Choose Your Tools: The Seven Needs of Backcountry Skiing

This is Part 3 of the ‘Choose Your Tools’ series on Gear Selection for Backcountry Skiing. See also Part 2: Avalanche Hazard and Safety Gear

If you were ever a boy scout, or made fun of one, then you’ve probably heard of the 10 essentials. Though beloved by those scarf-wearing hikers, the ten essentials were actually invented by the Mountaineers, the Seattle-based club-cum-Company which now publishes the book that everyone recommends, and no one reads:

You haven’t read it all, though perhaps you’ve glanced over it.  Or if you have read it, do you remember anything particularly useful? The reason that the Mountaineers other series is much more popular is that each volume is tailored to different sports and their needs. The ten-essentials list has the same problem: by trying to do everything for everyone, it does nothing of use to anyone.


Even at my local mountain, Mt Hood, a sign implores climbers to take the ten essentials along, and then the wilderness permit form asks you to check them off of a list before heading out to climb. It’s the old-school mentality that you should never go on a day hike without ’em.  However, even with small maps and bottles of sunscreen, the 10 essentials are going to weigh you down with at least five pounds of extra nonsense that most likely you don’t need.

Still, the boy scouts were onto something. Their list is too specific to be useful, but the abilities that they suggest remain important to backcountry travelers.  Here, those abilities are distilled into a systems approach that I call the Seven Needs.[divider_line]

[one_half][content_box color=”#990000″]  [h4]The Ten Essentials[/h4]




Extra Clothing

Headlamp or Flashlight


Fire-Starter / Tinder



Extra Food


[one_half_last][content_box color=”#990000″]

[h4]The Seven Needs[/h4]








The Seven Needs list is a thought tool that is both broadly useful and specifically applicable.  It is just as easily applied to Expedition Mountaineering as it is to a casual hike in an urban wild area.  So without further ado, read on below!


[h3]The Seven Needs[/h3]

[list_check][li] [h4]Navigation:[/h4]

White out glacier travel
Traveling in a white-out with wands. So much fun you’ll do it exactly once.

You must be able to locate yourself and move yourself from point A to point B without getting lost.  How much you ned to bring depends on your familiarity and the nature of the terrain.  If you’re familiar with the terrain, and can navigate without the use of a map, then  just ask yourself, “what would I do in a white-out?”.

If you’re in terrain like the Wasatch mountains, which is composed of narrow valleys and distinct ridges, with a road at the bottom, then you need nothing.  In a white-out, you can use the slope of the terrain as a hand-rail to guide you where you need to go, and if all else fails, going down will lead to the road.

If you’re somewhere like Mt Adams, well above timberline, with few if any visual references, then you’ll need more than just your wits to navigate in a white-out. If you’re alone, you can’t walk a straight line in a white-out using just a compass (Don’t believe me? Try it).  Map and compass are lightest for traveling with one or more partners, but they’re also a pain at times.  Light weight GPS units or watches are the gold standard for whiteout navigation.[/li]

[li][h4]Insulation:[/h4]  [h5]Warmth:[/h5]You must be able to shelter yourself from the elements.  This includes protection from sun, wind, and cold.  Weather is something which happens to you, but you are also something which happens to your surroundings– you move, create heat, and warm yourself. The degree to which you bring insulating layers (layers with loft) and protective layers (wind or water proof) depends both on your level of activity, and the weather which you may reasonably expect. The issue of clothing will be discussed at length later in this series.

[h5]Sun Protection:[/h5]

sun protection on glacier
Sometimes, everything you have just isn’t enough to protect you from reflected UV. (The author, baking, in Wrangell St Elias National Park, AK)

The three approaches to sun protection are shade, shield and screen.  A shade hat will keep sun off your face, but won’t protect you from reflected light. Sunglasses protect your eyes from the sun and from reflected light provided that they are wrap-around in style and don’t allow peripheral light. Sunscreen protects your skin from UV radiation, but not heat.

For most uses, sunscreen and sunglasses will meet the needs of your surroundings. Use the high spf, you’re not here for a tan. The extremes of protection lie on the glacier and in a blizzard; on a glacier, sunblock (ie zinc), sunglasses, and a shade hat may together be barely sufficient for UV protection.

