Gear for Safe Winter Backcountry Travel?

12:27 p.m. on August 30, 2010 (EDT)
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I'm curious about people's thoughts are regarding proper equipment for traveling safely in the backcountry?

Let's assume a few things:

1. Your brain is the most important piece of "gear" while in the backcountry. So, first on the list is good decision making, whether its through formal education, experience, or teaming with a good mentor.

2. A beacon, shovel, and probe setup is the minimum standard.

So, what do we prioritize next?
- Avalung?
- Airbag system?
- First Aid Kit?
- Portable Rescue Sled?
- Tarp?
- GPS?
- Spot?
- Sat Phone?
- Something Not Listed?

Gear sales have begun, and there are some deals to be had. Is anyone thinking safety?


1:12 p.m. on August 30, 2010 (EDT)
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My Winter travels do not typically take me into avalanche areas. My winter gear other than my actual clothing consists of:

Kahtoola microspikes(crampons without the full sized spikes)

MSR Denali snowshoes w/tails

The HPDE sheet from my pack can be used as a snow shovel if my snowshoes wont work.

I always carry a PLB regardless of season.(i carry year round)

I have a Garmin Rhino GPS with a built in two way radio/weather radio. (year round)

Extra fuel for melting snow

snow stakes for tent

Ice Axe

I think that's about it, I am probally forgetting stuff though. I also run a kicksled or sled with my huskies. If I am sledding the only difference in my gear is more food for the dogs, and some repair parts in case something cracks or breaks on the sled, and some other sled specific gear like a snow brake.

As far as the other items in your list, one should always have a first aid kit, and some form of shelter regardless of season

11:51 p.m. on August 30, 2010 (EDT)
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Apart from my usual transport and camping gear, the safeties I like to have on me or in my daypack when backcountry splitboarding in winter are:

-Beacon, Shovel and Probe.

-Detailed Map and Compass (+1 in main pack).

-Avalung rigged to daypack.

-First Aid Kit (+a detailed kit in main pack).

-Ice Axe and Crampons.

-Ultralight waterproof bivvy.

-G.P.S with marked routes and waypoints.

-3lt water.

-30ft Paracord.

-High cal. food.

-Whistle and Headtorch.

-Helmet and spare sunglasses.

-Thermals, socks, gloves and beanie in dry bag.

-Practice using everything.

Using the packs frames, paracord and a splitboard I can rig a makeshift sled if needed.

6:07 a.m. on September 1, 2010 (EDT)
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Much as a transceiver and probe are highly advisable, I would place them near the bottom of my list, since all other items preclude emergencies in the first place. For instance, proper clothing to protect against the bigger threat of chill and a snow pack analysis kit (including shovel) that can preclude using the probe and transceiver are more important. In any case my poles are designed to convert to a probe.

My research on the topic indicates the value of avalungs is overstated. First off you need to have the sucker in your mouth before the slide starts – since you are unlikely to have time to do so while being swept away. Additionally those who managed to get the snorkel in their mouth and survive the avalanche, note the violence of the slide caused the snorkel to come out of their mouth.

A “rescue sled” may be good for large groups, but every snow trip I went on used pugs (sleds) primarily to haul gear.

I don’t like mission critical stuff like navigation gear to be dependent on batteries in cold weather outing, since I have too often seen dead batteries caused by failure to protect them from the cold. I’ll stick with a mechanical compass/inclinometer, altimeter, and slide rule.

I’ll let you carry the sat phone.


About clothing:

Two pairs of ski gloves, and a pair of mittens are standard for my ski trips.

Trips involving climbing swap the ski gloves for technical glove systems. Half of the insulation layers of my clothing will be down, while the rest will be synthetic (in case the down gets soaked).


But I will also bring (in order of priority)

Protection from sun: sun screen, goggles and glasses.

Skis and skins Ice axe and crampons

A space blanket

Repair kit for skis

A powerful white gas stove: Mine is an old MSR Firefly

Extra fuel if melt water will not be available

Repair kit for stove

Rope and gear rack on trips warranting such equipment

A small blue pad to sit on


For planned overnighters:
A bomber sleeping bag!

