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Ski Pack Essentials: What to Pack in Your Ski Backpack

Ski Backpack

When skiing, it's just you, the mountain and your gear - and the days of packing light are over.

In recent decades, ski areas have expanded into massive winter playgrounds where the race for powder is tight and having to run back to the car or locker room puts you out of the game. For example, if you're in Blue Sky Basin at Vail your car is 7 miles away. 

So rather than skiing down and riding the bus out to the free parking lot to get lunch, the modern powder hound carries everything they need.  And in the backcountry being prepared is even more essential, since there's no ski patrol to come to your rescue. 

From a ski bum who averages 100 days skiing each winter, here is your guide to packing for a day of winter bliss in the mountains. 

In-bounds skiing

Water

I'm amazed how often I see a dehydrated skier eating snow to ease their thirst. It only makes you colder and could contain all types of things to make you sick. And being at high altitude only makes the dehydration worse. 

My preference is a 2-liter Camelback with a cover for the hose and a zipper pocket to protect it from the elements. But on the coldest days, the best protection won't keep it from freezing, so drink early and often, every break, every chairlift ride, then blow into the hose. You can also put the pack under your jacket to keep it from freezing - as long as you don't mind looking like a hunchback.

Everyone has their own method of hydration. For example, one snowboarder I know carries a tiny cough syrup bottle with water and drinks a sip at a time. 

Food

You burn around 500 calories an hour skiing, and much more if you're hiking above the lifts or skinning in the backcountry. Your stomach doesn't care if it's dumping snow and the skiing is too good to stop. It needs fuel. 

Some skiers go into the lodge and spend $20 on a hot lunch. I prefer snacking on the lifts and carrying a flatbread sandwich to munch on with a mid-afternoon beer (flatbread because I usually crush the sandwich.) If the mountain is crowded I'll ski through the lunch hour since that's when the lifts aren't. 

Sunscreen

Of course, if it's snowing you won't need it, but if it's a bluebird day it's absolutely essential to protect skin from the sun at high altitude. Besides, your boss will know you played hooky to ski if you have a ski goggle tan. 

Tissue

Noses run in the cold. It's a scientific fact. 

Chapstick

Lips get chapped in the cold. It's a scientific fact. 

Cell phone

All but the most remote ski areas have phone service, and many have wifi. So whether it's for meeting up with your friends, posting photos to Instagram or calling ski patrol in an emergency, I consider a phone essential gear. I also carry a charging cord on the cold days. 

Backcountry skier

Hand warmers

When the wind is howling and the snow is blowing sideways and you've been stuck on the lift for 15 minutes, even the hardiest skiers get cold. On days like these I carry peel-off hand warmers. Expert tip: put your phone in a pocket with one to keep it from freezing up. It also works for a lighter if you enjoy a certain herbal remedy while skiing. 

Identification, $7 and insurance card

The $7 is for a beer, the ID is in case they card you (or need to identify your frozen corpse) and the insurance card is in case you survive the fall hurt and need an ambulance. 

One Pabst Blue Ribbon

Many skiers prefer a flask of liquor because it's more lightweight, not to mention stronger, but I like a crisp PBR to enjoy when I hop on for a 10-minute lift ride. 

Spare goggle lens

Many goggles today have interchangeable lenses, one for the sunny days and one for when it's so nasty you can't see the next chair on the lift. If I think the weather might change I carry both, but when in doubt I start with the low-light lens. 

Backcountry skiing

Avalanche beacon

While avalanches in-bounds are rare, since ski patrol conducts avalanche mitigation, out in the backcountry it's the real deal. A beacon will help other skiers find you if you get buried and vice-versa. 

Avalanche Beacon

Probe

A collapsible probe is used to feel beneath the snow for a buried skier.

Shovel

A buried skier only has about 10 minutes before asphyxiation, so a shovel is key to a faster rescue. 

Spare layers

You'll be sweating on the uphill so it's a good idea swap out your sweat-drenched under layer once you're done. 

Map and compass

You really really don't want to get lost in the winter backcountry as the sun is setting. 

Headlamp

In case things go wrong and it's dark.

Lighter and paper

In case things go wrong and you need to start a fire. 

 

And there you have it. Just remember to always put your pack on your lap while riding the lift. The annals of ski history are full of skiers whose packs and straps got snagged on the lift and have been hung or dragged. Plus, it's the only way to get to your lift beer.