On the other hand, in a blizzard, sunglasses may need to be traded for goggles to allow for navigation without painful and weeping eyes. In most cases, sunscreen and a pair of shades will do, but in some, all measures may be barely enough.  Consider the weather, the reflectivity of your surface, and the wind.  And learn to ski in sunglasses.[/li]


Petzl e+Lite
Petzl e+Lite:   27 g, 35-70 hrs of light, and ass saved.

This is the only one of the ten essentials to remain unchanged– you have to be able to navigate in the dark.  This need could be filed under both navigation and recourse, but a light is one of the few extras worth carrying for the just-in-case scenario.

The lightest headlamps weight as little as 27 grams, and they can be the difference between navigating to the car in the dark and sitting out, alone, cold, and maybe dead. “I won’t get caught in the dark” is something said only by the naïve.  It happens to IFMGA guides, and it will happen to you.

For ultralight overnight missions, consider the weather and the stage of the moon (remember to check the moonrise).  If you’re planning on complex route-finding (ie you’re not on a trail) at night, or for rappels, brighter lights are necessary.

Use a headlamp, not a flashlight.  Use LEDs, not incandescent bulbs; they last longer. Use non-rechargeable batteries because they allow you to carry spares. Unless it’s a three hour morning tour, or you know it’s going to be clear with a full moon, carry a light.[/li]


Hiker Please.
Hiker Please.

You must be able to care for yourself should you become injured. The biggest consideration here is how far you are from help, whether you can communicate with the outside world, and whether you want to.  Expeditions are beyond the scope of this article, so you don’t have a sat phone. Do you have cell phone coverage? Do you really want to be that guyCan you be that guy if your friend will die otherwise?

Consider including in your first aid kit only multipurpose items that can make the difference between getting out on your own and staying alive and requiring rescue or ending up dead. Triangle bandages, athletic tape, ski straps, a barrier mask, and a little bit of roller gauze will be all you need for almost any emergency that you can do anything about, regardless of your level of training.

Consider that there are three levels of medical acuity that you could run into on a tour.  Low: sunburn, blisters (even bad ones), small scrapes, cuts, etc. Medium: You’re not going to die, but it’s going to be hard.  This includes large or deep cuts, dislocations, some fractures, near asphyxiation, etc. High: you’re going to die without rescue regardless of the medical supplies on hand.  This includes femur fractures, complex internal trauma, and what EMTs call ‘injuries incompatible with life’.  Consider these three acuities, and carry only the supplies that will make a difference in the Medium scenario.  Low? Tough it out or go home. High? Hope for a helicopter. Medium? With a few well-selected enabling supplies, you can make use of other objects on hand to provide good care and facilitate rescue.

One last note: Do NOT use a pre-made first-aid kit, as you’ll often see at REI or similar outlets.  These are bulky and full of worthless little amounts of 60 different low-acuity treatments. Build your own, and you’ll save enough money and space to be able to pack it all in better protective bag[/li]

Training links


Voile Ski Strap
There’s almost nothing that can’t be fixed with a Voile strap.

You should be able to fix the gear that you have sufficiently to get you back to the trailhead should something break. What you bring depends on how remote you are, and how hard it would be to walk to the trailhead. On expeditions, extra binding parts are commonplace.  On day trips, you’d be a fool to bring and extra heel-piece or a sewing kit.

Most often, you can choose to bring nothing but some ski straps and the worst that could happen is a long day (night?) walking (post-holing?) back to the trailhead.  How durable is your equipment, and how much have you used it?  Heavily used and brand new equipment are both prone to malfunction. Again, multi-use items are superior to dedicated tools.

When in doubt, take less, and ask yourself, how can I improvise? [/li]

[li][h4]Replenishment:[/h4] You should have enough calories and water, both with you and in your body, to support your effort. The amount of calories that you bring should be proportional to: (intensity or length of effort) x (how cold it is).  This reflects the two avenues of energy expenditure in backcountry skiing.  What you shouldn’t do is carry enough food to spend an emergency night out well-fed. Unless you’re Lance Armstrong in the Arctic, wearing a speed-suit, then you have the warmth that you need packed around your waist in a spare tire (getting ever-smaller, I’m sure).  If it’s cold enough that you’re concerned about having extra calories, a single pemican bar can get you through the night, and two will be luxurious.

