcountry Access’s BCA Tracker series is the most popular brand in North America, and for good reason– they’re simple to use, reliable, and intuitive. The Tracker3 is a great entry-level model and has all the safety features you need without any distracting bells and whistles. The BCA Tracker S is another good model that comes with an avalanche probe– so you wouldn’t have to buy that separately. Another good beacon is the Mammut Barryvox, which has a display that’s very easy to read, even with polarized glasses.
One of the most popular packages is from BCA as it includes a beacon, shovel, and probe at a solid price, and all of the gear has been used by thousands of others reliably, including us. There are several brands with heavily tested gear that will work. Simply do a little research and pick what is right for you. If you have no avalanche gear, buying in a package will reduce overall costs.
However, it doesn’t matter how good your beacon is if you don’t know how to use it, so regardless of the beacon you choose, you need to get some practice with it. Get some friends together, bury your beacons in the backyard, and then practice finding them.
Any lightweight metal shovel will work, but avalanche shovels are designed to be lightweight, packable, yet effective in an emergency. Find one that’s sturdy– it will see regular use during the winter camping season, if you plan to dig many pits, but most importantly, it needs to hold up in case of an emergency and the need to dig through very tough avalanche debris.
It does need to be metal because plastic is not strong enough to dig through avalanche debris. Your options here are whether the shovel is collapsible or fixed length. Collapsible shovels give you the potential for more leverage as you can extend them, while fixed-length shovels are lighter. Pick a shovel that’s highly rated, like the Black Diamond Transfer Shovel, the BCA shovel’s recommended in a package, or the Ortovox Pro Alu III. The brand isn’t important; the durability is.
- Aluminum blade
- Quality handle for leverage
- Reviews / clear indications of durability
- Once you find your friend – you’ll need to dig them out.
Your avalanche probe needs to do three things: assemble quickly, long enough to reach someone, and be sturdy enough to break through the snow to find buried individuals. There are lots of these on the market, so you should pick one that is durable and reviewed heavily.
You don’t need to spend a lot of money to get a good probe; the TerraWest Core 240 Avalanche Probe is less than $35 and is highly recommended and only weighs 240 grams. The Mammut Carbon Probe 240 Light weighs even less; coming in at 180 grams, it weighs less than 3 C batteries. Yet again, the recommended packages above also have quality probes.
Buying Avalanche Safety Gear
You can purchases avalanche gear online if you know what you want via just about any major outdoor retailer (i.e. REI or Backcountry) or on Amazon. If you aren’t completely sure – you can walk into a local ski shop, or an REI and have them help you. It is never a bad idea to ask around.
Bindings and Boots
Depending on the type of binding you choose, you may not need to get new boots. That being said – boots that aren’t very comfortable, or boots without a “walk mode” or “hike mode” will likely cause you a fair amount of discomfort while touring.
If you choose a tech binding, then you will need compatible tech boots! If you need to learn about touring bindings, read our guide to backcountry / alpine touring bindings here.
You should buy your boots first. If you don’t have boots that fit right and are comfortable on your feet, you’ll have an uncomfortable, possibly unsafe time in the backcountry. You can get boots that have tech inserts and GripWalk soles that are compatible with tech bindings and new alpine bindings. A boot that can do both will work at resorts as well as in the backcountry. This is definitely our recommendation – get a boot that does it all.
There are many, many boot options out there, each one fitting slightly differently. If you can, go to a ski store to try several boots on before you buy. Skimo Co offers an online boot fitter where you can describe your boot needs and their experts will recommend a boot; this is a great substitute if you can’t go boot shopping in person. For a beginner, it’s not a good idea to buy boots sight unseen; you don’t know how the boots will fit, and a salesperson can help you figure out all of the features.
Backcountry Ski Bindings
The ski bindings used for backcountry skiing are referred to as AT bindings, for “alpine touring.” We have a complete guide to these bindings here, but for a quick overview, there are three types of bindings:
- Frame bindings are like traditional downhill alpine bindings that sit on a hinged frame that unlocks for going uphill. These bindings have safe downhill performance and don’t require you to get new boots (even though you may want to).
- Tech bindings use pins and springs to hold the toe and heel in place. These bindings require special boots to work, but are lighter than frame bindings and allow for a natural walking motion as you go uphill.
