Bruce Kirkby in gear shed surrounded by outdoor gear

5 essentials to know before you head into the backcountry

Anyone entering the backcountry this winter – whether on skis, snowshoes, splitboard or even snow machine – bears a responsibility to stay up to date on rescue skills and equipment. Newcomers: don’t be intimidated by the unfamiliar skills and equipment. Likewise, veterans – you should continually refresh your knowledge by taking courses and practicing rusty skills.

Here are five essentials everyone should consider before launching on the first backcountry (or slackcountry) mission of the year:

1. Take a training course

This is absolutely essential. At a minimum, everyone in your group must have completed the AST 1 (Avalanche Safety Training) from Avalanche Canada. They should also be refreshing those skills annually. These courses teach a systematic approach to identifying and selecting terrain, based on the forecast, and provide the foundation for managing avalanche risk.

2. Get the essential gear

Everyone must carry – and know how to use – a transceiver, shovel and probe.

Plenty of other important items will be found in a well-provisioned backpack, including water, food, first aid, extra insulating jacket and communication equipment… but transceiver, shovel and probe form the foundation of rescue.

Note: it is vital that everyone has a modern, three-antennae digital transceiver. Single-antenna (or analogue) transceivers are obsolete and dangerous. Despite the expense required to upgrade, it’s a must.

3. Practice, practice, practice

Owning rescue gear is not enough, you must also know how to use it – without hesitation. Practice is essential. Practice shovelling. (There is a skill and method to digging deep, fast.) Practice probing. (Can you differentiate between a rock and a pack buried below the snow?) Most critically, practice transceiver searches again and again – with one buried unit, two, or even three – until the search protocol becomes second nature.

4. Assembling a team

Who you chose to travel in the backcountry with has a profound influence on safety. So don’t leave this up to the random chance of a late night phone call. The AST course explores human factors that can affect a group’s ability to make good decisions, such as things ranging from complacency in familiar terrain to competition for first tracks. Ultimately, good communication, patience and discipline are keys.

5. Game day preparation

Before you set out, everyone in the group should be familiar with the avalanche forecast. Are objectives, alternatives, and turn-around points clear? Has someone been made aware of your plans, alternatives, and when you expect to be back?

Travel in the backcountry offers magnificent rewards, but also comes with significant responsibilities.  This shouldn’t dissuade or prevent you from exploring winter’s wonders though. By adopting the systematic approach taught in Avalanche Canada’s AST courses, and traveling with communicative, patient and disciplined groups, such hazards can be effectively managed.

Bruce’s backcountry gear picks

Collage of backcountry ski gear
  • Salomon QST 92 Skis: My slackcountry secret weapon. Floaty enough for pow, yet narrow and firm enough to carve train tracks down a groomer. Lightweight, lots of pop and an all-round fun ski for just about any condition.
  • G3 Ion 12 Bindings: The last thing I want is for a binding to pop when I open the turns up. The Ion 12 is light enough to be a perfect tour binding, and burly enough to crank up the DIN.
  • Black Diamond Expedition Poles: I’ve used a pair of BD Expedition Poles for 20 years, and despite my flailing and thrashing, they’ve never bent or jammed. I’d trust them anywhere.
  • G3 Alpinist Skins: Grippy, lightweight, easy to get on and off – what’s not to like?
  • MEC Ferrata Pants: I’ve been a fan of the Ferrata Pant for 25 years. My original pair are held together with thread, floss and duct tape. So I bought a new pair last winter, and nothing has changed – they’re still the perfect mix of breathability and snow shedding for backcountry travel.
  • MEC Synergy Jacket: I like having the confidence that no matter how bad conditions get, I can batten down the hatches and stay comfortable. The Synergy has been my go-to shelter in foul conditions for years.
MEC Ambassador Bruce Kirkby
Bruce Kirkby

Adventurer, MEC Ambassador, author, columnist, photographer, family man – Bruce’s talents roam about as wildly as his adventures do. Pronouns: he/him.