Backcountry Touring Gear Checklist - Moosejaw
So you think you're ready to live a resort-free life? Time to step out into the backcountry and explore fresh, ungroomed snow. Before you can get after it, you’re gonna need some gear. That’s probably why you’re here in the first place so let’s get into some gear you may need before going out into the backcountry.


Think of what you would typically bring to ski in a resort. Helmet, goggles, ski jacket and pants/ bibs, gloves, base layers, etc. These are all necessary for going out in the side or backcountry. One other thing to consider when skinning up the mountain is sweat and moisture management. Walking up a mountain can be tiring, and the last thing you want is to sweat through all your layers, get cold, and then have freezing sweat in all your clothes. This can be a very dangerous combo. When dressing for the backcountry, the key is layers. Moisture-wicking or wool base layers, with other mid or fleece layers, are going to be the best choice when dressing for a high-output activity like backcountry skiing. When you get hot, you’ll have layers to shed, and as you gradually cool down, you can add layers one by one to regulate your temperature. This applies to accessories as well. Beanies, neck gaiters, and gloves can all be used as layering pieces as well. When looking for a good pair of gloves specific for backcountry touring, keep an eye out for gloves with leashes/ wrist straps to keep your hands cool while keeping your gloves readily available to put back on at a moment’s notice. Then you don't have to take off your pack and clip them to it and makes it easy to check GPS, watch, or map without fear of losing or dropping a glove. It should also be noted that mittens are generally warmer than gloves. For backcountry touring gloves can also come in handy since you have more dexterity than if you are wearing mittens. Strapping skis to your pack, checking your GPS, or handling a shovel or beacon is much easier with fingers!

Other absolutely necessary pieces of equipment for backcountry travel are a beacon, shovel, and probe. Kits come in all shapes, sizes, and prices, but what remains the same is the fact that these are non-negotiable life-saving tools that everyone should have if they are looking to get into backcountry sports. If you can’t be found, you shouldn’t be out there, and if you can’t save your buddies, you shouldn’t be with them. Now let’s talk about other items that might make your backcountry endeavors more enjoyable.

Safety Gear


Not only are they an excellent sticker repository, but they also protect your noggin from getting beat up in a tumble or an avalanche. It'll be much nicer to hit a rock or tree with a helmet instead of your skull. Promise. Nowadays, most companies have tons of tech and features packed into ski helmets, such as audio compatibility, adjustability, ventilation, goggle retention clips, and safety features as well. Technologies such as MIPS (Multi-Impact Protection System), Koroyd,), Pro Core, and Spherical Technology are all innovations that different companies use to improve helmet performance and comfort.

  • inside of Atomic Helmet showing rotational impact system
  • Skier using microadjust system on back of Atomic Backland Helmet to adjust fit
Only any backcountry excursion, a helmet is the fifth most essential item after your beacon, shovel, probe, and a winning attitude!

Sunglasses & Goggles

Protect those sweet baby blues! Also, those browns, greens or hazels! Not only is the sun harsh on your retinas, but the white snow reflects. Save yourself a trip to the eye doctor and get yourself a good pair of shades. Sunglasses for the way up and a reliable set of goggles for the way down that'll also keep flying snow out of your eyes. Chances are your resort goggles will work fine. Another thing to consider are interchangeable lenses. If the weather takes a turn for the worst, it may be nice to be able to switch to a low-light lens to improve visibility.

  • Skier putting on goggles
  • Skier wearing a helmet with Goggles on top
Goggles are a great piece of gear from protecting your eyes from harmful UV rays and even keeping part of your face from getting sunburn.


Avalanche Beacons, also known as transceivers, are an absolute necessity when traveling in the side or backcountry. They can range from very simple, streamlined devices, to feature-rich, professional-level transceivers for guides and experts. When looking for a beacon, the most important thing is that you are going to be comfortable using it in time-sensitive, high-stress situations. A high-tech beacon will do you and your partner no good if you are wasting time toggling through menus and features. A beacon will send and receive signals that other beacons can pick up when in Search or Send modes. Modern beacons all operate on the same frequency and, therefore, can work seamlessly with any other beacon, regardless of brand or model.

