“I’ve done so much research and it still feels impossible to find the right used gear for touring,” a customer stated in a Front Range gear shop this past weekend. “How does a newbie put together their first backcountry setup?”
I spotted her and a friend looking frustrated while digging through a bin of used climbing skins. As an avalanche educator and backcountry ski instructor, I’m very familiar with the proverbial mountain that one must climb in the process of purchasing an initial backcountry set up. Furthermore, the price of the essentials — skis, boots, bindings, climbing skins, avalanche safety equipment — makes this endeavor even more challenging.
Over the years I’ve led and instructed backcountry trips, and the main questions people ask seem to always be about gear. The struggle this woman felt is an all-too-common barrier for many people looking to start backcountry touring, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Below are some tips and tricks for approaching the process of building your first quiver of essential backcountry ski gear.
Think About What You Already Have
For the skier on a tight budget looking to use what you already have, consider purchasing a ski binding that works with a regular alpine resort boot. Frame touring bindings (also known as Randonnee bindings) work with any ski boot, are fully DIN certified, and ski like a regular in-bounds binding. This is a good option if you want a setup that works well both in-bounds and out-of-bounds.
Think about how much time you’ll spend in a resort versus the backcountry, and plan accordingly. If you’re looking to try touring, but are an avid resort skier, there’s no need to spend a ton of money on your first backcountry setup. Consider converting an old pair of resort skis for use in the backcountry. You can switch alpine bindings for AT (alpine touring) bindings with a bit of epoxy for the holes and an understanding of how to mount skis. I highly recommend taking your bindings and skis to a local gear shop and asking them for help if you’re not experienced with these things.
There are backcountry specific poles, but these are not necessary to begin with. You can use regular, non-adjustable, ski poles. A ski helmet is always a good idea in the backcountry, and you can use whatever helmet you wear while at a ski resort, no need to purchase an extra light backcountry-specific helmet.
Consider Your Budget
If you’re on a budget and cannot get all new gear, consider what is most important to purchase new. Avalanche safety gear — such as an avalanche transceiver (beacon), shovel, and probe — are the most important pieces of equipment you’ll carry in the backcountry. It’s critical to know that these items are working correctly and thus, it’s typically not recommended to buy avalanche gear used. That said, you can often find a deal on a package of these three items early in the season. Budget between $300 and $400 for these items. Remember that along with carrying avalanche safety gear, you need to know how to use it. Consider taking an AIARE Course as a first step to acquiring training and avalanche awareness skills.
Comfort is a big deal when spending time in cold, winter environments and exerting more energy than is typically used at a resort. You can work with a ski that’s not ideal for the snow conditions, but a ski boot that does not fit well may quickly ruin a backcountry day. After avalanche safety gear, ski boots are the next most important piece of equipment. If you can purchase one new item, make it boots. If you find used boots that seem to work, spend a little extra to get a boot fitting from a ski shop — this can prevent future foot pain and blisters. And if you know ski boots never fit your feet that well, make sure to get a boot fitting for any new boots you purchase as well.
You’ll potentially have multiple pairs of skis for different types of snow, but you’ll likely only have one pair of AT ski boots, and a good pair will make any tour day far more enjoyable. Weight is a factor, but not the most important. When you’re getting started with touring, find a boot that fits well — little to no heel lift, minimal hot spots, and something that is not too tight that it cuts off circulation. Something with a similar flex as what you’re used to wearing, with a walk and ski mode, is a good place to start. Unless you have a frame binding, make sure the boots have pin holes on the heel and toe, this is what makes them compatible with the AT pin bindings.
If you’re starting with a frame binding, over time you’ll likely want to upgrade to a lighter AT binding for ease of use. If you want a crossover binding that can be used for hard charging in resorts or the backcountry, consider something like the Salomon Shift binding. It’s more complicated to transition from uphill to downhill mode however, so make sure to practice before heading into the backcountry. A lighter option is the standard tech binding, something like the Dynafit Radical Alpine Touring. This binding is in the mid to lightweight range but still very stable, that will hold up for many years. You do not need the lightest, fastest set up when first starting to venture into the backcountry, in fact this may make your experience less enjoyable. Until you’re comfortable skiing variable conditions off-piste (non-groomed trails), stick to a more stable backcountry binding that has a toe rotation/release for safety reasons, like the previously mentioned, Dynafit Radical.
