People have an innate desire to explore, and heading into the untamed backcountry satisfies this primal urge with the ultimate thrill, untracked powder!
Backcountry equipment has seen an evolution over the last 10 years, gone are the days of following the empty scroggin packets for your nearest Dynafit stockist. Improvements in backcountry skiing and snowboarding equipment mean that it is now cheaper and easier to start earning your turns, but how do you choose the gear that is right for you?
Choosing the right gear
First things first, safety. Anyone looking to head into the backcountry needs to have the following essentials each and every trip: an avalanche transceiver, probe, shovel, backpack, at least one backcountry buddy and have completed a backcountry avalanche course.
Extra gear such as avalungs and airbags are also beneficial but if you have the basics, know how to use them and put everything you’ve learned in your Avalanche Safety Course into practice, then you should be good to go.
Skis – All Mountain Type
There are many brands now that have all mountain or touring specific skis on the market and your local store should be able to point you in the right direction. For skiers it is the binding that are crucial to get right. Having the ability to release the heel when walking uphill allows the user to climb slopes when using a climbing skin on the base of their ski – if you’re still lost on what I’m talking about check this link out Ski Touring Tips .
Bindings – Frame or Tech
Frame or tech binding are the big choice on what you would prefer to use in the backcountry. If you are planning to get out and about for a few days over a season a frame binding is probably what you are after. Some good options to consider will be the Marker T-12 or the Fritschi Diamir Freeride.
Both are a good option for someone wanting to get into touring. They do not require a specific boot and are easy to step in and out of. These frame bindings will usually have a riser under the heel that will a release at the back. They come with the usual DIN settings as a normal alpine binding and tend to make the user confident when skiing them for the first time.
Tech bindings take a bit of getting used to and although you make great saving on weight if you are planning a multi-day tour they do require specific boots to clip into the bindings. Weight is the major factor and potentially an easier climb as the binding pivots from the toe, they do take some time to feel you can charge a big open face with them but this come down to a psychological factor for the user and trusting the gear.
As I have mentioned, several companies are now making ski touring boots that have a walk mode for climbing up hills. If you going to start earning your turns, buying a pair of touring boots will save you many a sore muscle in the long run. You can now get touring boots with 120/130 flex making the downhill just as fun as skiing in your alpines. However, do keep weight in mind. The lighter the boots the better to tour with but these can limit the stress you can put on them when in downhill mode. Advances in technology is improving this. Get to your nearest ski store for a fitting – boots are something you want good advice on and get fitted properly. If you have comfy feet you’ll be eternally grateful.
Splitboard or Snowshoes
In the snowboard world, you have the choice of a splitboard or snowshoes. Snowshoes are cheap and easy to use, just strap them to your boots, strap your board to your back and start trekking. Snowshoes are the easiest and cheapest option for the snowboarder looking to begin backcountry exploration and you can ride your regular board. When you do go to make a purchase make sure they have good grip points both under the foot and around the edge of the shoe. MSR make some of the best snowshoes around.
Snowshoes are good but for those who looking to save their strength for the ride down than keeping your board on your feet and not on your back is the way to go. We require splitboards for our Coast to Coast, Powder Belt, and Hokkaido Backcountry Tours.
Splitboards basically work like the name suggests you roll out in your usual snowboards boots and have the ability to remove the bindings, split the board, clip the bindings back on and slap on some skins. This creates something resembling two skis with a pivoting heel that allows you to climb with skins. At the top your transition back over to snowboard mode and it’s all on. In the past, splits were not known for their power and precision but now with backcountry specific board companies like JONES snowboards the level of splitboard and the ride is almost indistinguishable from their solid cousins.
Split System and Bindings
Most board manufacturers have a split version of a few of their boards and there are some interesting systems out there, some split the skis into three! I’d stick with the single split and there are various systems that connect your board together through various clips and the binding plate. Voile have been the pioneers in the split system and splitboards. They use pucks on either side of the board that are screwed into the board, you then slide over the bindings. Voile produces their own bindings or you can get a Voile plate than you can screw your regular bindings onto. Spark R&D also make a binding that uses the Voile puck system. The best thing about the Voile puck system is that there is little or no build-up of ice as there are no small metal parts just hard plastic pucks that take a lot of punishment. Both these systems either have the risers in the binding or on the plate. When the bindings are on lock in the clips at the tip and tail and two more alone the board and you will have a very solid feel when riding.
Karakoram is the other major manufacturer of a split system. It uses metal plates and similar clips at the tip and tail and along the board to lock it all together. The bindings are similar but they clip on rather than slide onto pucks. It is lightweight and solid and a good system.
There are also click in versions that K2 do and the version for hard boots too. I’d stick to either Voile, Spark R&D or Karakoram. All systems offer skins that clip on and some have added extras that allow you to put the split board into ski mode as well attached crampons for those icy accents.
You can still use your regular boot but the stiffer the better. If you have a park boot then you will struggle. If you are going backcountry more and more treat yourself to a new boot and get the stiffest or next stiffest on the market. A stiffer boot is going to be key to making the accent as easy as possible allowing you to engage the edge, pivot and make kick turns much easier. There are even ski style hard boots for those looking to ski mountaineer and may want to put crampons on their boot – this is next level though and you’d be wanting to be pretty serious about your splitboarding to go down this route.
Getting the gear
With so much progression in the freeride/ backcountry world, you shouldn’t find it hard to get the most suitable equipment for what you would like to achieve. Ask the questions and explain how you want to use the gear and what you want to get out of it.
The best place to find this gear and to make sure you are getting the correct equipment for you is at your local snow sports store, in Australia we like to recommend the following.
- ESS https://shop.essboardstore.com.au/
- Straight Line Straightline https://straightlineskiandscuba.com.au/
- Alp Sport https://alpsport.com.au/
- Balmoral Boards http://www.balmoralboards.com.au/
One Last Tip
Each and every trip you should bring your knowledge and good judgement with you. Knowledge can be gained from taking part in an Avalanche Safety Course and good judgement comes with experience which you can get from getting out there with people more experienced than you. A good starting point for your backcountry adventures is our Niseko Backcountry Tour.