Tag Archives: ski touring basics

Packing for Ski Touring


The cold days are here, and if the crowd down at the ski shop last weekend is any indication – there are going to be a lot of new ski-tourers out on the hill this winter. There must have been about seventy people there all told – and while the shop does have a large and well-stocked alpine section, more than 80% appeared to be searching for a ski touring set up.

My wife was a bit unhappy about the prospect of sharing the pow with a whole slew of newbies, but in my view, its better that folks learn to love the beauty of the winter mountains by climbing them than to have them long for more powder sitting on chairlifts. Chairlift riders, after all, often want MORE chairlifts for them to ride – and the situation with regards to ski touring in Austria is such that I don’t believe that any new lifts are needed, nor are they sustainable in the long term. A large and active community of ski-tourers is the best defence I can think of against the ecroachment of destination-resort-skiing in my home mountains.

Powder will always be available to those who are willing to go higher, and further, to get it – as long as they don’t bulldoze the whole range to make another real-estate ponzi-scheme….


Quite a lot of those buying were buying the whole kit. Boots, bindings, skis, poles – some even clothing. Airbag packs were everywhere, and they are rightly becoming standard equipement – even though I don’t yet use one myself. I find them still much too heavy and have been carrying an Avylung pack from Black Diamond for a couple years now instead. (but I may pull the trigger soon. The wieghts are coming down….) A ski touring day pack is one of the most important pieces of kit you will buy.

So – while on the subject of wieght – it was clear to me that quite a few of these new guys were buying all kinds of ski touring equipment – some of it quite expensive, and possibly very unneccesary. More than one had collected everything on their ski touring equipement list, and were trying to fit it all into a 35 liter pack to test if it fit.

This is all too much stuff – I thought, and I’ve seen the scenario play out many times over the years where new guys try and carry all kinds of (on their own) useful stuff on their backs and they are slow and uncomfortable as a result. Some do manage to carry all the wieght, but fiddling with all their gear makes them slow, which is a pain for the group, and, in classic alpine phliosophy, actually makes them less safe, because their pokeyness exposes them to risk for longer periods of time when they do go out. This is true even for strong, fit skiers who still carry too much and have to take care of it all – so it makes sense to take a good look at all your gear and live by the philosophy “less is more”. Giving ski touring equipement advice is a business frought with trouble, but….

Keep in mind that I ski tour in Europe, where the distances to civilization are generally small, and evac is nearly always available. I don’t sleep in tents, and if I did, I would look stupid, because I would be doing it within sight of a hut.

the difference between an 18 liter and a 35 liter pack is huge!

I’m known for being a bit of a minimalist – so here’s what I carry on a typical day tour:

On my person:

  • Long underwear, top and bottom. I like merino wool because it warms well, it does not stink even after multiple days wearing it, and if it gets warmer – the stuff really does allow (somehow) you to stay cool. The polyester stuff out there is generally not nearly as good.
  • Softshell pants and jacket with no insulation in relatively good weather, Gore-Tex shells in worse weather
  • A lightwieght puffy in worse weather, or a vest in better weather
  • a mesh baseball cap in good weather, a knit beanie in worse
  • A pair of light neoprene gloves for the way up
  • Sunglasses
  • Ski gear: boots, poles, skis, skins
this is is the stuff I am wearing – skins go in your jacket to keep them warm and sticky. Always. Hood is used instead of a beanie. Hat is for the sun, Wrap sunglasses are enough.

In my pack or somewhere attached to me:

  • The Holy Trinity: Beacon, Probe, Shovel – obviously. The shovel should be as full-sized as you can handle. Some are so small that they really are a shovel only in name. Your probe – it can be light, but if you get a carbon one, check it – they can crack!
  • a very lightwieght bivy sack for emergencies. A good one is smaller than your fist (half the size) and can be a lifesaver if things go bad
  • A set of leather insulated gloves for the way down or for nasty weather
  • Super-small first aid kit supplemented with 4-5 compeed bandages for blisters, and 6 Ibuprofen tablets for when something bad happens
  • A re-used regular plastic water bottle in the half-liter size, wrapped in duct-tape. Mine is about 4 years old, cost nothing, is indestructible, and lighter than those expensive Nalgine bottles everyone buys. Everyone says that’s too little water – but I often come home with half of it left. In Europe – we often have huts with beer so – your mileage my vary on this one.
  • One energy bar or preferably a burrito with real food in it. This is about as big as a balled up fist. Not as big a balled up Cocker Spaniel (I’m talking to you, America.) Burritos are great because the packaging is tin foil. When you’re done with it, it takes up no space in your pack. You can easily reuse too. Burritos can be mashed and not suffer too much. Maybe use two tortillas to keep things together…. if there is a hut and I plan on eating there, I leave this out.
  • A multi-tool – make sure it actually fits your gear
  • a pair of goggles with a clear lens – only for really shit weather on the way down
  • 5-6 layers of good quality duct tape wrapped on my poles up near the grip. You can fix all kinds of stuff that breaks with it – but you only need a little. Don’t pack a roll in.
  • I like to use an inclinometer to measure slope angle – this is as teched-out as I get. I like the little one from Pieps.  Its on my pole – ready to go.
  • a little glob of skin wax – this stuff is always good to have and MUCH underappreciated. It is a wax you rub on your skins to keep them from soaking with water and having the snow stick to them. It is a must-have item for spring, but can often be useful even in dead winter.
  • Two long Voile straps. Fixes skins that don’t stick, busted buckles, useful for impromptu S&M action
  • In March and beyond: Knives – or as Americans call them: Ski crampons. I don’t use these often, and I find I only really need them in the spring and summer when the snow can be really hard
  • a charged up cell phone – turned off. I don’t think the electromagnetic signals really make a difference when doing a beacon search, but turning the phone off ensures that in the event of an emergency – I will have power to actually call somewhere.
  • Materials for a safety meeting. The simpler, the better.

