Article originally published December 2008
The lure of fresh powder under clear alpine skies: but don't go out without being fully prepared.
- all photography copyright Dave Pickford, www.davidpickford.com -
When packing your sack for a long day off-piste, remember the mantra that light is right! A good place to start is the pack itself. There are lots of good ones on the market. The only specific considerations for ski touring are that the sac has waist and chest straps (for stability when skiing) and that it has a mechanism for attaching skis (for when it gets too steep to skin and you have to boot it up).
Here's what you need to pack for a basic one day or overnight (hut based) ski tour. Click on the links to browse the relevent sections in the planetFear shop. Personal Gear
Much of the gear you take off-piste is no different to the equipment you'd use for a long day of hard resort skiing. But it's important to be aware of the key items that you always need off piste.
Group gear (spread around the group):
For a multi-day (hut based) trip like the Haute Route, we would add:
First Aid Kit (detail):
- anti inflammatories
- anti diarrhoea tablets
- blister kit
- 2x bandages
- 1x large dressing
- 2 small dressings
- surgical tape
- antiseptic cream
Repair Kit (detail):
The critical point is to be able to make field repairs to your skiing equipment. Otherwise something as simple as a broken buckle (happened to us), broken binding (happened to us), non-sticking skin (happened to us) or snapped ski pole (happened to us) can turn a nice day out into a real epic if you lack the equipment to make a rudimentary repair.
In a basic kit, we would carry:
- zinc oxide tape
- colltex quick glue (for re-sticking skins in the field)
- silicon spray (to prevent snow balling on skins)
- duct tape
- plastic twist ties (assorted sizes) - amazingly useful for all sorts of running repairs
- leatherman (or equivalent multi-tool)
- spare ski basket
For a longer trip we would consider adding:
- acetone (to clean glue off ski bases)
- scourer (to help with cleaning glue off bases)
- spare screws and rivets
- filler (for reparing small holes in ski bases)
- spare pair of skins
- one spare collapsible ski pole
Sarah Foley fully kitted up for a magnificent off-piste tree run at Puy St. Vincent, in the heart of the Ecrins Massif
There are a number of excellent sources of additional information on all the topics covered in this guide:
A number of areas including the national mountaineering centres at Glenmore Lodge and Plas-y-Brenin and various guides organisations in Chamonix run excellent one day, weekend or full week courses.
These courses cover topics such as:
- Avalanche awareness: including the various ways of spotting dangerous slopes, and practice in transceiver searches.
- Winter mountaineering skills: including the use of ropes for security, techniques for building snow anchors, the use of ice axe and crampons, the various emergency self-arrest techniques, as well as the general mountain skills needed to avoid cold injury.
- Navigation skills: including all the tricks and techniques we describe here.
- Glacier skills: including crevasse rescue and well as the techniques for safe glacier travel.
We can’t recommend too highly attending such courses. Anyone planning on venturing off-piste should really do at least one and probably more. Equally any IFMGA mountain guide will be able to teach you the same techniques. Spread between a group of four or six friends, this is an important investment in your personal safety and well-being off-piste.
There are many books on the various subjects touched upon in this guide. In the spirit of keeping things simple, however, and offering only solution for each problem we recommend our following four favourite books:
- For further information on avalanche avoidance: “Avalanche safety for climbers and skiers”, Tony Daffern, published by Diadem Books, ISBN 0-906371-26-0. Probably the best all round avalanche manual. Includes case studies, technical descriptions of what causes avalanches to happen and extensive sections how to spot the danger signs.
- For general mountaineering skills, cold injury avoidance: “Mountain skills training handbook”, Pete Hill & Stuart Johnson, published by David & Charles, ISBN 0-715310-91-7. Technical but clearly laid out guide to the skills needed for safe travel in mountain environments. The course book for the UK Mountain Leaders training programme.
- For navigation: “Mountain Navigation”, Peter Cliff, published by Cordee, ISBN 0-904405-48-6. No-nonsense guide to all the basic techniques from a highly experienced mountain guide. Focus is on UK hill-walking, but there is also a good section on the specific considerations of alpine winter navigation.
- For glacier travel: “Glacier travel and crevasse rescue”, Andy Salters, published by Diadem Books, ISBN 0-906371-58-9. In-depth review of the subject which goes into much more technical detail than we can and covers many different types of rescue. Perhaps best suited to experience climbers as the plethora of different techniques and knots can be a bit confusing for the occasional amateur.
An increasingly good source of information and up to date risk assessments. Links do change, but at the time of writing the following were worth checking out:
- www.csac.org: Location of CyberSpace Avalanche centre – global non-profit resource dedicated to comprehensive global snow and avalanche information. Includes reports of avalanche incidents around the world and links to various resources devoted to grief and related issues.
- www.avalanche.org: US site run by the WestWide Avalanche Network. Mainly focused at professionals, but packed with information and statistics, a FAQ section, and links to local US and Canadian avalanche centres showing avalanche forecasts, training course and so on. Includes reports of all US and Canadian accidents.
- www.sais.gov.uk: Official site of the Scottish avalanche information service. Daily forecasts for all the main Scottish climbing and skiing areas plus various background information.
- www.avalanche.ca: Site run by the Canadian Avalanche Association. Includes an analysis of the trends and common factors causing Canadian avalanches, with extensive data collected over the years.
- www.thebmc.co.uk: Official site of the British Mountaineering Council. Contains details of training courses, technical advice, excellent “general advice” sheets on a wide range of topics, and links to the many local organisations.
- www.bmg.org.uk: Official site of the British Association of Mountain Guides. Contains contact details and information on services offered mountain guides.
- www.glenmorelodge.org.uk: Glenmore Lodge, the Scottish national mountain training centre.
- www.pyb.co.uk: Plas y Brenin, the English and Welsh national mountain training centre.
- www.hypothermia.org: Canadian site dedicated to the subject of hypothermia. Background and focus is mainly on water-related situations, but contains lots of research, detailed advice on treatment procedures, and various case histories.
- www.gps.gov.uk: Site run by the Ordnance Survey which contains all the information you could ever want on what GPS is, how it works, and how to use it.
- www.gpsworld.com: US site dedicated to GPS navigation. Probably more detailed and technical than most of us need, but contains links to various information resources that you may find helpful.
- www.silva.se: Corporate site of the makers of the most popular brand of compass. As well as product catalogues, dealer links and news of company sponsored activity, the site contains “how to” descriptions on a number of topics such as taking a bearing from a map.
- www.nsidc.org: Site of the US National snow and ice data service. Mainly research and data oriented, but contains background information on glaciers, ice-caps as well as a section on avalanche awareness and a photographic database.
- www.facewest.co.uk: mainly a gear shop, but offers courses in mountain safety and has a description of avalanche rescue technique, along with information on avalanche safety.
Great off piste skiing can often be found close to well-groomed pistes: Mike Mavroleon carves a fast turn between boulders at Meribel, France
Click here for our range of Backcountry Skiing gear for the 10/11 winter season.
The co-author of this article, Barry Roberts, with French mountain guide Luc Bellon, runs a unique off-piste ski coaching holiday in Chamonix which is aimed at upper intermediate level skiers who would like to improve their off-piste ability, and make ensure that they have all the necessary skills for dealing with the very real risks involved. You can find out more informatin, and book your place at www.allterrainski.com.