Planning for a day in the backcountry is as crucial as putting your skins on facing the right way; you’re going to realize real quick that you are going nowhere real fast. There are consequences for being lazy and doing a mediocre job so it’s imperative that you’re doing the appropriate research before venturing out.
Another thing to be weary of, is the gear you bring along and the company you go along with. You’re only as strong as your weakest link so pick wisely and educate yourself. Having all the appropriate avalanche safety equipment is a start, but not knowing how to use it properly makes it nearly useless.
Take an Avalanche Safety Course
First thing’s first, enroll yourself in an avalanche safety course. Learn how to read the snow, use the gear and keep yourself as well as the others around you safe. Once you’ve completed this and are confident in your abilities, you have the knowledge to explore the backcountry safely and successfully and the odds are fairly high that you will have yourself a pretty awesome time.
Some backcountry backpacks are equipped with a built-in gear checklist so you can be sure you always have the gear you need. For those backpacks that do not have a built-in checklist, it’s a good idea to make one for yourself so you always remember.
The Essential Avalanche Gear:
• Backpack: In order to carry all your backcountry gear you obviously need a backcountry backpack. There are a variety of styles and sizes to choose from but depending on the type of terrain and expeditions you plan to be doing, an avalanche airbag like the Arc’teryx Voltair or the Black Diamond Jetforce may be a good choice.
If you’re doing basic tours in less consequential terrain, a bag like the Gregory Targhee 32 would be ideal.
• Probe: This is one of the essential avalanche safety tools which should always be in your backpack. A probe is used to locate any buried bodies under the snow so knowing how to use it efficiently can be the difference between life and death for a friend who’s gone under. Your knowledge of the tool is essential.
There are many to choose from so ensure that the one you are purchasing is the right length for the snow where you will be exploring. Black Diamond, MSR and Backcountry Access have a great selection of probes to choose from.
• Shovel: Important avalanche safety tool number two – a shovel. Used to dig out your friend or to construct a comfy chair or bench to enjoy some mountain-top views before a wicked descent. Backcountry shovels are generally easy to disassemble and fit in your pack no problem. When in use, the pieces lock in place and some even have alternate modes such as the Backcountry Access Rescue Shovel which has a hoe mode.
• Beacon: A beacon (also known as a tracker) is probably the one most important piece of backcountry safety gear. Your beacon is like your GPS, it sends a signal out so that the others with you can find you if you’ve been buried by an avalanche and vice versa if someone in your group needs to be rescued.
• Whistle: We all learn when we’re young that if ever you’re lost, stay in one place and call for help. This is all fine and dandy for a short period of time but if you continue yelling for help for an extended period of time, you risk losing your voice. Whistles are loud and as long as you’re breathing you can use them. They’re generally quite cheap so stock up and purchase a few. For the most convenience, keep one easily accessible so if you ever find yourself caught in an undesirable situation it can be reached easily.
• First Aid Kit: A first aid kit is one of the first things that should go into your pack whether you’re headed to the backcountry or not. Bandaids, tape, tensor bandages and safety pins; first aid kits are small, don’t take up much room and are necessary for all outdoor activities.
Adventure Medical Kits have a great collection of first aid kits that range in sizes.
Other gear to include for your day in the backcountry is a warm toque, spare gloves, an extra base layer and some water and snacks. You always have a plan set out for the day but it is always good to be extra prepared in case of unexpected plans. Playing in the mountains is exhilarating and beautiful but it’s serious business. Make smart decisions and play safe because the elements are always far more powerful than us.