  • Skier using a Beacon in Search Mode to find a signal 0.8 meters away
It’s always a good idea to practice using your beacon so that you know exactly what you're doing when you need it most.

Nowadays, most beacons are digital and function using three different antennas to pinpoint and locate other beacons within their vicinity. The range can vary depending on model and price but is usually between 40 and 80 meters. Battery life can also vary but generally lasts much longer in Send mode rather than Search. It is usually a good practice to refresh batteries when they reach 50 percent. The last thing you would want would be dead batteries while out in the backcountry, and battery charge tends to drain faster in cold conditions. Beacons should be worn at all times while out in the backcountry. Most come with some form of body harness or tether. It is also common practice to carry your beacon in a zippered pocket that is dedicated to just your beacon. Unless using it to search for another skier, it should remain in Send and left that way until your trip concludes.


It shouldn’t be that hard to pick a shovel, right? I mean, how many different types or styles of shovels can there possibly be? They all are just for digging snow, so does it matter if I get a fancy one or a cheap one from a gas station? The short answer is yes, it does matter. In the event of a burial, your shovel is the one thing that will save your partner. The last thing you want to happen is for your shovel breaks while digging someone out. The biggest factors will come down to blade shape/ size, materials, handle shape, and weight.

  • A skier using an avalanche shovel to quickly move snow from a burial victim
In most burial situations, rescuers have to remove literal TONS of snow to reach the victim. Make sure your shovel is up to the task and find something that you will be able to comfortably use and deploy.
  • Blade Shape/ Size

    This should be as big as manageable. A larger shovel blade will let you move more snow faster but may be heavier and tire you more quickly. In some instances, it could be easier to consistently move smaller mounds of snow with a smaller shovel than underloading a large shovel due to exhaustion.

  • Materials

    A metal shovel is usually the best bet. For icy conditions and maximum durability, having a metal shovel will be the most reliable material to chop through piles of snow. Some fancier shovels can even have carbon fiber shafts or handles for weight savings. Like most gear, lighter, fancier options tend to be more costly.

  • Handle Shape

    Go with whatever is most comfortable for you. T-shape, L-shape, or D- shapes are all popular options.

    A D-shaped handle is much easier to wield for mitten wearers! Some shovels also have the option to orient the handle and shaft at a 90-degree angle to the blade like a hoe. This can make chopping and dragging blocks of snow easier and is just another tool at your disposal if needed.
  • Weight

    This is the big one. For those “weight-weenies,” a small shovel blade with holes throughout the face and a short carbon fiber shaft is going to be the lightest option; but with weight savings comes other compromises. Durability and efficiency can be compromised if you go with a small ultra-light shovel. On the other hand, no one wants to lug around a driveway shovel while skiing. Find the heaviest shovel you are comfortable with, and that fits into your pack. More weight will make chopping and digging more comfortable, and proper technique will also increase digging efficiency.


Another underrated tool kept in every backcountry skier's bag. A probe is a long collapsible metal rod used to pinpoint a victim buried under the snow. After fine searching with a beacon, the probe comes out to pinpoint the exact location and depth of a buried individual. Probes come in different lengths and materials and, of course, have different pros and cons.

  • A skier pulls an avalanche probe out of a backpack
When it comes to deep snowpack, size does matter. If you’re between two probe sizes, always size up.


Typically between 240 and 300 cm, it is generally better to go longer rather than shorter. If you plan on going backcountry skiing or snowboarding in an area with a smaller snowpack, you could be OK with a shorter probe. If your local snowpack happens to be significantly larger, then a longer probe will be needed in the instance of a deeper burial.


Generally, they are either going to be aluminum or carbon fiber. While carbon fiber will grant better weight savings and packability, durability and efficiency can be compromised. In the instance of an avalanche where there is tough snowpack or hardened debris, having a sturdier aluminum pole will have an easier time piercing through the crud and hard stuff.

Ski Gear

  • A ski kit laid out on the ground including poles, ski boots, helmet, goggles, and set of skis
Look good, ski good. Those are the rules, I don’t make them up!


It’s right in the name. There is no backcountry skiing without skis! Backcountry skis are generally equipped with a wider waist width and lighter than most resort-style skis. Lightweight skis will help you go farther but may be less stable at speeds when ripping down the mountain. With everything else in the backcountry, shedding weight comes with its sacrifices and compromises. Some things to consider when looking for a pair of backcountry skis include waist width, length, rocker/camber profile, and weight.

  • Weight

    Weight is relatively important, as hauling yourself upwards can really take its toll, especially if your skis are super heavy. A lighter pair will be much easier on the way up, but you'll have to consider the ride down as well. Typically, heavier skis perform better on the downhill. Go light, go heavy, or attempt to find that sweet spot in the middle.

  • Width

    Width will come down to narrow or wide and really depends on what type of snow you'll be skiing as well as your preferred style. Narrow skis will work better in firm snow, while wide is excellent for the fluffier, deeper sections of the cold, white stuff. Watch out; wider skis are probably going to be a touch heavier.

  • Length

    This is probably the easiest to decide upon, especially if you already know what you go for at the resort. A good rule of thumb is something between your chin and the top of your head when the tails are on the ground. Backcountry adventures can benefit from shorter length skis, as they're lighter on the uphill and easier to turn. The downfalls of short skis are less float and less stability when zooming downwards fast. If you're just out there for those big powdery fields, go ahead and grab your longer skis, you'll have a blast cruising down to the bottom. Just acknowledge you'll have a slightly tougher uphill battle with those lengthy boards.

  • Type

    Oh boy, there are so many different options when it comes to skis, and honestly, you've gotta pick what works best for you. If you're used to one type, then it'll be very beneficial to at least get started with what you already have. Tailor them to your ski style and the type of snow you'll most often encounter. There is no "perfect" ski for every kind of snow you'll meet, so the key is to make sure you're having fun in the pair you do choose.

    • All Mountain:
      Often heavier and wider, but quite versatile when it comes to various snow options. These skis are usually better equipped for variable snow conditions such as crust and ice.
    • Nordic/Cross Country:
      Zip upwards in a lightweight option, but won't excel on the downhill. Non-releasable bindings can be a challenge and unsafe when venturing into risky avalanche areas.
    • Telemark:
      Free heel, converts well between uphill and downhill, but heavier than a Nordic/cross-country set-up.
    • Alpine Touring:
      Easy transition for those alpine skiers; this type will excel in the uphill while not compromising downhill performance as much as cross-country or Tele skis would. Alpine Touring skis are the lighter, touring specific cousins of All Mountain. It should be noted that due to their lightweight nature, these skis will generally not be as chargey or aggressive as All-Mountain skis would be.
    • Splitboard:
      If you're a snowboarder at the resort, this will probably be the best option for you. Ski the way up, but switch to snowboarding on the way down. A splitboard will be much easier to manage than snowshoes and a regular board, which is how they used to do it “back in the day”. If you are on a budget or just really want to use your regular snowboard, this is still an option at the sacrifice of a sizeable amount of extra weight. A splitboard differs from a regular snowboard in that they are usually made using lighter materials, with the uphill in mind. Binding placement and a cut from nose to tail are two other important features to note. The cut down the board is what makes it a SPLIT-board and what allows you to ski uphill. In order to achieve this, splitboard bindings are turned 90 degrees to mimic a touring ski.


You're not going anywhere if you don't have a way to connect your boots to those sweet boards you purchased. Bindings are definitely not an area to skimp out on. A broken binding is an immediate Game Over in the backcountry. Without a safe way of going up and downhill, you’re stuck to mono-skiing or walking. With additional moving pieces and an emphasis on lightweight materials being used in harsh environments, telemark bindings and pin bindings are susceptible to damage and additional wear and tear. A broken spring or malfunctioning heel piece can be cause for serious concern and can even result in injury. If you are looking for bindings on a budget, make sure they are compatible with your skis and boots as well as making sure that they are not something better suited to a ski museum. Most ski shops will not work on bindings or boots that are past their intended lifespan due to their higher chance for failure or damage.

  • A backcountry skier transitions from skinning to skiing by taking skins off his skis
  • Two backcountry skiers remove skins from their skis as they transition into downhill mode
Folding up skins is like playing with a piece of tape that’s 180cm long, but its also windy and you’re at the top of a mountain.

Tech (Pin) Bindings

Tech bindings are super light and will have you flying uphill. Tech bindings have pin systems that connect to the toe and heel separately. This increases the range of motion for skinning uphill. Pin bindings usually do not have a release for skiing downhill which should be considered when choosing between Alpine or tech bindings.

  • A close-up look of a pin-style binding holding a ski boot by the toe as the skier skins up an incline
Ski boots with textured, rubber soles make hiking and boot-packing so much easier.

Plate (Alpine) Bindings

Go plate, and it'll be a bit heavier on the uphill, but the downhill will be where it performs best. Plate bindings are going to look most similar to what you would see in the resort. They generally have more moving parts than a pin system but will feel most like your resort-style bindings. Alpine bindings will generally be equipped with a DIN release system for additional safety.


Another critical factor to consider is boot/binding compatibility. Before getting any bindings, check to see what type of boots you have and what binding types would be compatible with them. Not every AT boot will be compatible with every alpine touring binding. Check to see what ISO standard your boots are compatible with and match that with the correct binding. If your boot manufacturer says that the boot is WTR or AW (Walk to Ride) or GW (GripWalk) compatible, go off that instead. When in doubt, go over to your local ski shop or talk to a ski technician to get the nitty-gritty of exactly what bindings would work best for your needs. You can also reference our “Ski Buying Guide” for a quick reference to boot and binding standards and compatibility.

  • A close-up image of a skiers boot and binding interface as they skin up the mountain
Touring bindings like the Atomic Shift series are great for people who want the safety and simplicity of a typical downhill binding, with the uphill capability of a regular pin-system binding. Don’t let the weight weenies say you can’t have both!


Versatility is key; you'll want a flexible cuff for mobility uphill but stiffness for the downhill run. AT (Alpine Touring) boots are a great, versatile option, but not as stiff or light as an alpine ski boot. You can go with a lightweight option if you wish, and they will feature a walking hinge that will lock into place for the way down. One of the main distinctions between an AT boot and a regular resort-style Alpine Ski boot are the two small metal inserts with circular divots in the toe. The heels will have a similar metal piece that will have channels allowing for metal pins to lock the heel down as well. These two toe piece pivot points and free-moving heel will allow for a greater range of motion while skinning uphill. When you’re ready to go downhill, you lock your heels in, flip the boots from walk-mode to ski-mode, and rip it. Make sure whatever boots you do go with will fit with the bindings you plan to get.

  • A close-up image of the underside of a skiers boot connected to their pin bindings as they skin up a mountain
When setting a skin track, always try to keep the incline relatively mellow. Lower angle terrain is also safer from potential avalanche risk as well.

Ski Accessories


Less Buffalo Bill, a whole lot more getting yourself up the mountain. They've got some stick 'um adhesive that sticks to the bottom of your skis, and hardware attaches them to the tip and tail of your skis. The side that touches the snow allows you to glide forward while remaining Velcro-sticky the opposite way, preventing you from sliding. The snow-side can be made with mohair, nylon, or a combination of the two. There is debate on what is best, but pros tend to lean towards the mohair. Put 'em on your skis, so you don't slide backward on your way upwards.

  • A skier transitioning from downhill to uphill by putting on their skins, starting at the tip of the ski
If you plan on taking multiple laps, store your skins in your jacket instead of your pack. Your body heat will help prevent them from icing up and make them easier to put on for future runs!

Ski Crampons

While not considered a necessity, these can make your life much easier in hard snow. If you're familiar with boot crampons, they're similar. The main difference is they pivot up and out of the way when you lift your ski, facilitating a sliding forward stride. When engaged, they'll help you dig into that snow. Ski crampons are generally saved for expeditions that require steeper climbing sections.

  • A backcountry skier hiking up a mountain while carrying their skis on their back
If you look up “hard core” in the dictionary, you will find this exact picture.


Oh, you've already got some ski poles? Those will probably work, gotta have some stability when tromping around in the backcountry. If you don't have poles yet, snap up some adjustable ones. This way, you can have them longer or shorter, depending on the terrain, and can pack down small in your pack when not in use.

  • A skier holding a pair of collapsible ski poles with wrist straps
Ski poles are a highly underrated tool to bring on your backcountry trips. Lifting your heel risers, clearing snow from your bindings, and skiing (obviously) are all easier with a set of poles!


This is where you put all your stuff. Ski packs are different from regular packs, mainly in the way the compartments are set up. It will fit your shovel, probe, skins, and more much better than your hiking pack.

Pack Size and Materials

Backcountry ski and snowboard packs come in many different shapes and sizes. With a multitude of features and sizes, there is a pack built for any occasion. Whether it be some quick backcountry laps after work to a multi-day expedition, pack size is important to ensure you can carry what you need comfortably. A typical multi-day pack is going to be 35 liters and up. For a full-day tour with room for extra layers, snacks, and safety gear, a 20-30 liter pack is ideal. Packs smaller than 20 liters are great for carrying just the essentials. Probe, shovel, water, and a snack are all you really need to bring if you are just trying to snag a few laps in. Carrying a pack that is bigger than needed is just extra weight and material that you have to carry around the mountain.

Pack material is also a significant factor when it comes to weight and durability. A ski-specific pack will utilize burlier materials in high-wear areas such as front and side panels where sharp ski edges will come in contact.

AvaLung or Airbag Pack

Selecting a pack with an AvaLung or airbag can significantly increase the chance for survival if you're trapped underneath the snow in an avalanche or burial. AvaLung is a device that pulls oxygen from the snowpack to help you breathe while releasing CO2 away from your face. Airbags are pretty pricey, but look up a YouTube video, and you'll see how absolutely awesome they are. Deploy one of these puppies during an avalanche, and it will keep you higher up near the surface of the snow, making it easier to dig you out or even keep your head above the surface. Airbags also help create a bubble of space around your head and chest to create a larger pocket of air in the instance of a full burial.

  • A skier looks at the camera while wearing an avalanche backpack equipped with an airbag that is inflated
While survival with an Airbag or Avalung isn’t 100% guaranteed, it sure does increase your odds which in the situation of an avalanche, every percentage counts.

Ski Carry

Sometimes, you gotta strap your skis (or snowboard) to your pack and hoof it up a section. During these times, you'll need to utilize the special straps equipped on your pack to carry them. Most packs allow skis to be carried in an A-frame or diagonal manner, while snowboards can be carried horizontally or vertically. It just depends on your pack. Different carry orientations have their own advantages. An A-frame carry is usually more stable but requires a bit more time to set up. A diagonal carry is usually a quicker transition, but can sometimes feel less stable depending on the pack and strap orientation.

  • Two skiers hike up a mountain carrying their skis on their backs in a diagonal carry
The only thing worse than not summiting at all, is getting to the summit and realizing that you’re not actually at the summit yet. Gets me everytime.

Hydration Sleeve

All that work skiing around, you're gonna get thirsty. The easiest way to hydrate is with a hydration reservoir; grab a pack with a hydration sleeve for you to put it in. Make sure you get an insulated sleeve for the tube, so the water doesn't freeze. Some backpacks will have built-in sleeves for the hose as well.

Before You Go

Snow Study

Maybe not the first purchase you should make to build out your backcountry kit, but if you plan on making a serious habit of getting out there, it is a worthwhile purchase to make. Snow study kits include gear such as slope angle meter, crystal cards, magnifying loupes to study snowflake shapes, thermometers, snow saws, and extended column testing cord. If any of these tools are utterly foreign to you, then take a class, talk to a guide, and learn how to use these tools before taking them out in the backcountry. Professional tools in the hands of a novice could yield incorrect results and increase the likelihood of getting into a bad situation. Snow study kits are used to garner a higher level of understanding of the snowpack and current snow conditions. This by no means replaces avalanche organizations’ warnings, forecasts, and other information more readily available before venturing outside. Always study up and build your plan out BEFORE going into the wilderness. A snow study kit is merely a way to confirm or reassess conditions as the terrain or weather changes.

  • A backcountry enthusiast performs a compression test in a snowpit to determine snowpack stability
A compression test (shown above) is a great technique to learn about the stability of the snow and identify where any weak layers may be.

Maps/ Navigation

It is probably pretty obvious, but it is generally advised to have some form of navigational gear when going into the wilderness. Paper maps, downloaded GPS data, smartwatches that show elevation, wind speed, and direction (most outdoorsy multifunction watches) are also a great tool to use to get your bearings and prevent getting lost. A guidebook, map, and compass is also a great trifecta to keep on you to pinpoint your location and avoid obstacles such as cliffs, terrain traps, or other hazards.

Gear Maintenance

All this special gear needs special care as well. Climbing skins should be stored in a cool, dry climate and folded in half with the glue sides touching each other. After use, skins should be completely dry before put into storage. Climbing skin cleaner and new glue may also be needed depending on the condition of your skins. Properly storing your skis is just as important. Skis should also be kept in a cool and dry environment with any rust on the edges removed. Utilizing storage wax is also important to keep the bases from drying out during long-term storage.


Can I use my downhill skis for backcountry?

While not absolutely necessary, backcountry skis with appropriate bindings and equipment are highly recommended when ducking past the ropes at your resort. Backcountry terrain can be accessible via lift or vehicle and does not always require a full touring setup. All-Mountain skis with regular downhill bindings will generally be much heavier than a touring setup and should be considered when planning on hiking in the snow.

What is the minimum gear you need for backcountry skiing?

The absolute necessities for skiing in unmanaged terrain are a Beacon, Shovel, and Probe. Other gear to bring along would be Skis, Poles, Helmet, Goggles, Extra layers, snacks, and hydration.

How do backcountry ski bindings work?

Backcountry or AT bindings differ from regular alpine bindings with one important function. Touring bindings will have pins that engage with the toe piece to create a pivot point for the ski to rotate on. This pivot point, paired with AT boots in walk mode, allow for greater range of motion to walk/glide in a more natural motion. Without this free heel and pivot, skinning would be an extremely inefficient process.

Where can I learn more about avalanche conditions?

Local weather services as well as resources such as Avalanche.org and the National Weather Service are excellent resources to use when learning about current snow conditions and avalanche risk. Local weather services and avalanche centers will be the most useful resources for understanding snow conditions for the specific areas you plan on visiting.

Brian Peacock
Born and raised in The Mitten State, I spent much of my youth exploring and adventuring the many lakes and natural beauty that Michigan has to offer. I am an avid skier, mountain biker, backpacker, and just a generally outdoorsy person. After spending a few years enjoying the mountains of Colorado, I decided to come back to where it all started. Heading into my 4th year with Moosejaw, I definitely say I live for the madness. So stop by the shop, bring your furry four-legged friend, and tell me your best joke.... you might just win a free laugh!

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