9 gear mistakes people make on backcountry ski trips
CMH Heli-Skiing gear guru Bruce Rainer has been taking care of the shop at CMH Galena for 22 years. He’s seen the transition to fat skis, custom ski boots, and online gear sales - not always for the best.
We talked about the mistakes people make in buying gear for world-class backcountry ski trips, and while he spoke he worked on a snowboard binding that was the cat’s meow for the resort, but when the deep snow works its way under the binding it literally separates the binding from the board.
Bruce laughed at the irony of our conversation while working on the bindings: “Things that seem to work just fine at the ski hill, sometimes don’t work at all in the environment we ride in out here.”
He quoted former CMH Revelstoke area manager Buck Corrigan who had this to say when explaining the difference between ski resort and backcountry skiing: “We ski in the snow, not on the snow.”
Here’s the 9 biggest gear mistakes people make, according to Bruce, when going backcountry, cat or heli-skiing:
- Taking new boots on a ski trip. Skiers spend a bunch of money on new boots for their dream trip and then end up with sore feet, blisters, and simply don’t have as much fun.
- Buying stiff, top-of-the-line racing boots for deep powder. Most people prefer a softer boot for powder skiing anyway, and stiff boots just make the fluid motions of deep powder skiing more awkward and difficult for all but the world’s best skiers.
- Fixing boot issues with thick, custom orthotics. When skiers are having foot issues, they try to solve them by retrofitting their boots with custom orthotics that take up so much space in the boot that they decrease the volume and often make the boots even less comfortable. Bruce noted that in numerous occasions he has helped people by simply taking their orthotics out of the boots. Bruce's advice: if you are going to use custom footbeds, get them fitted to the boots from day one.
- Assuming gear that works in bounds will work well in the backcountry. Skis and snowboards that work in a ski area, even a famous powder area like Alta, don’t necessarily work well when there is no firm base under the powder. Part of the issue is the sheer volume of deep powder heli-skiing allows. “Even on a good powder day,” explains Bruce, “in a resort you only get a few runs in the fresh before it gets cut up and packed down - out here we ski fresh snow all day every day.”
- Wearing small, low-profile goggles. You’ll notice the ski guides all wear the big, dorky looking goggles that allow lots of space between the face and the lenses. This keeps the warmth from the face from fogging up the goggles and work far better than the more stylish close-fitting goggles.
- Wearing inadequate ski gloves. Many cool ski gloves have short gauntlets that quickly fill with snow, or have too little insulation to keep the fingers warm in the deep winter of Western Canada.
- Skiing in too many clothes. “People go out in big, heavy jackets, and pretty soon they’re sweating, their goggles steam up, and then it’s just not as fun anymore.” says Bruce. If you don’t know what to wear, ask an experienced heli-skier or ski guide.
- Wearing jackets with open necks and fur. This should be obvious, but after a few tumbles or even just a meaty face shot, a fashionable fur-rimmed jacket will be holding a kilo of snow that slowly melts down your neck. Save the fashion for St. Anton or Aspen, and bring a jacket designed for powder to CMH Heli-Skiing.
- WEARING WHITE! “This last one is the biggest mistake of all!” said Bruce, “It’s a matter of safety!” When you wear white, you blend in with the snow and you make it harder for your ski partners and the guides to see you, and if you get lost even the sharp-eyed pilots will have more trouble finding you.
When he’s not fitting skis, adjusting snowboard binding positioning for better performance in the deep, and answering gear questions, Bruce is always hoping for another ride on his favourite ski run in the universe: Galena’s Freefall.
Photo of a heliskier demonstrating why yellow and blue are better colours than white when riding in the backcountry.