Backcountry snowboarding can mean a lot of things. It could mean hiking out of bounds at a ski area, commonly referred to as the “side country”. Or it could mean hiking up a mountain trail to the top and riding down. It could mean hopping on snowmobile, or taking a helicopter, and travelling some distance into the mountains. In each case you’ll need different types of gear and skills to navigate and travel about while backcountry snowboarding.
For the purposes of this post let’s keep it simple and talk about some gear that you will use in backcountry areas that are not accessed using lift service or ski area snowcats. Side country areas have all the hazards of deep backcountry but vary greatly in the amount of patrolling that is carried out in them. There is no way to determine what the risks are for each ski area without direct guidance of the people that work there as every area is unique.
In our last post we talked about base layers, hydration, going with experienced riders and some general areas on where to start out. Let’s continue with a few more of things you probably want to have for your first few times going out. As you gain more experience you can whittle down the non-essentials depending on the weather, terrain and the length of your trip. Tweaking the your gear load is a never-ending project with backcountry trips but when starting out it’s always best to err on the side of caution- if only to see what works best for you.
Most everything you bring will go in and on your backpack so size and functionality is important. You will want to get a snowboard backpack because it will allow you to securely strap your board to your pack leaving your hands free to do other stuff without having to stop hiking. If you’re splitboarding you should still use a snowboard pack because there will be areas on the mountain that you will not be able to splitboard up.
Snowboard backpack sizing is denoted in cubic liters of volume that typically begin around 18L and can go up to 45L. The size of the backpack you get will depend on the terrain, weather and how long you plan on spending in the outdoors. Higher and more difficult terrain mean you need warmer clothing, more water and food, crampons, and maybe avalanche gear. For day a trip in these areas you probably want at a 30L backpack. On the East Coast you can probably get away with a 24L or 18L backpack for day trips depending on how much gear you plan on carrying.
What to Bring
Avalanche gear mainly consists of a beacon, probe and shovel. But these items are not much good without being trained by professionals in how to use them. If you are going to be in areas that prone to slide you need to take an avalanche course.
Maps are one of the most important items you can bring on your trip. Even if you know the area it is easy to get turned around and lose track of where you are. Mountain weather changes on a dime and you can find yourself socked in with fog in minutes. Having a map and compass can be help you get re-orientated and set back on the right path.
Mid-Layers go between your base layers and shell. They should be very breathable and easy to put on and take off. The whole idea of travelling in the backcountry is to stay dry. If your are sweating a lot then that moisture is going to draw heat out of your body and you will start to go hypothermic. Mid layers allow you stay warm and cool down as you need to simply by putting them on and taking them off. One of my favorite mid-layer pieces is the Patagonia Nano Puff jacket. It is light and packs down small so it doesn’t take up much space in your backpack.
Water and Food
You expend a ton of energy climbing mountains so staying hydrated is high priority. A lot of backpacks are equipped with water bags that run a hose to the strap that you can drink from without having to go fishing around for your water bottles. You probably bring along at least 2 to 3 liters of water for a day trip. I sometimes bring a pump-style water filter that I can refill my bottles with when I get to a stream.
The food you bring should be packable and loaded with lots of carbs and protein- high-energy stuff. Bags of trails mix, energy bars, cheese, meat and the like all work. Eat often, as it will help keep cranking through those uphill slogs.
First Aid Kit
Shit happens, and it doesn’t take much slice finger open cutting off a piece of pepperoni, or rolling an ankle in a scree field. Always bring a first aid kit with a splint, tape, bandages, alcohol wipes, etc. Duct tape works great for reinforcing a sprain or holding a gash closed.
Foresight is critical when travelling into the backcountry. If you want to have a good time, you need to be prepared. Think about the basics- staying dry and warm, hydrated, food, navigation, medical and avalanche training if you’re in those areas. But you also don’t want to bring everything and the kitchen sink and weigh yourself down to the point of exhaustion. In that sense, weight management is an important part of the equation. We’ll talk more about that on our next installment of backcountry snowboarding posts.