A spare pair of skins

A four season tent

A large blue pad for sleeping

A suitable base to place the stove on.

The means to safely collect water from streams

Community lighting

Whiskey & smokes (oh yea, and food, cook kit, rope, etc.)


6:44 p.m. on September 6, 2010 (EDT)
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Okay, so I will provide just a little background. I am a skier by trade. This means I teach, guide, write about, do work with equipment companies, etc. I posted this exact same thread on various sites, with the intention of learning more about people's preparedness in the backcountry - particularly while skiing, but that's less important. It was not a quiz, and will not become a plug for a product or service unless someone asks for a specific gear recommendation.

I want to say that this group is by far more educated and prepared than any group from any other forum. I am totally impressed! And learning, which is what I really hoped to do.

I have no doubt that this group will let out a collective "duh!" when creating your lists. But I appreciate the time you put into them.

So now, the truly relevant question - how did this group get this information, and assimilate it into your collective culture? The backcountry skiing community is nowhere close to this level of awareness, yet they are often taking much bigger risks athletically. I would like to see the change.



7:05 p.m. on September 6, 2010 (EDT)
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Learned from Boy Scouts, fellow campers, reading, clinics, and tour guides.

8:28 p.m. on September 6, 2010 (EDT)
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I've learned from sites this one and a few others, fellow campers, books and one mountaineering course I took a long time ago.

There is a big difference between winter camping and winter backcountry travel in the mountains. Nothing I've done really is what I would call backcountry travel since it has been in parks on relatively flat ground, so no need for any avalanche gear since the risk was zero.

I haven't needed a GPS, although I now have one. A map and compass do just as well for where I've been. No satphone or PLB, although I've thought about both, but if I did get one, it would be either or, not both.

12:22 a.m. on September 7, 2010 (EDT)
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I've mostly learned from traveling with more experienced people and spending time solo getting to know what works for me and what doesn't.

I try not to disregard any information I get even if it's not immediately relevant to me. Like years ago when a seasoned campaigner told me to practice rigging my tent blindfolded. First time solo in a horrendous white out I was so thankful I'd put in time doing that and bought him a beer next time I saw him.

I photograph and plan well in advance, like 6 months, the lines that I plan on riding in winter and do food and gear drops before the snow at marked waypoints to lighten things for later on.

People on this site are great. Thanks to Bill, I've become a lot more organized with stripping unnecessary weight through the use of spreadsheets and logging trip reports and such.

8:06 p.m. on September 15, 2010 (EDT)
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I apologize for neglecting this for a week. I will provide the excuse that I have fortunately been out skiing more than surfing the Internet. But this group is really interesting to me because it is so unique. I am so impressed.

It doesn't sound like the people contributing to this thread are very involved with mountaineering clubs or organized outings like something through REI, etc. Is this correct?

I gather that much of you collective "smarts" were put together by following more competent / experienced partners. Was this a conscience choice, or did it happen fairly organically?

Also, Paully especially, mentions kind of systematic approaches like spreadsheets, and photographs. I'm not calling you weird, but this is not normal. It is however, what all successful mountaineers do to a certain degree. Do you think these systems could be commercialized? Or must everyone develop a system of his/her own?

Thanks again for all you input. I am hoping this becomes valuable research for improving backcountry travel education.


7:33 a.m. on September 16, 2010 (EDT)
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You could set up a generic checklist/spreadsheet to begin with, others can personalize them as they get more experienced. The idea didn't occur to me until I read about Bill S on this forum doing it, now it's standard. We've lightened/streamlined gear lists considerably and haven't forgotten a thing since, well pretty much. The trips and equipment vary a lot so I like to keep separate records for solo, group, day, weekend, extended, domestic and overseas backcountry sojourns. The further out and the smaller the group, the better prepared we are. For overseas or longer, more obscure outings, we (myself and two others I trust implicitly) hit up people we've ridden with before then refine all ideas as a group over several months. I very rarely go on extended stays with anyone I don't know, I try to limit my tent bound time with potentially unstable personalities.

