How I Came to Know and Love the Backcountry

Planning, Preparation, and Packing
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The Sierras: A true winter wonderland—but only if you know how to get there, what to bring along, and how to get back. (Corel)

Hit the resorts and all you have to do is buy a ticket, but play in the backcountry and planning and preparation are required. Sorry for the buzz kill, but in addition to avalanche awareness you need to consider the following sobering things.

First, be prepared. As clichéd as the Boy Scout motto may be, it's also essential for backcountry skiing. Be certain to have adequate clothing, food, and water for hours or days in a wilderness area, where frigid winter weather and sudden storms are a reality. Get the right gear and carry it on your back. Stick to your route, navigate with a map and compass or GPS, carefully plan out a detailed itinerary, and let someone (friends, park rangers, spouses) know where you're going and when you will be back.

When you leave the creature inconveniences of civilization behind, remember that the comforts go too. You canÂ’t afford to get wet with sweat, dehydrated, or low on blood sugar. Each of those little things could quickly kill you in the winter backcountry.

In general, plan a backcountry ski tour as you would a summer backpacking trip. Go with an experienced skier or guide and use a guidebook. Federal and state lands are typically open to skier access, and some resorts like Jackson Hole offer direct access to out-of-bounds territory, but some areas will require registration, or even permits, so check in advance with a ranger.

Skis, boots, and poles (complete packages run from about $400 to $1,100)

Appropriate winter clothing, including several separate layers of insulation, pants, shell, gloves, and a hat.

Goggles and sunglasses

A 25-pound pack with all of the following crammed in:

Additional clothes

Snow shovel

Up to 50 meters of climbing rope

Avalanche probe pole

Avalanche transceiver


Repair kit, including spare binding parts, duct tape

First-aid kit, including emergency blanket

Map, compass (an altimeter and GPS are nice for longer tours)

Food and water

Radio or cell phone



Abrahm Lustgarten in an internationally published, award-winning photojournalist whose work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Newsweek , and Men's Journal magazines. He most frequently covers social, travel and outdoor adventure subjects, and is a regular contributor to You can see more of his work at

Published: 23 Dec 2003 | Last Updated: 24 Oct 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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