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What to pack for a day of backcountry skiing

October 7, 2015

Found in Activities, Gear, Skills and tips

I’m interested in what folks keep in their packs for emergencies, and I like to compare notes so I can create the ultimate kit suited to my style of backcountry travel. My trips are usually one-day missions, where I depart from home at 3am and venture into the darkness. During early season, I start thinking about what I should include or pull from my bag. Contents might change depending on the mission or how remote my destination is.

There’s always a focus on lightening our loads in the backcountry and I cringe at the idea of adding more gear, but there should be a few minimum items carried by all enthusiasts. I’d like to think this list, made with one- to three-day excursions in mind, hits the sweet spot. Some of these items never leave my bag and would see me through an injury or unplanned bivy. Wherever possible, I try to use items that are multi-purpose to save space. Coordinate with your trip partners to find out what gear can be shared amongst a group and adjust your first aid kit to group numbers and personal requirements.

Note:* This list does not include backcountry safety essentials. Visit Avalanche Canada for further information, and make sure you’re trained in avalanche safety before venturing into any backcountry situation.*

Ski straps

I carry four ski straps: two 15cm straps and two 24cm straps as a minimum. The uses are endless, from keeping you organized and efficient when loading a helicopter to lashing your skies/poles together like a pro.

Other strap hacks:

  • Use the strap to bind your skins to your skis in the event they aren’t sticking.
  • If your skins aren’t sticking to the snow, these add grip to your stride.
  • Lash extras to your pack.
  • Compress stuff sacks.
  • You can immobilize limbs for a variety of injuries when you use them with ski poles or sticks. They can also hold pressure on soft tissue injuries or soakers on large open wounds.
  • Helps MacGyver a rescue toboggan by fastening skis together.
Small headlamp

If I know I’m going to need a lamp, I’ll usually take a high powered model. I wouldn’t recommend a small headlamp as your primary light source, but I carry one as a backup unit for navigation. I’m a fan of the Petzl Zipka headlamp.


Tape can be used for injury aid, taping parts and skins to skis, and general resourcefulness.

  • Electrician tape is great until temperatures dip.
  • Duct tape is best, but you can’t avoid the sticky residue.
  • White medical tape is great, and can help in a real emergency.
Emergency bivy or tarp and sleeping pad

Bivies or tarps are great to have if an injury crops up. These lightweight shelters provide insulation from the snow and protection from the elements. And should you ever get trapped by the dark, you’ll need a stronghold.

  • There are many emergency models of bivies to choose from. I tend to carry a siltarp that can fit two people for additional warmth and can also double as a shelter. A bright color helps you be seen.
  • A bivy sleeping pad is cut to fit flat inside your pack, making it a great seat or extra insulation for an unexpected night out. I’ll often sit on my pack and put this under my feet, and it definitely makes a difference in heat loss.
Lighter and firestarter

In cases of delayed exit or unexpected overnights, fire is a great asset. Also, if someone incurs an injury and you’re stuck awaiting evacuation, it can help with shock prevention.

  • A waterproof and impact-resistant lighter case is great. I always store mine in an additional re-sealable plastic bag, because you can’t be too prepared. It’s best to make sure your ski partner has one as well.
  • There are a few different kinds of firestarters, so select the one best for you and test it out before you depart. I prefer the sticks and have had good success starting a fire in doubtful conditions.

You never know when you might need to do a field repair. Find a multi-tool that works to cover your needs in an unexpected situation. Look at driver bits that suit the equipment you carry.

What to pack for backcountry skiing
First aid kit

Taking a Wilderness First Aid course will help you think outside the box in case you end up dealing with backcountry emergencies. A first aid kit is a definite necessity. Being able to modify or tweak your gear can be a real lifesaver.

  • One thing I always make sure I have is one pressure dressing. The soaker gauze utilizes tensor bandage-like wrap for pressure, but can also be used as support for sprains and strains.
  • Suture bandages, and lots of them.
  • Bring along some Ibuprofen for that early season hip flexor pain.
Bailing wire

Simply put, if something starts falling apart or breaks, this is a great way to hold it together.

Synthetic jacket**

** I carry my MEC Commix Hoodie (women can grab the MEC Boundary Light Down Jacket) in a light dry bag and squeeze all the air out so it’s totally compact. Warm, compressible layers are essential to any backcountry outing. I bring mine every single time.

Pole baskets

In serious powder, poles are useless without baskets, so bring an extra pair and it could save your day, or at the very least, get you a few more turns. These Powder Baskets are a great option.

Prima Bar

Fight the bonk and fuel the engine! These tasty bars are equally good frozen or thawed and pack a decent calorie punch for their size and weight. Cherry Coconut is my favourite flavour.

Small hot packs

Hot packs make the coldest part of the night bearable. Make sure you bring multiple, and place these small packs in key areas to keep you warm, like around your femoral arteries (target it at your inner upper thigh or where they branch out at your tailbone). It’s amazing how long a single night can feel, and these little guys give you the confidence boost to see the night through.

Skin wax

When you’re out spring skiing with sticky snow conditions, it’s almost mandatory to keep a small block of skin wax to prevent snow building up on your skin bases. Bringing this wax along helps you save your hip flexors and energy.


Someone always forgets to put fresh batteries in either their headlamp or the transceiver. Pack a couple as backup and be the hero of the day.

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