Pro Tips: How to Pack for Backcountry Travel

By Eric Layton

It’s ski season, and that means it time to dust off and dial in our backpacks for the backcountry! Make sure you’re prepared for winter ski and splitboard trips with this comprehensive gear guide on how to properly pack for your next tour.

I have often referred to my backpack as being the angry marmot trying to take me out! This little guy, riding your shoulders during a backcountry outing, can turn your trip into a nightmare or be one of your best companions out there! This all comes down to what you stuff inside.


Here are a few things to think about before you pack the contents into your bag this season. The size of your pack depends on how long your adventure will be and how technical the terrain is. I use a 40-liter pack while day-ski guiding and for most backcountry uses, but can get away with a 30-liter for less technical or supported trips. I will often use a 75-liter pack on multi-day overnights, but have gotten away with 50-60 liters. There are many variables, but I find it best to have a pack that holds everything comfortably, without having to stuff everything in so tight that the pack is practically busting at the seams and you almost have to start over every time you pull something out. Get a pack that is comfortable to wear and can hold the gear appropriate for the outing and always ask yourself where you will be skiing/splitboarding and the type of terrain you’ll most often encounter.

A separate compartment for the shovel, beacon and probe is also mandatory for me on day trips. While not always possible with the bigger packs needed for multi-day trips, the separate compartment allows me to easily perform snow tests and not have wet gear, as well as make for quicker access in an emergency. As far as other compartments go, it is a personal preference, but keep in mind that every pocket adds weight, so I personally like less pockets for an overall lighter pack.

Eric performs a compression test in a snow pit to examine weak layers within the snowpack.
Performing a compression test in a snow pit to examine weak layers within the snowpack.

The difference between my normal backcountry pack and my guide pack comes down to a few items that are split between my backcountry partners and myself when I am not guiding and are all in my pack when I am guiding. Essentially the same things should be in the packs of every party traveling in the same terrain, but may be dispersed differently depending on the type of trip and who is guiding. These items usually include equipment needed to manage and take care of a serious situation (extensive first aid kit, GPS/Sat phone and extensive repair kit, tarp/sled) as well as extra items that come in handy if the unexpected happens, like a change in weather, or an item being lost. Extras can also include non-functionals such as gloves, layers, goggles, hot tea and yummy snacks.


My choice for backcountry rescue sleds is the Eskimo Sled by Brooks Range, which is one of the fastest and most versatile sled/tarps available. The added few pounds are nothing compared to the benefits of having a quality sled. I cannot stress enough that you need proper rescue gear, a big shovel and a sturdy probe too! Don’t skimp on these last two items; try to lighten your load in other ways. I go with the Brooks Range EXT Shovel for the smooth as butter pit walls the blade produces and the incredible durability season after season. Probes are equally important. Get a big sturdy probe that also covers the appropriate depth of the snowpack that you will be encountering. Debris can pile up BIG, try and go with a probe of at least 280cm.

When guiding or contemplating approaching difficult terrain in the backcountry, you will face the decision of bringing a rope kit and technical gear (i.e. harness, crampons/ice ax, ice screws) needed to ascend/descend safely. This could include a full 60-meter rope or just a 30m 8mm half rope. Bringing a rope can get you out of a sticky situation but it may also end up slowing you down so that you ultimately can’t reach your objective. There are many variables that play into what technical gear you will need, and knowing what to pack. Knowing exactly what you need and don’t need can all be learned through courses and gaining experience in the backcountry with savvy users and guides.


So let’s look at the basics. I like to refer to my everyday tools that I use in my pack as my base weight. Below is a list of the essential gear you’ll need to pack before you head into the backcountry in the winter. Your list will become more personalized and fine tuned as you gain experience.


This part of my kit is essential and it usually lives in my pack for the entire season. I then adjust and pack accordingly to the mission at hand. Pack well, and remember this above all, as we begin a new season of backcountry adventures:

“The most important things you bring into the backcountry are knowledge and good judgment. Good judgment keeps you out of trouble, and knowledge may save you if your judgment comes up short. Unfortunately, judgment only comes from experience.”


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