Section 09: Supplementary backcountry skiing equipment

9. What else do I need?

9.1 How do I get uphill?

9.1.1 What are climbing skins (or skins)?

Climbing skins are long textured pieces of fabric that are attached to the bottom of the skis and provide enough friction for a skier to climb rather steep hills. Once upon a time, skins were actually made from seal pelts (thus the name), but now they are made from mohair or nylon. The fabrics have a dense mat of directional "fur" that prevents the skier from slipping backwards but still slide forward. Using skins, you can walk up amazingly steep trails.

Skins are attached to skis by two different systems. The first system is a mechanical system of straps. The second system is a special type of glue where the ski-side of the skin is coated with an adhesive which sticks to the base of the ski.

The mechanical system is relatively carefree, but the straps interfere with ski edges, and it does not climb as well as the glue system.

The glue system requires the ski base to be fairly clean, dry and free of sticky wax. The tip of the skin has a loop which goes over the ski tip; usually there is no attachment at the tail, just the glue, but you can buy "tail-fix " kits which provide a hook for the back end of the skin. (Duct tape works in a pinch.)

Use and care:


To recoat skins with glue:

Or pay your local shop or Ascension Enterprises in Ridgeway Colorado to do it for you (preferred).

9.1.2 Should I use waxes?

Waxes are used more by overland touring skiers than by downhill skiers because waxes are most effective for shorter climbs where the hill is not very steep. When it works well, waxes are much more convenient than skins. This includes using wax for mountain skiing too.

There are two schools of thought on waxing: some people use a glide wax such as Maxiglide on the tips and tails, and kick wax in the kick pocket (under the foot); others use a colder kick wax (which functions as a glide wax) on the tips and tails, and the temperature- indicated kick wax in the kick pocket. Many people suggest beginning with a "two (or three) wax system". These use two hard (solid) waxes and one klister (gooey liquid) wax. The hard waxes are for new snow -- one for cold/dry snow and one for warmer/wet snow. The klister is for old snow or snow that has thawed and refrozen. The next step up is with a hard wax system that uses a color-coded progression of waxes that correspond to the snow temperature.

9.1.3 Are the any other alternatives?

You can purchase skis with fish scaled bottoms. These are great when they work, but unfortunately they don't work well on steep slopes and in many snow conditions. Still they are an excellent "hassle free" alternative for overland skiing in relatively flat terrain.

There are some skiers that use a router to put very deep fish scales into their skis. With a router and a sharp bit create about 25 cm of scales. On the hill, these scales allow you to climb slowly but steadily, but the require a low angle climbing track.

Finally a strong piece of cord can be tied around the ski to help with climbing. The idea is to take a long piece cord (about 10 meters if memory serves me well) and fold it in half. Loop the cord over the tip and tie it in place. Then alternating on the bottom and top, tie a square knot cord for at least half the length of the ski. This isn't something you would want to do for a lot of up and down skiing, but it works in a pinch. Keep this in mind if a skin fails too.

9.2 Is there safety equipment that I need?

See also the hazards section of this FAQ.

9.2.1 Do I need the 10 essentials?

It makes sense to have some extra clothes, extra food a small first aid kit, a map and compass, a knife, some matches and firestarter, a whistle, a mirror and maybe a few other basic things for safety. See any book on hiking for good lists on safety equipment.

9.2.2 Do I need a shovel?

YES. When you are skiing in avalanche terrain, you must always carry a sturdy snow shovel. If a member of your party is buried, a shovel is needed to dig them out (skis, boards, gloves, poles, packs, etc don't work).

Lightweight shovels are available from many manufacturers and they are inexpensive. So buy one. Shovels are made of aluminum or plastic. Both are adequate, but many people would prefer that you to have an aluminum shovel.

A persistent and untrue rumor is that metal shovels can interfere with beacon signals. See this for the test.

9.2.3 And how about those beacons?

When you are skiing in avalanche terrain, you should also carry an avalanche beacon. These are radio based devices that transmit and receive a radio signal. This radio signal is used to locate buried avalanche victims.

The internationally accepted frequency for avalanche beacons is 457 kHz. Older North American beacons operated at a different frequency (2275 Hz) and should be retired. For this reason, you should not buy a used beacon unless you are sure that its frequency is 457 kHz.