- Hybrid bindings also require tech boots but provide the advantages of both types of bindings. They can be used on resort trails just as easily as in the backcountry.
Many beginners like to start with frame bindings. These can be used with your existing boots, and more importantly, are familiar. You use these in much the same way that you use regular downhill bindings, so there’s less of a learning curve. They are heavier – which is why many people don’t use these if they tour frequently.
Some great frame bindings include the Marker F10 Tour Bindings and the Tyrolia Ambition 10 Bindings. If you want to try hybrid bindings, the Fritschi Tecton 13 Bindings and the Salomon Shifts (one of the most common bindings for resort & backcountry skiers) are good options.
Skis and Skins
Perhaps surprisingly, your skis aren’t actually all that important (every skier in the world just scoffed). What we really mean is that you can use any ski you want, but most backcountry skiers want a lighter weight setup if possible. Any good mountain ski will do, so long as you can swap out the bindings. Some people like wider skis to handle deeper snow and powder. Use the skis that you’re comfortable with and fit them with a great set of skins.
The ski skins you choose, however, can make or break your experience. Ski skins are strips of fabric, either mohair or synthetic (or a mix of both), that attach to the underside of your skis. The ski skins, also known as climbing skins, are what allow you to climb a hill while wearing skis.
The material the skins are made from dictates their performance. Synthetic ski skins are durable and grippy, while mohair skins let you glide more efficiently and more quickly. Blended skins offer a balance of these materials’ best qualities.
Ski skins are attached with adhesive and a hardware attachment for the ends of the ski. The vast majority of modern ski skins attach with clips, meaning that they’ll work with any ski when cut to the right length. However, a couple of brands, most notably Dynafit and Volklhave pins that slide through a hole in the nose of the ski. This means they aren’t compatible with all skis, so make sure that the skins you choose work with your skis.
Simply put, most beginners should be buying an all around skin that is wide enough to be cut to their ski width, and long enough to cover as much of the ski bases as possible. Improperly fitted ski skins will result in slipping, making for a much more difficult uphill.
As far as buying options go, G3’s Alpinist skins are known for their durability and effectiveness, so they’re a great choice. The Black Diamond Ascension skins are another good brand; they fit well on a variety of skis and come in many convenient precut lengths. One of our favorite skins are the Pomoca Climb 2.0 skins. The Contour Hybrid Mix 135 Climbing Skins are another beginner-friendly option; their hybrid construction lets you experience the best of both worlds when it comes to ski skin material types.
Ski poles are essential for uphill travel, and are pretty important for most skiers downhill performance as well. Ski poles need to have baskets to avoid sinking too far into the snow, and should be long enough for your size. There really are tons of great ski pole options. Our best recommendation for ski touring is to get a pole with an extended grip. This comes in handy for easily adjusting where you grab your pole for uphill travel.
Clothing and Bags
Everybody’s ski clothing needs are different based on the weather conditions where you plan on skiing. You should wear layers and bring extra gloves, hats, and socks– as well as an extra puffy jacket that compresses and packs down small, just in case. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
You should also make sure that you bring eye protection. Sunglasses or tinted goggles are a necessity to protect your eyes from UV radiation. Choose polarized sunglass lenses to cut down on glare and improve visibility. Exposed skin should have UV protection in the form of sunscreen, too– even though we often think that sunscreen is just for summer, fresh snow almost doubles a person’s UV exposure.
Ski Touring Bags
The bag you take with you needs to be durable, and must have a compartment that’s made to hold your avalanche tools for fast, easy access. Your pack should also give you a way to carry your skis. There are other features you may enjoy, like hydration bladder sleeves and extra attachment points for gear like your helmet to stow it on your ascents.
If you already have a bag that fits those parameters, you can use it and not have to get anything special. Look for durable bags from reputable manufacturers like Osprey– their Kamber 30 makes a perfect backcountry ski touring bag.
Some bags have additional safety features that may help out in an emergency. Some packs come with airbag systems. These have a handle that you pull during an avalanche, which deploys an airbag to increase your surface area and ideally helps you stay on top of the sliding snow and debris. No bag will guarantee your survival during an avalanche, but you may feel more secure using one.