As far as the photo's go, I really like to know that I need to be "left of the pepper" prior to launching into a crevasse or off a 200ft cliff. I mentally ride the whole line over and over to ingrain sluff paths, terrain traps and potential exits. I ride a lot of rollover entries where the first 30-50ft or so is blind until I'm passed the bailout, so it's vital I know where I am at all times by way of mirroring the photos and studying the topos at length beforehand. I also photograph bare faces in Summer so I know what the cornices are doing in Winter.

We have a list of 5 red flags that we check off periodically when in the mountains. These are of paramount importance in decision making as they're not swayed by human emotion or condition.

By the way, where are you skiing at the moment? Are you in the Sth. Hemisphere or somewhere North?

8:14 a.m. on September 16, 2010 (EDT)
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Welcome to Trailspace, AlpineAmbition/Donny.

This is an interesting thread. Here are my 2 cents.

For background, in winter I:

ski (ungroomed trails cross-country, and recently started some backcountry/AT skiing here in New England),

hike, run, snowshoe on trails

climb New England peaks (like Mount Washington)

climb ice (far less occasionally, though I used to regularly before kids)

I've also done a little climbing on glaciated peaks, with plans to do more (just did Rainier, have also done a little climbing in Canadian Rockies).

How I learn:

About 10 years ago progressed from lots of hiking and backpacking to wanting to do more peaks in winter safely (we were already cross-country and downhill skiing, hiking, and snowshoeing in winter). So my husband and I took an intro winter mountaineering course from a guide we knew in New Hampshire.

Ended up getting hooked on ice climbing and did a bunch of that for a while together, with a few guided climbs from this guide to learn skills (he'd say, we were bad clients because we hired him to learn and move on... ha ha). Have covered winter travel, ice climbing, glacier travel, and so on.

We've both also taken intro avalanche courses. Mine was last winter. I expect we'll take the more advanced classes within a few winters.

In addition to learning from a few guides and classes (like Wilderness First Aid), we also read a lot, listen to more experienced people a lot (like lots of folks on this site), and try to keep on learning.

I know I'm not the most experienced person out there by far, but I think I've got a good grounding and most importantly, know how much I don't know yet.


You guys have already hashed this out pretty well, but here are my thoughts. In addition to brain, clothes, first aid, map/compass, appropriate climbing and/or camping gear, sunscreen, sunglasses/goggles, emergency shelter, emergency/survival gear (I have a stuff sack I always carry), and so on... for winter I carry:

A beacon, shovel, and probe (for backcountry skiing and climbing)

Avalung: I got one as a gift last winter from my spouse and will use it if skiing in avalanche terrain.

Traction devices: I have everything from Microspikes to 14-point Grivel ice climbing crampons, and a few others in between, depending on activity and terrain.

Snowshoes: Got a variety of these too. My MSR Lightning Ascents are my favorites.

Trekking Poles: with snow baskets and a whippet on one.

Ice axe: though not on every outing

Ice tools: obviously, if ice climbing

Food and water: Yeah, that's obvious. But I always bring extra food and water. It's a mental thing for me too. I like to feel prepared.

Extras: I usually bring extra gloves, socks, and maybe a hat and/or balaclava (or for layering). I'm warm when moving, but I can get cold if I have to stop for longer periods, especially in my hands.

I've never regretted bringing extra clothing/insulation. If in doubt, I always go with warmer layers. I don't overdo it or let myself get sweaty though.

Stuff I don't carry:

GPS/SPOT/Sat Phone: I don't know if this is surprising or not, but I don't have or use any of these. Well, technically I own a GPS and sometimes my spouse uses it, but it's not something I use regularly much, though I'm not opposed to using it more.

I might consider a SPOT or PLB, but there would have to be a really good reason and/or trip I thought it was necessary and useful for.

Portable Rescue Sled: I do not have one, but can imagine getting one for bigger skis and climbs if I wasn't pulling a pulk.

Airbag system: I got to try these out at last winter's OR, but I don't have one and probably never will.

I'm sure I forget something above, but that's what comes to mind right now. We do have spreadsheet checklists for person, group, activity. I use them to make sure nothing is forgotten and keep it simple.