Beacons retail for about $250 US (1997). They are expensive, but you've got to have one if you want to decrease the risk to get killed by an avalanche.

JUST HAVING A BEACON IS NOT ENOUGH TO ENSURE YOUR SURVIVAL. TO SUCCESSFULLY USE ONE REQUIRES BASIC INSTRUCTION AND LOTS OF PRACTICE. Beacon use and practice is part of the curriculum of every avalanche class, so take one.

9.3 What should I wear?

You should think of backcountry skiing as a full-on aerobic sport that is conducted in a cold climate. You will be very warm (and possible sweaty) when you are going uphill, and unless you put on additional clothes, you will get cold if you stop for very long.

Therefore, it is important that your clothes be as versatile as possible, and this can only be accomplished by layering your garments.

Most manufacturers of high quality outdoor clothing recommend that you have 3 basic layers, a inner layer that wicks away perspiration, a middle insulating layer and a outer shell layer that keeps the snow and wind out.

This system works well, but there seems to be a nearly infinite number of ways that you can accomplish it. For example, the middle insulating layer can be as light as another piece of underwear, or maybe its a pile vest or jacket, or it might even be a down vest or jacket. This is complicated by geography, i.e. what works well in British Columbia is probably far too warm for New Mexico.

Because good quality outdoor clothing is expensive, use what you already have at first, and add clothing as you find needs. As a target point, you should dress a bit warmer than you would for track skiing (and have extra, warm garments), and you should dress considerably cooler than for resort skiing. Good things to wear that you might already have include cold weather running clothing, nordic ski clothing, and alpine ski clothing. Avoid using insulated jackets and pants for the outer shell because they are just too warm. Finally, other than wool, avoid most natural fiber clothing (i.e. cotton) because they get wet and cold.

It will take some trial and error to find the clothing system that works best for you and the area you ski in. You can learn a lot from watching what other people are wearing.

9.4 What do I need for winter camping?

Winter camping with skis is a lot like summer backpacking with a few big exceptions that are the result of the cold temperatures. You should consult books on winter camping before going to get a better picture of the difficulties you may encounter. To get an idea of these difficulties, a few are listed here.

o You need to stay warm at night, so either you need a winter sleeping bag, or you need a three season sleeping bag and you need to build a snow shelter (cave or igloo).

o You will probably need to melt ALL of the water you are going to drink. Most likely there will not be a supply of liquid water, so plan on melting snow. Bring a stove, a big pot and a lot of fuel.

o Keep your essential gear warm at night, i.e. sleep with your water bottles, boot liners, and possibly your fuel container in your sleeping bag.

o Eat a lot of food and drink a lot of water. Your internal furnice is working on overtime, and it needs fuel to keep you warm and healthy.

9.5 Using backcountry sleds

Sled's can make carrying large loads into the backcountry easier. But beware, they are difficult to control on steep terrain and while traversing.

To build your own ski sled, click here.

9.6 What does your checklist look like?

Couloir magazine provides an excellent extended checklist. It contains too much stuff for an ordinary day tour, so filter as needed.

Personally, for a day tour in the Wasatch, I usually bring the following stuff.

o The obvious stuff:

- skis
- boots
- poles
- pack

o Clothes to wear and extra:

- Outerwear: Hooded jacket, pants and gaiters
- Warm hat, light brimmed hat, neck gaiter
- Warm gloves, light gloves, extra light liners
- Mid-weight underwear top and bottom.
- Mid-weight socks
- Stretch ski pants (good weather days)
- Pile vest
- down sweater
- Sun glasses and goggles

o Avalanche related stuff

- Shovel
- Avalanche beacon, extra batteries
- Avalanche probe
- Clinometer

o Ski related stuff

- Skins, spray glue and skin wax
- Extra binding cable and parts
- Pole basket
- Small vice-grips and a sturdy screwdriver
- Duct tape

o Miscellaneous

- First-aide kit
- 20 meters 7mm rope
- Matches, candle, pocket knife, headlamp, mirror
- Space blanket
- Suntan lotion, lip balm
- 2 liters of water
- High energy food for lunch (and an extra orange)

My pack is not as light as a lot of people I know, but its not really heavy either.

On to Section 11: Where can I get gear?

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