Grab a seat at the bar in a locals’ hangout in any ski town the world over and you’ll encounter long, eloquent, and often exaggerated tales of life-changing backcountry trips. The storyteller, perhaps a rugged local with chunks of icicle still clinging to the lower tentacles of his disheveled beard, seems so cunning, so brave, and accomplished, that it’s near impossible not to desire a story of conquest to bring home to your local pub. First, you need the right splitboarding gear in order to get out in the backcountry safely and have a good time while you’re at it.
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Backcountry touring isn’t all about steep lines and tall tales, though. It’s about thorough trip planning and constant progression. It’s about having proper gear, being able to read an avalanche forecast, and not being too macho to pull the plug and head back to the trailhead when conditions look sketchy.
The more experience I gain, the more I appreciate the whole process. Routing a backcountry tour is actually fun when everyone is on the same page. Planning for the trip is the perfect opportunity to get everyone together the night before, sip a hot toddy or two, and get organized.
Here we’ll take a look at the necessary gear and planning techniques for backcountry touring.
How to plan a splitboarding trip:
- Splitboarding gear
- How to prepare for a splitboarding trip
- Splitboarding gear in the field
- Splitboarding gear and trip preparation
Touring on a snowboard requires a lot of specific gear to help you both perform well and stay safe in the high country. Here’s all the splitboarding gear you need for a successful day in the backcountry.
- Splitboard or skis, of course. I’ve ridden Jones splitboards for several years because I trust Jeremy Jones’ backcountry experience and knowledge, and love how that translates into a dependable board.
- Loose-heel bindings. For the splitboarders, I recommend the Karakoram Prime Connect Layback splitboard bindings. At 1 pound, 10 ounces, they are lightweight and transition very well with a simple snap-lock piece instead of the traditional pin. The Soft Surf Sidewall grants leeway for wide turns without sacrificing the snugness you need during the ascent. The Dual Ride Stride FLAD makes touring up and then switching into snowboard mode in icy, high-altitude conditions that much easier. At just over $200, the price point is ideal for entry-level splitboarders without sacrificing the performance ability needed to progress,s
- Skins. I use the basic Summit Skins from Spark R&D. You’ll need to cut the skins to fit your splitboard, and this video from the brand shows you exactly how to do so.
- Winter-specific backpack. The USWE Flow 25L pack gives you enough space for a water bladder, a beacon/shovel/probe, lunch, a first aid kit, and binding tools. If heading out for a full day, packs smaller than 25L can be too small, as it’s important to remember that you must be able to fit your skins in the pack when you transition to snowboard mode before dropping in.
- Trekking poles or ski poles, even for the snowboarders! Preferably collapsible trekking poles that fit into your pack, such as the Black Diamond Distance Z trekking poles. Keep the baskets on the bottom of the poles, as this helps them stay afloat when stuck into soft powder.
- Beacon, shovel, and probe. Absolutely never enter the backcountry without this lifesaving gear, and double-check to make sure everyone in your group has this gear and knows how to use it. If not, they’re staying at the trailhead. No exceptions.
- At $349, the Backcountry Access Tracker 3 beacon gives you a dependable triple-antenna beacon without having to drop $500.
- The Backcountry Access Dozer 1T shovel collapses nicely to fit into your pack. The primary reason I recommend this over the more heavy-duty Dozer 2T is because of the T-shaped handle on the former as opposed to the D-shaped handle on the latter. A T-shaped handle is easier to grasp from the different angles you will need to shovel from during an avalanche emergency.
- The Black Diamond Quick Draw 270mm probe is long enough to probe into most piles of snow debris and is easy to toss into its put-together form from its collapsed and stored state.
- Splitboard-friendly boots. Many dedicated splitboarders opt for hard boots that more closely resemble ski boots, however, to get accustomed to splitboarding I recommend the Burton Tourist boots. They’re pricey – $549 — but you can also wear them with your resort board, so there’s no need to buy a second pair of boots.
- Goggles and sunglasses (because you’re going up and down). Anon has you covered with the best options for both. The M4S snapback google is new for this season and brings easy-to-change magnetic lenses to a mid-tier price point. The goggles come with lenses to swap in to optimize your day no matter the visibility, with both women’s and men’s options available.