All this easily fits into an 18 Liter pack, with room to spare!

missing my phone – and I don’t really take extra gloves. That jacket is a vest with synthetic fill. Warm enough for Europe and a run back to the valley if I gets really nasty.

I usually start out with my jacket on, and (this is a thing kind of unique to me) with my vest on the OUTSIDE of my shell. I also choose vests and puffys with hoods, and I will often have these up over my hat. I don’t start out cold – despite many people’s opinion that you should, because I tend to get really cold hands that way – and if they get cold, it can be tough getting them to warm up. (little tip: lower your poles….like really low – this can help!)

Wearing my gear like this lets me later quickly stop, spin my pack off, unzip my vest and just throw it in my pack. No undressing and re-dressing to get to that “mid-layer”. I often don’t even take the vest off if it is cold, and find I can regulate my temperature with the hood quite well. The only time I take off my shell is if it gets really warm – and I even only open it to put my skins inside near my belly when I transition. (I really like ski-touring jackets with pockets made just for this.)

Advantages for me:

I am pretty fast. Many are faster on the up due to not being old, or sometimes vitriolic fitness, but a lot of my speed comes from an efficient stride AND the fact that I never have to futz with my gear. This makes a huge difference, and I often beat nineteen-year-old kids in perfect shape up the hill because of it. Not only do I get up first, I get down first, and I am fresher when I do because I didn’t waste a bunch of energy fiddling around. Some of this is learned, and you can’t inject expirience, but excessive amounts of gear seems to be the norm these days – and by getting rid of it, you’ll rock like a pro from the trailhead out.

Notable things I leave out:

These are some of the things I see almost everybody carrying that I think are unneeded generally

  • Fleece. This stuff is nice for home, but it does not pack down well. It is heavy! A high-quality synthetic or down insulation layer is better – and down can last for decades if properly cared for.
  • Enough water for a bath. Really – I know its healthy – but your body can run on less. If things go poorly – you can share in a group. (Eating snow is a bad idea though. Can cause…uh…difficulties….)
  • Helmets. Beat me up – go ahead. Helmets are for high-impact sports and some studies show that they don’t particularly help against head injury due to impact. They can protect you from minor rockfall, and from object trauma (pointy rocks). I ski conservatively – always keeping mind that even a minor injury deep in the hills could end up being a big problem. While I recognize this is somewhat circular logic – I’m of the opinion that I don’t have much advantage when wearing a helmet. I don’t ski super-fast, I don’t huck big cliffs in the backcountry and I moderate my risk wherever possible. Messing about with a carrying a helmet does annoy me, does slow me down, and does make me more uncomfortable – so I don’t wear one. If my head hits the ground at speed, a helmet wouldn’t help me – the force of impact rattles your brain inside your skull, and this is the cause of a concussion….helmet or none – a headfall is the end of your day and probably a trip in the helo.
  • Extra insulation layers. I see people with two puffys or maybe a sweater and an insulating layer. You shouldn’t need them, even midwinter for normal tours. If you really feel cold – a second baselayer is the best insulation in terms of its effectiveness with regards to its wieght. Biggest problem I see: a dislike of hats. Hats should be mandatory. On most days to keep you warm, on warm days a cap to keep the sun off. A good wool beanie can totally change your temperature. Use one.
  • GPS units, compasses, altimeter, maps like crazy – this is a day-tour at a regular-joe kind of outing. These things are useful in their place – but I call them special equipement.
  • GoPros. Expensive things….your phone can do most of what you want, and if the pictures aren’t good enough, there are lenses made for them that are cheap and easy. Fiddling with either all the time is a pain though – and not just for you.
  • Climbing rope. You’ll need more than just rope to actually do anything you’ll need it for. If you do HAVE to have a rope – 30 – 50 meters of cordalette is usually enough – but this stuff is not dynamic, so don’t try and climb with it
  • Ice axes, crampons – only for glaciated travel. Without a harness and tying into a rope though, these items are like wearing knee pads in a plane crash
  • Any number of small electronic gadgets designed to document your travels, call for help in an emergency (thats what your phone is for), determine the quality of the snow, etc. These are worse than useless – they occupy your time and your brain, both of which should be doing other things
  • A full wallet with all the crap people put in it. Some cash – maybe a credit card – thats all you might need if you find a nice hut
  • skin savers, skin bags…..chuck those things. Pros stick em together
  • Any kind of tuning equipment. This is not the world cup.
  • Headphones – you need to hear the snow
  • Radios – huge time-water and rarely improves communication

Thats probably most of it. Always be looking at your pack and thinking about how to lighten your load. Think critically about all items, even so-called safety equipement and try to make a reasoned judgement about its real usefulness to you. Remember that carrying anything, anything at all, has a cost – and that you – and your friends, pay it together. Lastly – if you’ve never used it, and its not a safety item that you don’t want to use – get rid of it…..if you do end up missing it, you can always put it back in next time.

Happy ups! If you liked this post – click on the “follow” button and share it! I’d love to hear what you bring along in your ski touring rucksack!