BASIC EQUIPMENT FROM HEAD TO TOE
You have to be well-prepared if you’re going on a ski tour. If you want to conquer a mountain on skis and under your own steam, not only should the conditions and terrain be suitable, the equipment must also be appropriate. Ski touring is generally an equipment-intensive sport. Along with the basics (skis, bindings, boots, poles, climbing skins), no ski tour should be undertaken without emergency equipment (avalanche transceiver, shovel, probe). In addition you’ll need a suitable backpack and functional clothing for every scenario – ascents, descents, in sun and snowfall, in spring firn and in new midwinter snow. And of course, there’s still additional equipment that you’ll need to get you to your destination surely and safely. Here you will find information on everything you’ll need for a complete set of ski touring equipment.
HARD GOODS FOR SKI TOURS
The equipment you’ll need for a ski tour is determined by the type, length, difficulty and conditions of the tour, among other things. But no matter how and where you’re touring, the following basic equipment is always needed when making an ascent on skis: touring skis and bindings, climbing skins, touring ski boots, touring poles and a backpack. A helmet and ski crampons are also always recommended.
In contrast to alpine skis, touring skis are made for descents and ascents, made possible by climbing skins. They are usually lighter than normal skis in order to ensure you aren’t carrying any unnecessary load on the way to the summit. There is a wide range of touring ski models. You should select the skis that best suit your plans. Should you wish to climb as high as possible under your own steam, choose a lightweight, more narrow, ascent-oriented touring ski that can prove its worth on the way to the summit. However, if skiing downhill and the best lines in the terrain are more your thing, you’d be better off getting descent-oriented (freeride) touring skis, which are of a wider, more sturdy construction albeit somewhat heavier. If both are equally important to you – uphill and downhill – then allrounders are for you: These classic touring skis are very balanced and perform equally well on the way up and the way down.
Touring bindings are constructed to facilitate both efficient, comfortable ascents and good, safe descents. There are two binding systems: pin binding and frame bindings. Both types keep the heel free during the ascent but lock the heel during the descent. Pin bindings are the lighter variant and, when going uphill, two metal pins at the front of the binding snap into the pin inserts, meaning only the boot has to be lifted with each step; this enables you to walk ergonomically, conserving energy. However, when it comes to user-friendliness and release reliability, pin bindings do not rate as highly as the classic frame bindings. The latter grip the ski boot at the heel and the front, meaning the entire frame, including the “plate” under the boot, is in movement. Frame bindings perform better downhill and offer more control and better release reliability; however, they are much heavier than pin bindings and not as comfortable when going uphill.
Note: touring bindings and ski touring boots must be compatible with each other.
SKI TOURING BOOTS
Ski touring boots must be able to do both: enable a comfortable ascent while also providing grip and force transmission on the descent. They are considerably lighter and more flexible than classic alpine ski boots. Thinner shells and inner shoes as well as high-tech materials such as carbon are used here. Ski touring boots are equipped with a walking mechanism in order to provide the feet and lower legs with more freedom of movement during ascents. The sleeve can be “detached” from the shell and moved forwards or backwards via this mechanism. As with touring skis, there is a very wide range of boot models that vary regarding weight and stability. Touring ski boots for ascent-oriented tourers are minimalistic, very light and flexible; all-round touring ski boots offer an optimum mix of low weight, high comfort and functionality; freeride touring boots offer the best downhill performance but are relatively heavy.
Warning: Your ski touring boots must be compatible with your binding.
TOURING SKI POLES
Touring ski poles are specially constructed for touring. There are basically two different types: telescopic and collapsible. Both types are length-adjustable so that the poles can be adapted to the slope angle on ascents or perhaps affixed to your backpack during climbing passages. Collapsible touring poles can be folded up extremely compactly and even stowed in your backpack. Touring ski poles are extremely lightweight to avoid you lugging an unnecessary load around. In addition, they have elongated grips so that you can also hold them further down, which can be very helpful in the mountains.
Ski crampons are used when climbing skins no longer effectively grip because, for example, ice or a crusted snow surface offer too little friction. They are made of aluminum or lightweight steel and are clicked into the binding. The sharp prongs on the sides stick into the snow to the left and right of the binding to form a kind of barb, functioning like a regular crampon. Therefore, they enable you to move stably and without slipping, even when snow conditions are difficult. Ski crampons are often an underrated item of equipment that, ideally, should be in your backpack on every ski tour, especially in the spring. Very important: Ski crampons must be compatible with your binding and the width of your skis.
Climbing skins are essential items of ski touring equipment. They are affixed or stuck onto the skis and ensure that the skis grip the snow during an ascent and do not slide backwards. Ski touring skins have a braking direction and a gliding direction – the latter enables you to effortlessly glide over the snow. The snow-side of the skins is made of mohair (fabric made from the hair of the Angora goat), nylon, or a mixture of both. Mohair skins are lightweight and relatively temperature-insensitive, but less durable and more expensive than synthetic skins. Nylon skins are particularly robust and relatively inexpensive, but they do not glide as well as mohair and are less water-resistant. Mixed-material skins offer the best of both worlds and are therefore the most popular choice for many ski tourers.
