Are you tired of standing in long lift lines on powder days? Does ski traffic ruin your day before you've even arrived at the resort? Do you need to retire from icy bumps because your knees are getting old and you've had one too many ACL reconstruction surgeries?
Then you, my friend, should start skiing in the backcountry where fields of powder abound and crowds are thin (or… at least compared to ski resorts).
But don't be too quick on the draw. There are a lot of steps to take before you can hit the skin track. A myriad of different combinations of boot-binding-ski setups are geared toward specific types of skiers depending on their ratio of backcountry to resort days and the balance of their bank account. Then there's avy gear, and no beacon purchase is complete without education on how to use it.
Since 1979, Alpenglow Sports has been Tahoe City’s established backcountry ski shop. Jeff Dostie has been working there since 2003 and in that time, he has steered many customers toward the right setup for whatever adventure they're after, myself included. After I bought a plane ticket to Chamonix on impulse a few years ago, I wandered into Alpenglow naively to figure out what I might need. I credit Dostie for educating me without making me feel totally clueless and also for helping me choose the tools that kept me safe and prepared on the most incredible ski trip of my life. I called up Dostie earlier this month to share a few steps and tips with skiers looking to invest in a backcountry ski setup.
Step one: Go to a ski shop.
Do your research, and not on the internet where misinformation is rampant. Instead, talk to someone who knows the gear from experience.
"Honestly, my first recommendation to anyone is to go to a specialty retailer that can actually inform them and give them all the different variations of bindings, of skis, of boots," says Dostie, who is also a guide in Alaska at Points North's heli accessed touring program.
In other words, don't trust my opinion. Trust the Alaskan ski guide/backcountry ski shop manager's opinion. It helps if you know that your shop guy isn't making commission off the information they are giving you.
"It's about going to a shop that you trust the staff and you trust you're not being sold anything, but you're educated on everything," says Dostie.
When you walk into the shop, be honest.
Are you a resort skier who is going to test the waters with a few lift-accessed runs out of bounds? Are you an old dude who is looking to wiggle turns in low-angle fields of powder? Or are you trying to be the next Ian McIntosh and send 50-footers in Alaska?
"That would be the difference between maybe a frame binding or a tech binding," says Dostie. There is no shame, wherever you are at. But there is a lot of different gear. "Letting the customer make the decision off the education is paramount."
Another thing to be honest about: your budget.
Buying a backcountry setup is a giant investment, and you need all of the above to go into avalanche terrain. It's not just the skis, boots, bindings, but also the beacon, the probe, the shovel, maybe an airbag. You could drop $3,000, easily. But if you're smart, you can also get a setup for a lot less.
Dostie says you can buy slowly if your kit is something that would work at both the resort and the backcountry. Buy the skis, boots, bindings, ski it for a couple months inbounds, then buy a pair of skins. Ask your parents for a beacon for Christmas, and pick up a few extra shifts to pay for the shovel and the probe.
"You've bought everything within a season, but you've spread it out a little bit," says Dostie.
Get Educated: Take the Avy One class as soon as you can.
The Avy One equips skiers with a lot of basic knowledge for backcountry skiing. Not only about snow science and the anatomy of avalanches, but the class also goes over route finding, human factors, and beacon practice.
If you can't afford to take the Avy One right away, be extra cautious. You are inexperienced. Make sure you go out with knowledgeable and experienced people who are willing to mentor you. Ask questions, learn from them, and don't push it in moderate or significant avalanche conditions. "Be safe, get the experience, then take that experience into your Avy One and then you've got good route-finding skills, you've got basic snowpack knowledge," says Dostie.
If you're concerned about your budget, skip the skis for the Avy One.
"If you need an extra three hundred bucks to take the Avy One course, go buy some old junk ski from a ski swap for your first season and take the Avy One," says Dostie.
You can ski any ski. The boot and binding, however, are crucial, and so is the education to stay safe and keep your friends safe.
A brief overview of boots and bindings for backcountry skiing
Backcountry ski boots can be evaluated on a scale of weight.