Waterproof Outer Shell
It is essential to have a waterproof and windproof outer shell for ski touring. WIthout one, you easily can end up miserable, or in a very dangerous situation.
Quality Socks & Gloves
This one should be a no-brainer, but having quality socks goes a long way in keeping you comfortable. Gloves keep your hands warm and functioning. Be sure to have good ones. Bringing an insulated pair, and a pair of liners is recommended.
Ski Pants or Bibs
Pants that are waterproof, and that fit nicely over ski boots are important for comfort and safety.
Helmet And Goggles
A helmet with MIPS technology is recommended, and is essential for safety. Goggles are not just important for your vision, but help protect your eyes on the downhill during any type of fall, going through small tree branches, or precipitation.
The final piece of the checklist of backcountry skiing essentials is knowledge. Even resort skiing comes with a risk, and backcountry skiing is a much wilder experience. When you’re in the backcountry, the trails aren’t groomed. They aren’t attended. There’s no resort staff making closures based on immediate weather or trail conditions. You are the only person who can be responsible for your own safety, and that means knowing your limits and knowing the dangers of avalanches.
Backcountry skiing is fun, exhilarating, and not for novices. If you don’t feel comfortable going down the hardest groomed resort trails, you likely need to keep practicing and get more experience, or utilize the resort for uphill travel. You just won’t enjoy the experience if you’re constantly getting kicked off your skis! When you start backcountry skiing, go with an experienced guide or mentor if possible. This person can show you around the area and help with your techniques and decision making processes.
You also must know about avalanche safety. You need to take a course with a certified instructor– self-guided online information is no substitute for a real instructor who has the experience to safely show you the signs of avalanches, how to avoid them, and what to do if you or someone else gets caught in one.
Avalanche courses can be done in person or online. Here are just a few of the places that can give you the avalanche safety courses that you need:
- US Avalanche Centers
- Online courses from professional mountain guides like this one
- Through AIARE Avalanche Research and Education
- Online or in person with the American Avalanche Institute
- Outdoor groups like the Colorado Mountain School and the Mountaineers
- REI Stores
- Local outdoor guide services with accredited staff
Where To Buy Backcountry Ski Gear
Backcountry skiing requires quite a bit of gear to get started, and there are many great places to pick it up.
If you don’t mind potentially spending a little bit more money for personalized service, your local ski shop should be your first stop. They can help put together the perfect backcountry skiing package tailored to your needs, skillset, and goals. Shopping in person also means that you can see and handle equipment before you buy. Plus, you get to support a local business.
Shopping online also works, provided you find a good retailer. For some items, like your probe or shovel, Amazon is fine. But if you’re going to be buying backcountry ski gear for the first time, and you don’t know what you’re looking for, you need to be choosy with your online retailer. These retailers all offer great service, educated staff to help answer questions, good return and warranty policies, and generally have great prices as well, especially at common sale times of the year:
If you’re just getting started, the price of ski touring equipment can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there is a thriving secondhand market for this gear! Here are some places where you can look for secondhand ski gear or last season’s models. Local ski shops or ski swaps are a great place to find used backcountry gear. It can help to consult an experienced friend when looking on second hand sites.
- Facebook Marketplace
- Consignment at your local ski center
- Ebay – KSL, or other similar website
- REI Used Gear
- The Requipper app
- Facebook Marketplace
Also, remember that you don’t have to buy top-of-the-line equipment for your first run. You can always buy entry-level gear that you can resell if you decide to keep going. That’s what entry-level gear is for!
Another great way to find gear is to talk to your ski buddies and local ski shop or ski resort staff. You shouldn’t go ski touring alone, and talking to more experienced backcountry skiers means that you might be able to try their gear, get their recommendations, and find out where the best deals are. Once you have the knowledge and equipment you need, you can hit those pristine slopes!
Other Important Gear Considerations
Before you go – we wanted to make sure we covered some other secondary gear that we strongly recommend you have on every trip:
- A neck gaiter, buff, or some type of face covering
- A mutli-tool to fix or adjust bindings
- Ski straps
- A headlamp
- Hand warmers, survival blanket, emergency bivy
- Blister care
- The 10 essentials
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about