For an all-around good backcountry ski, consider something with an underfoot width of 95 mm – 105 mm. If you’re a strong skier and know what you like, then go with a similar width but remember the wider the ski, the more resistance you’ll have when touring uphill. For the general backcountry skier, versatility is the most important thing when picking a ski. Cutting weight to get the lightest ski possible is not always the best choice. You want a ski that can ride subpar snow surface conditions — the lighter the ski the harder it is to break through bad snow. Look for something that is light enough but not too light — the Black Diamond Helio Recon 95 and Salomon QST 99 are both very popular all-around backcountry skis. For length, pick a length you’re comfortable riding; everyone is different and depending on your skills and style of skiing, you likely have a size range that works for you.
Skins are arguably the most challenging piece of equipment to buy. Since they’re not needed for resort skiing, many newbies to the backcountry have no idea what these sticky, strange, apparatus are. Check out Bluebird’s free Skins 101 online course to learn the basics of how to use and care for skins.
There’s two main types of skins: nylon and nylon/mohair blend. Pure nylon, which are a bit bulkier but have more grip and less glide, tend to last longer. Nylon/mohair blend skins are lighter and tend to glide better. For beginners, nylon skins are a safe bet as you’ll appreciate the extra grip and durability. You can buy climbing skins used, but make sure to test the glue (it should be sticky to touch and not have many/or any balls of glue on the bottom side). When looking at skin sizes, the width is the first place to start. Full coverage is only really needed in the middle of the skin, since that’s where you’ll have the most traction. Find a skin width that is 5-7mm less than the widest part of your ski. For example, if your ski measures 125-105-119, a 120 mm skin will work. Use the instructions on the manual, or follow these instructions, to trim your skins. If you’re buying used skins, look for a skin that is wider than the narrowest part of your skin, and get a trimming tool to cut skins — it’s worth the money. An exacto knife truly does not do a good job. The length of skins can generally be adjusted with most popular brands. If you’re buying used skins, you’ll want the tail clip (or end of the skin) to not exceed the length of the ski, otherwise the clip will not work properly.
Where to Find Used Gear
Don’t rule out used gear because it seems too complicated to patch together a setup that works. Oftentimes, gear stores will sell demo equipment, which is an awesome way to get lightly used gear for a deal. Start looking for a backcountry setup in the summer, as many gear shops have discounted prices and demos for sale in the off season. Check your local used gear store, or look online for used gear. Cripple Creek Backcountry sells new and used gear on their website, and Wilderness Exchange is a great in-person and online used gear store. Bentgate Mountaineering in Golden, CO has discounted prices all summer on their snowsports gear, and their team is very knowledgeable.
Before purchasing new or used gear, make an effort to try before you buy — this allows you to figure out what you like. With a season pass to Bluebird Backcountry, you can add on an unlimited ski or split board rental package, plus gain access to avalanche-managed backcountry terrain to test new equipment.
While it can feel intimidating to understand what equipment is needed, these tips should help a new-to-the-backcountry skier get started. The main things to remember when purchasing used gear is to do a thorough check of the item. Boots have a lot of screws and are constantly flexed when in motion, same goes for bindings, and it’s common to find used gear with missing screws. This can be a major bummer later on. Make sure you’re purchasing something that is still in good shape without too much wear and tear. As for skis: look for large gashes or “core shots” on the bottom of the skis. Core shots can be patched, but if there are too many patches the ski’s strength is compromised. Take time to learn what you’re looking for, talk to gear experts, and look for quality options at the best price you can find. With a solid setup and avalanche course under your belt, the backcountry becomes your playground — saving money on tickets and investing in human-powered adventures. Once you’ve built your set up, take it for a trial run at your local backcountry area, or check out Bluebird Backcountry, the perfect place to practice with your new-to-you equipment and dial in all your other pieces of gear.
About the Author
Erika is an AIARE avalanche instructor and backcountry educator, and has worked in the field of education for the past 5 years. She’s spent the non-snow season working as a backcountry guide and outdoor educator, along with developing her art business and working as a content creator for various outdoor companies.