Gear Hack Your Backcountry Setup

How to optimize your BC rig and save money

PHOTO: Mikko Lampinen

Planks
There are a bunch of rad, new, lightweight backcountry skis. They’re great, but you don’t need them. Lighter is better for sure, but not hundreds of dollars better, and if you’re doing one-day assaults on Himalayan peaks where every gram counts you wouldn’t be reading this.

You’re probably going to get more value out of your money with a solid tech binding rig, or better AT boots, or liners, or footbeds than from a fancy new ski. So just remount your old beaters, or buy a used pair. (Sorry ski companies, but we do have to get people into the actual sport before we can sell them $1,000 carbon “backcountry” skis, no?)

Boots
For a long time, all touring boots sucked for skiing, then there were a couple that were way better but cost $1,000 (plus a better liner), now the $600 boots are really good and you can get the $1,000 boots for $300 used. You still have to get the shells that fit you the best, and if you want to use skis wider than about 100-millimeters underfoot without torquing your ankles half out of the boots every time you attempt to edge on firm snow, you’re going to need a snug fit that might require some punching and stretching.

Try your alpine boot liners in your AT shells for more support (and maybe a simple fix for fit issues). They already fit your foot and will probably take up a little volume and make the boot stiffer and taller feeling. Stout leather liners from a race boot will make any rando boot ski better. There’s a trade-off. They’ll be heavier and you’ll lose some backwards ROM for touring on flat ground, but it’s worked like a charm for me: lightweight and minimalist Dynafit TLT5’s combined with liners from a pair of Nordica plug boots ski better than many heavy, bulky, downhill-oriented AT boots I’ve tried.

Likewise, if you’ve already got a boot that fits decently, smaller mods or add-ons like cuff spoilers, powerstraps, and stiffer tongues can be a cheap handling upgrade.

Bindings
Here’s where you’re a little hosed. Spend $700 for the latest and greatest (which are a definite improvement if you’re looking for more alpine-style downhill performance/retention) or wait for the market to rationalize a little bit next year. In the meantime, Dynafit’s tried and true Speed Radical/Speed Turn is the cheap way out. You don’t want to be hucking your meat on these 10 DIN binders, but they’ll do the job for under $300 new.

Poles
You already have poles, so don’t buy special ones for backcountry skiing. Extendable poles are good for two things: fitting in your luggage and re-sizing for different skiers. It’s just another thing to break. They’re weaker and cost more.

Add some handlebar tape to the shafts below the grip so you can choke up on your poles when climbing steeper bits or sidehilling—it’s just like adjusting an adjustable pole, only with the having to adjust the pole part.

If you like steep skiing, try shorter poles. They’re better for climbing and less in the way when the angles ramp up.

Whippets are cool for some applications, but if you don’t have an ice axe already, that will give you more utility. Get a nice cheap one (see below).

Pack
Carrying skis thrashes packs, so it’s better to have something that’s more durable and carries better than a potentially fragile ultralight pack. An uncomfortable pack that fits wrong and sways all over the place will make you more tired than an extra pound on your back.

Take a razor blade and cut off everything (flaps, straps, pockets, etc) that you won’t use, and shorten every strap with too much extra tail (hit the edge with a lighter to seal it from fraying). Not because you’re all anal retentive about weight, but most of that stuff is just going to add extra fiddle factor when you deal with your rig, and getting whipped in the face with straps on a windy ridge just flat out sucks.

Crampons/Axe
All you need are the basics here—crampons that fit your boots without a wrestling match, and a relatively solid axe with a steel head. Lightweight is OK up to a point, and that’s the point where you can’t get the thing to stick in hard ice, or you need to clatter it into rocks (this happens). For skiers, light aluminum crampons are fine, they just won’t take as much bashing on rocks as the heavier steel models. When your crampons are new and super sharp, use ski straps to secure baggy pant cuffs so they don’t get shredded.

Ski crampons are probably awesome for certain situations (or more glacial locations), but I don’t seem to miss them. Regular crampons, on the other hand, sit useless in your pack until you need them, and then they’ll save your life (or the day).

Rappel Cord
You can buy super light ski-mountaineering rappel kits now, but a few feet of webbing, a couple slings and carabiners, plus 30 meters of 6 or 7-millimeter static line can get the job done for less.

And you don’t have to be a master alpinist to save your ass with a super minimal rappel/belay rig. You don’t even need a real harness, a bunch of climbing gear, or a ton of climbing experience to solve problems with a rope—just a couple basic concepts and techniques and some common sense. So many days in the mountains can come down to one sketchy moment in an otherwise mellow experience—a little down-climb on slippery rocks, a cornice, an awkward entrance to a chute. Being able to belay/rappel, even just using a rope hanging from a tree as a hand line can eliminate the sketch from those moments.

Outerwear
You don’t need a $700 jacket, just a light, simple price-point shell with enough room to layer. More pockets and zippers are just more annoyance. Don’t use it for everyday duty (wear your old stuff, or better yet, thrift store gear) and the fabric’s water-repellent finish will last longer so it’ll be waterproof when you actually need it in the backcountry. Same goes for pants.

Mid-Layers
Thrift store wool rules. A button down wool shirt and a sweater work great and cost $200 less than the equivalent in new fleece. Cashmere or lambswool are always appreciated. Besides, wouldn’t you look better striking a summit pose in a nice argyle grandpa sweater?

If you’re going to spring for something new, a light, packable down or poly-fill sweater/vest can be had for $100, and should be in your pack every day.

Base Layers
Don’t tell Patagonia I said so, but… even though it’s not as nice as the fancy stuff, gets stinky, doesn’t last as long, is bad for the planet, polypro base layers from Kmart, Uniqlo, or similar get the job done for a quarter the cost (or less).

Gloves
Yes, there are $200 gloves and no doubt they are really good. But they all end up thrashed and leaky regardless (which is why so many patrollers just use Kincos). Instead, buy two pairs of cheap hardware store gloves. Tour up with the light ones, keep the heavier gloves in the pack until needed.

Solutions
Multi-tool, headlamp, first aid kit, duct tape, bailing wire, extra ski straps, zip ties, firestarter, etc. You could expand this infinitely, but even a dirt cheap and minimal Oh Shit Kit can solve a lot of problems—all it has to do is get you back to the car.

If you’re going deep or into complex terrain, print out maps, photos, any useful info, and throw it in your pack. It weighs nothing, costs nothing, and could help you avoid a Bad Day.

Self-Actualize
Along those lines, knowledge is even lighter than paper (and free!)—and all you have to do to upgrade your mental backcountry rig is be observant when you’re outside, and read when you’re inside.