My husband takes them several steps further with weights down to the ounces (mainly because we do a lot of three-season stuff with two little kids in tow).

Thanks for starting this thread, Donny. Winter is probably my favorite season.

4:03 p.m. on September 20, 2010 (EDT)
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Paully - I want to encourage you to consider sharing your spreadsheet. There are plenty of gear lists out there. Hell, I have a few on my website for client reference. But if you've got a system that saves weight, etc. It might be a cool next step.

I am skiing in Chile. I spend the winter here annually. I love it. I've got one last peak to ski this week, then a week of charity work before heading back to the States. You can check out my blog on my website, if you'd like.

Alicia -

Thanks for the welcoming words. I am excited to be a part of this group, as it has already proven inspirational, and put me back into "learner" mode which is the best place for a "teacher" to be.

I am glad to hear that you have gained much of your education from a guide. For the record, the no such thing as a bad client, only guides and instructors with limitations. (I say this in jest, as I assume your guide did as well.) I actually named my company Alpine Ambitions because I truly believe that we should never stop exploring and learning in the mountains. There are no destinations, just steps along the way.

The reading thing is interesting to me because it is uniquely American. For some reason, we believe that we can learn nearly exclusively through reading. Okay, I am generalizing, but it is certainly more prevalent than say, Europe. I think it is demonstrative of our independence - and willingness to experiment.

As an educator it's important to honor this, and I think sites like this take it an extra-step by allowing people to choose their own sources. That said, the media loves to show the dramatic, and we've got a lot of people trying to be the next Red Bull athlete, thinking that a quick browse of Snow Sense is all they need to know.

I would really like to find a way to share all of the hard work that really goes into the cool feats in the mountains. It sounds like Paully has got it sorted. That's the idea.


5:05 a.m. on September 24, 2010 (EDT)
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What I mean by spreadsheets is that I log all equipment including food, water, battery and fuel consumption and record the results when I return. I record everything like the date, trip length, location, group size/names/ages, weather patterns, snow conditions, etc...... My personal lists are different to my regular partners' who are nearly the same stats(ht,wt,skills,temperament,etc) as me so to devise a concise generic version for everyone would be next to impossible.

If you're taking inexperienced groups out on side country trips then a basic gear list will do. The further you start going out the more detailed things need to be but by that stage their skills should be such that they are getting to know what works for them and what doesn't. We used to double up on things and take the "just in case" gear that regularly added up to about 3-4kg extra each when we looked at it on paper after weighing every single item. It's like going shopping without a list and coming home with crap you don't need.

I'm heading to NZ soon for some spring BC action. We're getting dropped in by heli and camping at elevation so we need to be spot on with weight and gear. If we forget something it's a very expensive mistake, as has happened before. Last year four of us were waving goodbye to the pilot and settling in to that absolute silence that only being deep in big mountains can bring. We start sorting the gear and I hear this "Ummmm........", look around and see my mates ashen face. I'm like "What?"....."Umm, I left my f*****g boot liners in the drying room!!!" Yeah, I was wrapped with that little oversight.

I like to be very organized and I enjoy the process of putting together a detailed trip being the control nut I am. In a group situation, I've found a balance of personalities, skills and ages to be the most successful. I said before that I don't like travelling with people I don't know, but we always take one or two younger chargers with us to keep things interesting and to put in skin tracks, dig snow caves and such, haha. Keeps the ego's in check for sure.

12:43 a.m. on September 25, 2010 (EDT)
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Chemical emergency heaters principally for toes and hands would be a good addition to your gear. Frostbite and hypothermia are major winter concerns. You could additionally use them to keep your water warm and/or from freezing unless you keep your immediate drinking water close to your body. Adding salt to drinking water would mitigate freezing. There are so many issues related to winter - clothing, shelter, food, water, gear, ice, snow, avalanche, etc.. I trust that you fellows have developed an acceptable selection or approach to same. So I'll not litter or bore you with my recommendations. As a group you might consider to individually define and develop an area of interest for the community to learn valuable knowledge of winter hiking, skiing and mountaineering.

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