Backcountry Basics (For Real This Time)

Backcountry skiing is exploding right now! With all the upgrades in gear, touring and exploring are much easier and lighter. There’s something about being alone in the woods that many of us enjoy; the solitude and the fun of exploring new places is awesome.

I really enjoyed Chad’s common sense checklist for the backcountry. Though we laugh at it, that stuff really does happen.  Just because we don’t live at altitude or have high risks of avalanches in Vermont, it doesn’t mean that things can’t go wrong. We should never underestimate Mother Nature and always be aware of our surroundings. This doesn’t mean you should live in fear either. Take some time to educate yourself, be prepared for the worse, and use common sense when your in the woods.

The first thing you should have is a decent pack, preferably one with a hydration unit and insulated hose. If you don’t have a “bladder” for your pack, use Nalgene bottles, but when you’re filling them before you leave, use warm to hot water. Have a multi-tool like a Leatherman, or Gerber. Make sure you have a map and compass and know how to use them. Bring a good loud whistle also. There is a great book written by Björn Kjellström called “Be Expert With Map and Compass,” the complete orienteering handbook. Get it and read it, it’s a great book!

GPS units are great until the batteries are dead. If your bringing along a GPS, make sure you have extra batteries. Also, be sure you have a butane lighter and water proof matches. Take some cotton balls (100 percent cotton), put them in a zip-lock bag, and add Vaseline to them, then massage the Vaseline into them so they are fully soaked. This will be your tinder should you need to start fire; it’s also very compact and lightweight.

Bring along an extra shell or jacket, base layer, gloves, and a couple winter hats. Chances are when you get to the top of the mountain you’re going to be sweating, which makes you wet and you will probably want some dry gear to change into.

Pack some of those small hand and foot warmer packets that you always see on the counter of your outdoor shop or ski hill. When possible, take someone with you and always let someone else know where you’re going and when you plan to be back. Give yourself a cut-off time: If you don’t reach your destination by that time turn around. There’s a lot less daylight in the winter. Almost everyone has a cell phone but chances are you probably won’t have a signal. Send a text message, it has a much better chance of going through with spotty coverage. Lastly, go out into your backyard and practice starting a fire with what nature is supplying, or practice building a makeshift shelter or snow cave. If you ever have to do it in the woods you’ll already have practiced and have the hands on knowledge.

I probably missed some items but you get the idea, you don’t want to get too crazy either, “fear is extra weight.” One last item you might want to consider it the SPOT unit. I have one and hope I never have to use it but it does add a little extra security and the coverage seems to be great.

So go get out there, be safe, and most important have fun!


Greg Rems

Avid Vermont enthusiast, be it telemarking, cycling, running, hiking, or anything outside. Chef de Cuisine the Inn at West View Farm in Dorset, Vt. Living in Arlington.