Important: Climbing skins must be the exact same length and width as your skis.
ADDITIONAL AND EMERGENCY EQUIPMENT
Standard emergency equipment comprises an avalanche transceiver, avalanche shovel and avalanche probe, and must be taken with you on all off-piste ski tours. In an emergency, only these items will help you quickly help burial victims, or help you yourself be found and rescued. And there are a couple more essential things that should always be in your ski touring backpack.
An avalanche transceiver can save lives in the event of an avalanche. They are the only way to quickly locate burial victims who are carrying an avalanche transceiver in transmit mode; the first 15 minutes of a rescue are vital – the chances of survival sink drastically after that. Avalanche transceivers have a transmit mode and a search mode. The device is normally worn close to the body and in transmit mode. In the case of an avalanche, anyone who has not been buried should switch their device to search mode in order to receive the burial victim’s signal. Depending on transceiver model, position and burial depth, signal reception will range from 20 to 60 meters. Very important: Even the very best emergency equipment will only help if a person knows how to use it. This means practice, practice, practice.
Note: Before setting out you should always carry out a transceiver check and ensure its batteries are charged to at least 75% capacity.
A GPS device or GPS-capable cell phone can help with navigation and route finding. Route information for popular tours can generally be found online and downloaded to a GPS device or directly to a cell phone app. Important: Check your battery before setting off! You should also save the route offline in case there is no mobile internet.
Not absolutely necessary, but ski goggles can be very useful when the snow is loose or visibility bad. They will protect your eyes from the snow, wind and sun, and you will be able to see dangerous areas more easily and quickly.
Whether freeriding or ski touring – when out in the backcountry you should always wear head protection. A helmet can be a lifesaver when rocks are falling or you have a fall or collision. Special ski touring helmets are now available; these are very light and well-ventilated, making them comfortable during ascents as well. Some ski touring helmets are even multi-norm certified, i.e. they can not only be used for skiing in winter, but also for climbing and cycling in summer. You can of course use your normal ski helmet for your descent from the summit – nearly all modern ski touring backpacks have a helmet fastening.
When on a tour it can happen that a part of your equipment stops functioning properly. It is therefore useful to have a small repair kit with you, although not everyone in the group need have one. In an emergency, cable ties, ski straps, duct tape, ski wax and a multi-tool could be decisive in whether you reach the summit or have to turn back.
SUNGLASSES & SUNSCREEN
The sun’s radiation is particularly intense in the mountains, no matter the weather. And snow reflects sunlight. Good sunglasses with suitably dark lenses and a high protection category should be worn at least on the ascent; ski goggles should be used when skiing downhill. You should also always apply sunscreen with an ultraviolet protection factor of 50+, and have headwear handy.
Ensure that your energy resources are well balanced. Bonking during a long, arduous ski tour and having very little or no food with you can have an enormous negative impact on your physical and mental capabilities. So always pack energy bars, dried fruit and/or a snack/sandwich.
On demanding ski tours your body needs more fluids. So always carry enough water or tea (at least 0.5 to 1 liter) in a bottle or hydration system.
Detailed topographic maps are essential for ski tours on alpine terrain (scale 1:25,000). Special ski tour maps show routes, gradients and crevasse zones. They’re used for orientation and to identify danger zones. But beware: Always keep your eye on the terrain in front of you as well as on your map.
An avalanche probe is an essential part of standard emergency equipment on ski tours. Avalanche probes are used for pinpointing burial victims, i.e. after the coarse and/or fine search with an avalanche transceiver. The probe helps to determine the exact position and depth of a burial victim. Modern avalanche probes are usually made of robust aluminum and have an integrated quick-assembly system, through which the pole’s individual segments can be very rapidly connected into a length of 2.4 to around 3.2 meters. Because every second counts during an avalanche rescue, it is essential that your probe is easy to assemble and ready to be used in an emergency.
A headlamp can be extremely useful on a ski tour in case your time spent in the mountains is unexpectedly prolonged. A headlamp can also provide the necessary light for orientation in springtime, when you might set off particularly early to avoid the increasing warmth of day. Don’t forget to check your batteries before setting off.
You should always have a charged cell phone to hand in case you have to and can make an emergency call and can be located. Keep it in flight mode to save battery.
FIRST AID KIT
As with any outdoor sport, ski touring involves a certain risk of injury. Therefore, you should always carry a first aid kit in your backpack. First aid kits are available in various designs. The best option for a ski tour is a waterproof kit with a small pack size and containing: rescue blanket, triangular bandage, scissors, disposable gloves, tape, resuscitation towel, painkillers, adhesive bandages, sterile wound dressing, conforming bandage. A couple of blister plasters would be a valuable addition.
Further emergency equipment items include a bivy bag: a windproof and usually waterproof bag that, in an emergency situation, will protect you from hypothermia by providing a warming cushion of air around your body.
Your emergency equipment should include an avalanche airbag system, i.e. a backpack with integrated airbag, which will inflate in a couple of seconds and very probably keep you on the surface of an avalanche. This means you will not be buried so deeply, which will help with the rescue and increase your chances of survival. There are various airbag technologies available, including a new, lightweight electrical avalanche safety system without a cartridge, heralding in the next step in avalanche safety. All current avalanche airbag systems can be combined with different backpack sizes.