- Helmet. The brand new Anon Oslo WaveCel helmet comes out for this coming season and is available for pre-order now for $219.95. Featuring a magnetic buckle that removes the frustration of struggling to fasten your helmet in the cold, along with Anon’s signature WaveCel shock absorption technology, there is no better helmet to transition into at the top of the mountain. I tested one last year and was hooked immediately.
- Ski gear — helmet, waterproof gloves, outer layer (shell, ski pants), inner layer (preferably no cotton).
- AIARE field book. The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) sells trip planning guidebooks that walk users through the process of planning their tour. The books also come with info on assessing snowpack and other risks of backcountry travel.
2. How to prepare for a splitboarding trip
A successful backcountry tour requires much more planning than a typical day at the ski hill. It’s important to know the terrain and any risks you may encounter. Avalanches can be deadly — if the group plans to hit terrain steeper than 30 degrees, be sure to check the avalanche forecast and avoid hazardous areas.
The more experienced you are in trip planning, the easier it becomes to avoid avalanche terrain altogether. Check the snow and avalanche forecast beginning a few days before you plan to head out via one of the following sites (or Google avalanche conditions in your area):
- Colorado Avalanche Information Center
- Utah Avalanche Center
- Sierra Avalanche Center
- Northwest Avalanche Center
- Find others at Avalanache.org
Before leaving the house, familiarize yourself with the terrain in your zone of choice. Topographic maps and Google are great places to start. Identify where the group plans to head, and look at the avalanche and weather forecasts to figure out the best time to leave, when you need to be off the summit, and any weather hazards that could come into play.
Have a plan A and plan B route solidified before heading out. Depending on the weather and snow conditions, it may or may not be safe to access certain areas of the mountain (conditions vary by aspect, recent snowfall, elevation, and other factors). Also, be malleable! You may encounter unfriendly weather or terrain that didn’t appear in the forecast or maps.
- Study the weather in the area. Look for patterns in snowfall, wind, and avalanche hazards.
- Plan your point of attack. Know where to park, where to enter the backcountry, and the route you plan to take to your desired drop-in point. Also, have regrouping points planned along the way to stop and assess conditions.
- Have a backup route and an emergency exit noted. Often, this exit will be the same way you came up — is it safe for traversing down as well?
- Know the ability and backcountry knowledge of each person in the group. How much experience does each have? Are they able to operate their beacon, shovel, and probe in case of an emergency? The skill level of the least experienced member will determine where the group can go.
- Avalanche.org — Connects visitors to all US-based avalanche reports.
- AIARE — The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. I cannot recommend signing up for the AIARE Level 1 course highly enough.
Splitboarding gear in the field
Upon arrival at the trailhead, allow ample prep time. You’re the one reading this guide — therefore you’re in the perfect place to take charge. Start by making sure everyone has their beacon on with plenty of battery life (at least 80%) for the trip. Each person should have food, water, and an extra top layer in case it gets cold or windy.
The next step is to double-check that everyone is on board with the trip plan. Now is the time to voice concerns and offer ideas or that bit of insider knowledge picked up from late-night forum reading.
Do a beacon check to make sure each person’s beacon is on and functioning properly.
Then it’s time to strap those skins on and hit the trail!
Stuff to keep in mind during the tour:
If an individual in the group is not comfortable with a decision in the field, that decision becomes the unanimous voice. Make decisions as a group. Each person has equal say. When discussing whether to proceed further, turn back, or move to plan B at the regrouping point, one person’s “no” vote is the entire group’s “no” vote. There is no leaving someone behind or heading back to the car alone.
When dropping in, proceed one at a time. The other members of the group should be watching and ready to react in case of an avalanche or accident.
6. Splitboarding gear and trip preparation: bringing it all together
Adequate backcountry prep work includes stocking cold beers for the parking lot celebration of the successful trip. This is the time to reflect. I like to take notes, even if only mental, about conditions and any surprise encountered. As everyone shares laughs and stories of rollers dropped and powder slashed, pick out information that could prove useful for next time.
Did anyone hear a “whumph” along the skinning route? Any other signs of an unstable snowpack that should be noted for future trips this time of year? Who took the best line down and were there any points of avalanche concern along the way?
Backcountry touring is a cyclical experience. Knowledge gained from one trip can help plan the next one. I encourage new backcountry travelers to head out with more experienced groups first. Be open and honest about your experience and comfort level — backcountry skiing and snowboarding works best when everyone has a voice. With proper planning and communication, those pub-worthy stories will come — and you’ll be around to tell them.