Skiing off piste – essential equipment

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Skiing off piste has become more accessible to a larger number of skiers during the last 10 years. This is due mainly to changes in equipment, especially skis and an increase in competency levels of skiers.

Here I explore the essential equipment you’ll need when skiing off piste

In previous posts (introduction, technique, mountain safety 1, mountain safety 2), in the ‘skiing off piste’ series, I highlighted some of the techniques required for skiing off piste and also how to deal with some of the potential dangers. Having the right equipment can help to make skiing easier off piste and also safer.

Skis have evolved enormously during the last 10 to 15 years. As snowboarding become more popular, skiing as a sport needed to keep up and remain attractive to young people. The shape and size of skis adapted to the trends set by snowboarding. The surface area of a snowboard meant that it was technically easier to ‘ride’ off piste as the board ‘floated’ above the snow. This is when ‘fat skis’ were born.

Today, we have a choice of skis to suit the type of terrain we are skiing on. Skis that are designed to be used on piste are generally shorter with wider tips and tail and a narrow waist. Skis that are designed for off piste are longer and wider from the tip down to the tail. There are also skis that combine these characteristics and are sometimes referred to as ‘all mountain’ skis.

You need to consider the percentage of skiing you will do both on and off piste before purchasing your skis. If you can afford to buy more than one pair of skis then look at specialist skis to suit all conditions. But if you are buying one pair of skis and will ski some of the time off piste then talk to a ski shop professional and get some advice on what will suit your needs.

So apart from skis, which will be your most expensive purchase, what else do you need to ski off piste?

Off piste skiingSki Boots – Ski boots are the most important piece of equipment in your toolbox. Comfort is crucial and a good fit is essential. There are no special requirements in regards to skiing off piste although there are some ski boots that are designed for ‘freeride’ skiing (Freeride is a term used for skiing off piste). These boots are modelled on race specifications but are slightly softer and more forgiving. Don’t worry about changing your boots just to go skiing off piste.

Ski Poles – When you ski in deep snow your ski poles will be used to aid your turns. Make sure that the baskets (round plastic discs near the bottom of the poles) are suitable for deep snow. This means they should be slightly larger in diameter to standard baskets. Take them to a ski shop and ask the staff to fit larger baskets for you.

Ski Jacket – When you go skiing you need a good ski jacket whether you are heading off piste or not. But do make sure your jacket has fully waterproof fabric that is ‘breathable’. All good ski shops will only sell jackets with this kind of material. Taped seams are important as this will help prevent moisture leakage and a hood is helpful when it’s snowing heavily. Some ski jackets also have what’s known as a ‘powder bib’. This is a piece of the garment which wraps around your waist and helps stop snow from getting inside the jacket if you fall over….or of the snow is really deep! I would also recommend using a ‘shell’ jacket which does not have any insulation inside. This means you can regulate your temperature with layers, rather than not having the option, if you get too hot.

Ski Pants – Like your ski jacket, you will need a good set of ski pants when you go skiing anyway. You will want the same type of material that your jacket has. Make sure they have good shoulder straps so they don’t fall down too low around your waist. They should also have ‘powder cuffs’ which wrap around your ski boots and stop snow from entering.

Hat and Gloves – A good pair of ski gloves will be a great investment. Having cold hands is not fun. Some cheaper gloves might feel OK in a warm shop but will not handle extreme cold temperatures. If they are too bulky with insulation then you won’t get the flexibility you need either. Good quality gloves have high grade insulation that doesn’t have to be too thick. Even though you might be skiing in a helmet, a good woolly beanie style hat is still essential to keep with you.

Other clothing items – When you are skiing in cold temperatures whether on or off piste you need a selection of items including thermal underwear, fleece or mid layer tops and good ski socks.

Helmet – A controversial item of equipment that has grown in popularity in the last few years. When skiing off piste it could prevent a head injury, especially if during a fall there are hidden rocks under the deep snow. You rarely see skiers off piste without one.

Goggles – If the snow is deep or if it is snowing when you are skiing, then goggles are absolutely essential to ensure good visibility. It is not advisable to ski in deep powder snow with sunglasses as the snow will cover your eyes.

Backpack – In the previous article for the ‘off piste’ series I explained the items required in case of avalanches, both for your own personal safety and to help rescue other skiers. You will need a good backpack, preferably designed specifically for skiing off piste, to hold the required items. This will need to be between 20 and 30 litres in size.

In essence, because off piste skiing is a more demanding aspect of the sport, the equipment you need should be of the highest quality you can afford. Try to use skis that are suited for the types of conditions you will encounter and make sure your clothing is up to date and waterproof.

Being well equipped will help to make your experience more enjoyable and safer.

In the next part of the series, I will talk about the different types of snow conditions that you might encounter when skiing off piste.

This post was written by Robert Stewart of The Skiing Department Blog. Robert is a qualified ISIA ski instructor and professional Alpine skier and his blog has the latest information on many different aspects of the sport, from beginners skiing tips to ski clothing reviews.

With over 25 years of skiing experience, Rob's a qualified BASI ski instructor and full-time ski writer. Rob’s a highly experienced off-piste skier, having competed in freestyle and freeride skiing,

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