An avalanche shovel should be an integral part of every ski tourers equipment. Because you have no chance of quickly digging out a burial victim without a shovel. As soon as the probing has been done, it’s a matter of digging like crazy. Avalanche snow is usually very hard and compact; therefore a shovel must be lightweight but very sturdy and robust. And you should be able to assemble it quickly. High-quality avalanche shovels are made of rigid aluminum, have an ergonomic grip and sufficient blade volume to move lots of snow.
CLOTHING FOR SKI TOURS
The clothing you require for ski touring depends, firstly, on the length and type of tour and, secondly, on the time of year, how high you’re going and the current weather conditions. Personal factors also play a role, e.g. how easily you sweat or whether you feel the cold quickly. A tried and tested method is the “onion” principle: Instead of wearing just a single, thick layer of clothing, you wear a number of thinner layers on top of each other: functional merino underwear, a warming insulating layer (fleece, SWISSWOOL jacket) and a wind- and weatherproof layer (softshell or hardshell). This enables you to react to changes in the weather quickly and flexibly, and adapt your clothing to the various phases of your ski tour. Your body gets warm on the ascent – this is where a breathable insulated jacket will usually suffice as the outer layer. When skiing downhill, the headwind will require you to have an additional protective layer such as a softshell or hardshell at hand. Gloves, headwear and a change of shirt will complete your outfit.
Functional merino wool underwear is particularly soft and will also keep you comfortably warm in the cold and during physical exertion. This natural fiber is odor neutralizing, warms even when wet and has climate-regulating properties. Merino shirts and pants are available in various thicknesses for you to select according to how sweat-inducing your ascents are and what your personal perception of warmth is. It’s always good to pack a change of shirt for when you get to the summit.
SWISSWOOL and/or merino wool insulated jackets are perfectly suited to ski touring because of their low weight. Their climate-regulating properties mean they make a good outer layer during ascents. Windproof and very warming, they are perfect on the summit or as a middle layer during descents – under a softshell or hardshell jacket, depending on the conditions.
SKI TOURING PANTS
When ski touring, there’s nothing like a pair of flexible, lightweight, 3-layer hardshell pants. High-quality ski touring pants are wind- and waterproof and – in combination with long merino wool underpants – will keep you warm and dry even when it’s cold. They are also breathable and moisture regulating. Integrated gaiters and robust leg-protection against sharp edges are standard.
SKI TOURING JACKET
A high-performance jacket is absolutely essential on ski tours. It will protect you from the elements, provide warmth and be very comfortable to wear thanks to its excellent climate management. Ski touring jackets come in hardshell and softshell materials. Weather conditions will determine which type you should wear. Softshell jackets are suitable for ascents and dry weather; they are extremely breathable and particularly good at wicking moisture to the outside, but not as good at keeping wind and water out as the more robust hardshell jackets. It’s usually useful to have a hardshell jacket with a small pack size in your backpack. In shady sections, on a windy summit, if the weather changes suddenly or on descents, you’ll be glad to have a wind- and waterproof third layer to slip on over the insulating layer.
Hands are particularly sensitive to the cold. High-quality gloves are therefore essential. It’s always good to take two pairs with you on a ski tour: a lightweight pair for the ascent, and a warmer pair for the summit and descent.
Suitable headwear also belongs in your basic equipment. A headband is perfect for ascents, as it covers only sensitive areas such as the forehead and temples, while allowing adequate temperature regulation at the top of your head. A headband will also fit under a helmet. If you’re not wearing a helmet, you can wear a beanie on the summit or for the descent, as it will keep you warmer than a headband will.
SKI TOURING SOCKS
Well-fitting, breathable merino wool socks are essential for ski touring in order to ensure you’re don’t get hindered by blisters. The natural properties of merino wool really come into their own in the foot area, naturally regulating temperature and moisture while neutralizing unpleasant odors.
SKI TOURING BACKPACK
We recommend a 20 to 40 liter backpack for day tours. A good ski touring backpack has to be durable, weatherproof, easy to access and easy to use even with gloves. The most important features also include: a stable, ergonomic carrying system with suitable back length; a wide, padded hip belt; a chest strap and various adjustment options. Provision for a drink bladder, ice axe and crampon fasteners and a rope attachment should also be standard features. Very important: Your touring backpack must have a separate access to emergency equipment, so that you can quickly grab your avalanche probe and shovel in an emergency. Good to know: Nowadays you can get lightweight backpacks with an integrated airbag, which reduce the risk of complete burial in an avalanche.
RISK MANAGEMENT IN THE TERRAIN & SNOW PROFILES
Chapter three is all about responsible risk management in the mountains. It clarifies the following questions: How is an avalanche transceiver check done? What kind of warning signs are there? How should avalanche problems be assessed when in the mountains? And how should the DCMR method be used on a tour? This chapter also deals comprehensively with snow profiles and provides information about what taking a look at the snowpack can reveal.