Off-piste (or backckountry) skiing is growing in popularity by the year thanks to a combination of better gear that makes powder skiing easier and better access to those slopes.
However, it’s not just a case of clipping into your skis and heading for the hills – you’re in a wild and harsh environment out here with no groomed slopes or ski lifts to make things easy and no ski patrol to come to your assistance if things go wrong, so it’s important to be as well prepared as possible.
Apart from ensuring you have the skiing ability, fitness and knowledge to be in the backcountry in the first place you can further increase the safety factor by making sure you carry the right gear.
Here’s a basic checklist for anyone heading off-piste this winter:
Avalanche transceiver – you not only need one, you need to know how to use it. The radio signals emitted by a transceiver such as the Mammut Pulse Barryvox will help you be found quickly if you’re caught in an avalanche or help you find your partner/s should they be buried. Practice, practice, practice using it just in case the worst ever happens.
Shovel and probe – your transceiver is no use without a probe to – well, probe – for an avalanche victim once your transceiver has homed in on the spot where they’re buried, and you obviously need a lightweight collapsible shovel to dig them out. Again, practice with both of these before your head off-piste.
Avalanche pack – if your budget will run to it, an avalanche pack such as the North Face Patrol 24 can literally be a life saver. If you’re caught in a slide you pull on the ‘rip cord’ built into one of the shoulder straps and an airbag will instantly inflate around your head, neck and shoulders to help you ‘float’ on top of the avalanche as well as protect your head and neck. It’ll cost you in excess of £700 but isn’t your life worth that?
Goggles – you need quality goggles which ain’t gonna steam up if you’re climbing uphill or making long traverses; and if you wear contact lenses and find comfort when participating in outdoor activities an issue, you could be wearing the wrong lenses – take a look at this helpful guide for lens wearers from Acuvue because it doesn’t matter how good your goggles are if you can’t see through them, and contacts are safer than glasses in the event of a wipeout.
Sunglasses – no use at all when you’re actually skiing (if you fall you may lose them and you’ll undoubtedly end up with snow crammed behind the lenses), but they’ll help you stay cooler on ascents whilst at the same time protecting your eyes. Here’s a useful guide to a good range of options.
Skis – yes, they’re pretty useful when heading off-piste! You’ll be wanting something that’s wide underfoot so you have good float in the powder combined with a touring binding that will allow you to ‘skin’ uphill in conjunction with skins and a pair of ski touring boots.
Clothing – layering up is essential so you can add or remove layers depending on how hot or cold you feel. It’s also good to have a jacket and pants with ‘venting’ zips in the armpits and thighs for those long climbs.
Sun cream – apply before you set off and keep reapplying – the sun’s rays are more intense at altitude and there’s also serious reflection off the snow.
Mobile phone – it’s unlikely, but you may just have a signal; so it’s always worth taking your phone along in case of an emergency.
Finally, having read the snow and weather reports before you leave to ensure the conditions are as safe as possible, let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back…and make sure you have fun!
P.S. Take a camera to record that fun…


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