Ultra light touring boots are not made to ski inbounds, but to hike uphill. Think SkiMo racing, Euro-style. These boots are not as durable or stable as more ski-oriented backcountry boots, says Dostie. They're also super expensive. It sounds counter-intuitive, but you pay more for less because lighter weight means better technology.
The next step up is the crossover boot. It has tech soles, and it's light enough to hike uphill easily, but it's slight added weight lends more support for skiing downhill. We have a selection of touring boots in our Buyer's Guide, to get you started.
"So now you're starting to mix pure backcountry with resort-slash-sidecountry," says Dostie. "But you're leaning toward a tech binding more than a frame binding or a resort binding."
Crossover and ultra light bacountry boots with both have tech fittings in the toe and heal, so you will need to also get a tech binding, like a pair of Dynafits. A few resort bindings can accommodate boots with tech soles, just ask your shop guy if the ISO setting is compatible.
The heaviest category are what POWDER calls hybrid ski boots. These won't do much for you when climbing uphill, but they are the most sturdy to ski in. And they come with a walk mode, aka a bar mode.
"It's super comfortable to go to the bar and to stand up straight in your boots, but it's heavier and doesn't walk as well, and nowadays technology has gone so far," says Dostie. "That was your basic boot of five years ago, but now it's fallen behind."
Dostie recommends pairing a hybrid ski boot with a resort or frame binding, like the Duke Baron or Salomon Guardian.
"You get the fantastic skiability without compromise," he says. "You're going to beat yourself up touring, but you can get it done."'
What about skis?
"Some of the best technology I'm seeing is from companies that are making skis that are still dedicated to the backcountry but are not so light that they don't ski well," says Dostie. "They're starting to find that balance."
Traditional backcountry ski companies like Voilé and Dynafit are making skis that, while still lightweight, have more guts to ski well on the down.
"They're trying to meet that resort skier's demand for edgeability and performance on the descent," says Dostie. "The company that I saw change that, to some degree, was DPS. They made their Pure line as a resort ski, but with the carbon layup that they use and woodcore construction, it just happened to come in at a weight that was very acceptable for both backcountry and resort. And then it just caught on in the backcountry community and went nuts."
Now, onto beacons.
You want a digital beacon, without a doubt. If you have an analog beacon, retire it and get a new one.
Make sure the range the beacon advertises is accurate. Often, the range listed on the label requires the absolute perfect scenario when everything lines up. "There are only a couple brands out there that I find actually meet the range they advertise," says Dostie. "Pieps is one of those. The Mammut Barryvox is very similar, in that its range is accurate."
You should also check a beacon's multi-burial function.
"Even though 7 to 10 percent of avalanche incidents are multi-burial scenarios—that's saying it could happen. Not only do you need to be good with the multi-burial scenario, your beacon has to be able to handle it properly," says Dostie. "There's a few beacons that do a really good job, and there's others that get really confused and still aren't up to modern technology."
Again, Dostie recommends asking the shop guy which beacon they use. He has the Pieps DSP Pro because it has great range and reliability and double the battery life compared to other beacons. "The sales person has tested them all and they've picked one. There's a reason for that."
Airbags: Yay or nay?
"I think they're great," says Dostie.
But, he often will not sell an airbag to a customer because they have not taken an Avy One course.
"I don't want this to be purely a reactive product," he says. "I think it's really important that you have education as your number one defense. And then, you know, maybe there are days where you go out and you find yourself in a scenario where you're glad you have that airbag packed."
Dostie also said that skiers need to practice deploying their airbags, just like they practice using their beacons. To encourage practice, Alpenglow offers free refills on compressed air canisters.
"Get halfway down the mountain and pull the trigger and ski with it. A big piece of it is knowing how much tension you need to pull the trigger, and when it deploys it doesn't scare you," says Dostie. "Education is still paramount. That has to be there before the airbag. But I think they are a great product. They save a lot of lives, and they will continue to do so. But just don't put yourself in a situation where you need to use it."