We didn’t call it “sidecountry” years ago when we left the ski area boundary, searching for solace and escaping from the crowds, the hum of the lifts and the tracked-out powder. We just called it the backcountry.
I always felt like I had accomplished something after hiking out the gate to a chosen spot—like I had moved beyond what the resort could offer me. I was earning my turns, sliding back to the real roots of skiing. The risk factor heightened our awareness, but we always carried the essential gear necessary for short laps out-of-bounds: beacon, probe, shovel, extra layer, water, snacks, baseball cap. I had what I needed on my back, strapped around my core and attached to my feet. I really felt like I was connecting with nature. But I admit, I also enjoyed the flush toilets, the lift ride back up the mountain and the quick ski down to the car after heading back inbounds.
“Everyone has a different idea of what sidecountry is,” said Andy Wenberg, sales and marketing director for Backcountry Access, located in Boulder, Colo. “A lot of people are riding chairlifts in the morning and leaving the access gates in the afternoon. They’re skiing out-of-bounds, but looping back to the lifts.”
Sidecountry (or slackcountry, as it is sometimes smugly called) means accessible backcountry. The fact that ski, binding and apparel companies have entire “Sidecountry” collections means that the market is hot and more people are moving beyond the resorts.
I admit, there’s a part of me that feels a little disappointed when I see more tracks around my favorite sidecountry spots. But then again, I may have disappointed some locals in places like [R191R, Jackson Hole] and [R403R, Snowbasin] when I lapped up their sidecountry. One thing to remember: just because it’s accessible, doesn’t make it safe. The sidecountry means no avalanche control work. It means you and your skiing partner are on your own. It’s important to be educated and understand weather, terrain, snowpack and how to use your avalanche rescue tools. Like lots of backcountry enthusiasts, I have lost friends in avalanches that happened not too far away from the resort boundary.
The following items are some of those essentials needed for sidecountry laps, so you can safely enjoy your out-of-bounds, side or slackcountry experience—however you define it.
Don’t leave home—or go out the gate—without an avalanche beacon. The Tracker2 is known for its simplicity and ease-of-use, making it a good choice for sidecountry skiers who would rather spend time skiing pow than practicing beacon searches. But the pros—like Jackson Hole and [R482R, Vail] patrollers—use the Tracker2 because it’s fast and precise and has a triple receive antenna for fine search.
Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, you need a pack that’s not too big, not too small but just right. Enter the Stash OB: it’s big enough to carry what you need to stash in several pouches and one big compartment. Plus the pouch for your shovel blade and sleeves for your probe and shovel handle keep everything organized.
A pole is a pole, right? Not when it comes to variable snow conditions and terrain. The Compactor, a favorite of ski patrollers, has Z-Pole technology, which means its aluminum shaft can fold up to three compact sections. Powder baskets keep the lightweight poles from diving when touring through the fluff.
The owners of Points North Heli-Adventures developed this glove to suit their needs when skiing powder. The result? A gauntlet-style glove with a four-way stretch cuff, and a combo of flexible softshell fabric and water-resistant goatskin leather. Kombi’s proprietary waterproof/breathable insert, moisture-wicking liner and extra lofty insulation keeps hands warm and dry.
If alpine skiing is your first love, but you want the ability to free your heel, then the Marker Baron binding is for you. With a DIN range of up to 13, the Baron is designed for skiers who want downhill performance with a hike function. Since it’s 150 grams lighter than its brother, the Duke, the Baron suits women and lighterweight male skiers.
The lightweight Cochise boot has an interchangeable sole system (tech and DIN compatible), which increases your binding options in the sidecountry. It has the high-performance features of an alpine boot, but also a cuff mobility system that features a pull loop switch to transition easily from hike to ski mode. The women’s version is called the Viva Crossfire ($450).