Ten Spring Backcountry Skiing Tips – #8
Like it or not, a fact of life as a North American backcountry skier is that your automobile is as essential as your skis. Much of our skiing is done in areas with little or no public transportation, travel distances can be long, and roads vary from 4-lane to 4×4 trail. Having a good vehicle for such travel is key to consistent enjoyment and success in the spring season.
If you’re a conservative driver, and willing to park a bit lower on the melted out but rough roads, a smaller all-wheel-drive sedan (such as the popular Subaru models) is a good choice. If you like more room and want to push up the dicey roads so you have less mud walking, a mid-size 4×4 SUV will keep you happy.
Whatever your choice in vehicle for backcountry skiing, setting it up nicely can eliminate a world of hurt. Be sure you have top quality all-season or snow tires. If you like to push it a bit, buy tires that have thicker sidewalls and tread so you’ll get fewer flats from sharp rocks. Sometimes it helps to buy a tire that’s slightly taller than stock, thus lifting your vehicle a bit so it’ll pass more easily over ruts and rocks.
Mid sized SUVs can sometimes benefit from a conservative suspension lift (around 2 inches) to accommodate taller tires, and give more wheel well room for snow and mud buildup. 4×4 enthusiasts go gonzo with this, but sacrifice highway performance — don’t go there unless you’ve got lots of money and time.
If you do opt for taller tires, be aware that any but a slight increase may necessitate changing your axle gearing, so be careful with that. Lots of those trucks you see with those big tall tires have lost all ability to crawl slowly in low gear — essential if you’re doing real-world trail work.
If you are serious about using your SUV for rougher trails, it’s useful to install aftermarket trail bumpers. You can hook a tow strap to just about any point on a trail bumper, use it as a jack support to raise your vehicle out of a rut or mud hole, and tap trees and rocks with little or no damage (as opposed to factory bumpers that self-destruct at the slightest provocation). Most front aftermarket bumpers have a winch platform, and filling such with a good quality winch gives peace of mind out in the boonies. But winches are expensive, tempt thieves, and are used so infrequently on average trailhead approaches that they’re definitely a luxury — not a necessity.
Consider your vehicle battery. You’re at a remote trailhead after backcountry skiing all day, your car is starting hard and requires quite a bit of cranking. It sputters, almost starts — then your battery dies. You can get after-market batteries that have quite a bit more power and reliability than those from the factory. Look for Optima and other such brands. Highly recommended for your backcountry skiing trailhead approach vehicle (TAV).
What you carry in your TAV is important as well. A list:
Tow strap (learn where to hook it up, see your owners manual)
First aid kit (larger type that you leave in your vehicle)
Sleeping bag or large blanket (in case you get stranded and for first aid)
Tool kit (Buy a small toolbox and load it up with generic tools)
Shovel (Don’t depend on your avalanche shovel to dig you out of a mud pit, keep a medium sized steel spade in your TAV. You can find ones with shorter handles at any hardware store.)
De-activated cell phone with automobile power cable (in case you lose your regular phone, or the battery dies)
Small box with extra engine oil, power steering fluid, etc. (use a plastic box such as a small Action Packer, so if something leaks it doesn’t drain out on your carpet)
Windshield washer fluid and a jug of plain water for drinking or emergency radiator fills (only in springtime, since it’ll freeze in winter while you’re parked)
Survival kit (fire starting items, emergency food and water, etc.)
Tire chains (If you’re serious, pretty much mandatory as they’ll get you out of a jam that would otherwise require a tow or a winch.)
Check your vehicle’s jack. If it’s meager and possibly useless for lifting your TAV out of a rut or hole, continue to pack your factory jack for changing out a flat tire on the highway, but also carry a jack with some power and throw, such as a taller hydraulic jack, or in the case of a fully setup backroads TAV, a highlift jack (the big heavy long ones you see strapped to all those farmer’s pickups).
If you do opt for vehicle modifications, how do you get them done correctly? Nearly every town and city in the U.S. now has at least one custom 4×4 shop. Some of these outfits are incredibly skilled, and can take your concept to reality within a specified budget. Yet as with anything, it’s buyer beware. Check out your choice in shops by getting word-of-mouth recommendations, seeing if they’re a member of the Better Business Bureau, and so forth. If you’re in or near Western Colorado, we recommend CODE 4×4 Jeep and truck customizer — they’re super ethical and like to carefully plan projects so they stay within budget and end up being useful for the intended purpose.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.