Pro Bar for Skiing Nutrition
ProBar: Delicious and compact, but a bit expensive. Often worth it. And they don’t taste like sawdust.

The form of the food that you take is a matter of preference, and reflects the nature of your trip.  Some like Gu or gels, others hate the stuff and prefer a selection of whole foods.  A salami sandwich isn’t appropriate on race day, and you likely don’t need to eat gels for a super casual 4-hour tour. Volumes could be written about this, and have been.

General guidelines: Lunch begins after breakfast and runs until dinner.  Snack throughout the day rather than take a break for lunch. Take the amount of food that you think will be barely enough, then add one Snickers bar and some cashews.  Carry water, modified for preference, according to these rough guidelines for moderate effort: (<4 hrs, 1 L), (4-8 hrs, 2L) (>8 hrs, 2.5 L).  Increase these amounts high-level effort, hot days, or efforts in especially dry climates.  Decrease for lightweight missions and end dehydrated.  Dehydrated is only bad if you’re in a remote place, with no means of getting any water, and you need to keep walking. [/li]

[li][h4]Recourse:[/h4] You must have an exit strategy for when the defecation hits the ventilation. Carry a light. Be able to navigate in a white-out. Consider shelter for a night out.  Can you build a snow cave?  Is there dry wood around for a fire? (If so, carry a lighter, silly, and you’ll pass a night in relative luxury). If someone gets hurt, how will you get them out, or find help?  How experienced are you and are you travelling in avalanche terrain?

Consider what  you have with you that you can use for many purposes, and what few things can you add to that list that multiply your ability to deal with the unknown.  A beacon is crucial in an avalanche burial. A cell phone programmed with the numbers of search and rescue or a cadre of capable friends can multiply your efforts to include snowmobiles and helicopters.  Consider this wisely, and be prepared to repay your friends in beer.[/li] [/list_check]

I always love your comments, so let me know what you think below! And in case you missed it, be sure to check out the last post in this series, Avalanche Hazard and Safety Gear

Category: Gear & ReviewsKnowledge & Technique



  1. Re: only carrying first aid that applies to medium acuity injuries that you can do something about:
    I have started carrying a tourniquet (when far from help/ when wielding a chainsaw)… because…
    I heard a particularly grisly account of a man taking a relatively short tumble down a talus field on top of a big mountain (and ripping apart his tibia/ entire lower leg in the process). Two guys who saw the fall and went to help tried to stop bleeding with some p-cord just below the knee (yeah right). Then SAR showed up – also without a real tourniquet, and tried with some slightly wider cord above the knee (again, yeah right)… anyway, he ended up bleeding out during the rescue and dying in the heli en route to the hospital. Maybe those involved should have worn belts or thought about how to improvise an effective tourniquet…. or…they could carry a handy SWAT-tourniquet (doubles as a pressure dressing/ elastic bandage).
    Perhaps one example of actually being able to do something about a high-acuity injury?

    1. Do you mean this one?

      When you say you carry a tourniquet aside from that one, what material do you use?

      I’m afraid that my bc kit is very small. I have one bloodstopper, a triangle bandage, and a small roll of tape. I have considered the tourniquet issue and thought that a tied triangle dressing could be tightened with a ski pole portion and fixed in place with a ski strap.

      When I let my imagination run wild, I have conceived of making a sager-style traction splint for femur fx with a whippet ski pole. Can it be done? I’m not sure.

      1. Yes, that one… I’ve tried the triangle bandage imrov (for fun, not an actual bleeder), and it works pretty well…as long as you remember you need something to spin to tighten (ski pole/ stick) AND something to hold that in place (zip tie works great).
        I think the only draw back might be the relatively narrow shape you can get with a triangle bandage…improved with some careful fiddling (not the kind I would want to have to worry about).
        as far as other improvs… I think a webbing style belt would work well, as long as it were flexible enough to be able to spin around something to tighten it down.
        In reality I only actually carry one when the likelihood of blood spurting is high (cutting down trees with a chainsaw) or I am SARing going to a backcountry trauma…
        That being said, Improvised tourniquets (I would add that it would depend on how good you are at improvising) have been shown to increase ischemia and nerve/ vessel damage at the site of the tourniquet, not to mention just being plain ineffective- particularly if they are too narrow.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: