6 Essential Items for Backcountry Touring

Ian Holmes is obsessed with snowboard alpinism and gets out about 6-7 days a week, roughly 200 days a season. We met him over Instagram and became obsessed with the imagery he collects with Brandon Hartwig from his missions, typically in the Alberta Rockies and surrounding areas. We asked Ian to outline the gear he keeps in his pack for all of his adventures. Check out his 6 Essential Items for Backcountry Touring here (this list obviously excludes key safety gear: beacon, shovel, probe, first aid kit, etc):

Skin Wax
So last week I fell in a lake. It wasn’t intentional, but somehow while out for a pleasant day of soloing I found myself three meters from shore, with a leg trapped under a log (in the water). After a bunch of very careful bum scooting over the next ten minutes or so I managed to get myself back up off of the offending log that had actually only been a few inches wide, and not a few feet wide as the snow had implied. Of course, the bigger issue than being soaking wet was that my skins were now wet. This happens all the time. Small stream crossing, wet heavy spring snow, charming friends who ‘accidentally’ push your things into streams, all of these can result with skins that suddenly collect a lot of heavy snow. Scraping it off doesn’t always solve the problem. However, skin wax does. I can’t name the number of times that this has saved an adventure.

Photo: Ian Holmes

At least two fabric straps
Some people carry ski straps, some people carry zip ties. Both are useful, but I find that fabric straps can be all the more handy. Need to strap a split board to back pack without the appropriate hardware? Not an issue. Have a frozen skin coming off your ski? Not an issue, strap it and move on. Binding ladder snaps when you huck a 30ft-er? Need to A-frame skis or a split? Firmly against hard boots and ride a split and need a way to stiffen up your boot on a heinous exit in ski mode? The strap yet again proves itself to be indispensable. You can do anything with these from splinting broken legs to finding clever ways to strap bags of chips to the outside of your pack when doing multi day winter camping riding trips. Take two. You will lose one.

Sour Candy
Okay. I get it. This is likely less useful for everyone than the first two. However, you can sub out sour candy for some other item that makes you happy. It can be life saver mints, or salted black liquorice, or some other small luxury item that is light and is easy to carry. This is not supposed to be food/snacks, or even an emergency supply. This is for morale boosting. Sometimes the up is brutal, thousands of steps swimming through neck deep snow. Plus it isn’t just the body that gets wrecked in these kind of conditions, the mental exhaustion of heavy lines and making decisions can be brutal. My solution is sour candy. I carry it for partners as much as I carry it for myself. It is the way to prompt someone into believing that we really should try and get over that next rock bench and then wallow through another fifty meters of near vertical snow before we burrow through a cornice to stand in the sun. These are tasks that can seem insurmountable, much as an 8km skin back to the road in the dark after an exhausting day can be more mentally draining than physically draining. Candy makes people happy, and sour candy doesn’t freeze that easily.

The most frustrating problem that one can face in the backcountry is finding terrain that is too steep and too deep to get on top of. You reach a pitch that is eventually not climbable, and certain terrain features are largely impossible to get past in the traditional manner. Spines, steeps, couloirs, frustrating sugar snow filling in the spaces between mini christmas trees. Then you can have those patches of bullet proof refreeze or slabby snow that a snowboard boot can not kick into, again a huge frustration when it is only a 20m patch in the entirety of a line. Verts are my solution to this. Bindings come off the board, attach to the vert, and boom! Magic! I float! For the skiers reading this, I know that they have a variation that works with ski boots. As for those who are sitting there saying that these aren’t really that needed, go wallow about in deep snow. You will change your mind. Plus, because the vert decreases penetration into the snow pack it decreases the chance for punching through unstable layers and causing remote triggers. Toss in the fact that you can move faster, and with less effort, and these are indispensable.

I don’t really know anything about skis. I don’t even know if a must-tool is something you can use on a ski boot. However, I suggest every skier carry one. Nothing is more enjoyable as a skier than to turn to the splitter that you are with whose bindings have loosened, or pucks have moved, and casually hand them a tool to fix it with. If you are a splitter, well then you should just tighten your gear at home, and then your tool can be handed out to newbies who are desperately searching for the pin for their bindings that they just dropped in the snow. All our (splitboard) gear eventually loosens and falls apart at the most inopportune times, usually shortly after some heated discussion where a skier has been lecturing you about how skis are the ultimate tool for backcountry travel. In the worst case scenario, a hard-boot splitter will be telling you about the wonders of cramped feet and then you have to look at them, hoping they have a tool to tighten things up. Avoid this.

Ice Axes
I usually wander about with two technical axes. This is usually overkill, but with a background in mixed climbing they just seem more useful to me than alpine axes. Plus, whenever I find myself in a rather precarious situation pulling through a rocky section of a climb, or dealing with some ice, or a section of super steep hard-pack I am always thrilled to have an axe with me. I was stuck on a cornice lip without one two years ago in a massive inversion that left us with zero visibility. Luckily, one of my riding buddies had made the better choice and tossed an axe on his pack. It was only with that extra security that I was able to get close enough to the edge to realize the drop was only 4ft and not the 20ft we had thought. They also come in handy on those wind blasted traverses where you need something to keep from dying. Plus, while they won’t help at all, they certainly help you think that you will be better off if you come across an angry grizzly.

“He goes because he must, as Galahad went towards the grail: knowing that for those who can live it, this alone is life”
– Evelyn Underhill