The perception of a high cost barrier to entry for backcountry skiing is not true.
My first 6 pairs of skis in the 1990s cost me less than $40 each, and a broke almost all of them. Trashing skis doing bushwhack or tight-treed backcountry was one reason to be careful not to spend too much on gear, the other reason is that I and many of you just don’t have 4 grand to drop on a setup of gear and clothing. Simply using cheap jackets and cotton clothes the way most urbanites do when they make their occasional venture into the mountains is not the answer, but there is a middle ground.
Reasons to pursue the lowest cost setup:
- You are young and broke
- You are not sure you want to do backcountry skiing or snowboarding, so you don’t want to invest much now, but you may invest in better gear later
- You live in a few places and can’t afford to have multiple sets of high-end clothes in multiple states or countries
- You are busy all the time with kids, job and don’t see yourself doing more than a few days each season
The complete sub-$500 backcountry ski clothing setup (day trip setup)
Cheapest Option: $433 TOTAL
The Basic Backcountry Day:
Below you’ll find a list of clothing which is safe, responsible (aka NO COTTON) and effective for day trips in normal winter temps (15 F – 60F). This setup is designed for an active day with uphill and downhill.
You may want to test and modify the setup to work with your body. You may want a heavier puffy or more base layers. In my case I sweat a lot so I may carry an additional cheap base layer shirt in my backpack and change it half way through the day. This setup is not designed for sustained cold and winds above treeline or hanging out in one spot, add a more serious puffy and long underwear for that.
A lot of cheaper products below don’t breath as well as high-end products like Underarmor, Ortovox puffys, etc. So as you become more committed to backcountry skiing you should slowly upgrade your clothing. That being said I still use many cheap parts of the system because the performance is not that much better than the high-end options. For safety some items cannot be made cheap and its noted below.
- $9 – tight base underwear (Walmart, Target, Dicks)
- $7 – 2nd base on top of underwear: generic full synthetic gym shorts, not too heavy, for those who find their tush getting cold regularly (Walmart, Target, Dicks)
- $80 – some kind of windproof/water-resistant pant (ski pants). It doesn’t have to be Gore Tex, but it can’t be the $15 nylon pant either. (any ski sport store)
- $6 – wool/poly mix socks (Walmart, Target, Dicks)
- $15 Long sleeved base layer (mid winter, but use short sleeves for spring) tight on the body, preferably has wicking ability. You can find this on sale at Army Navy stores, Dicks, Etc.
- $5 Starter fully synthetic short-sleeved t shirt (Walmart)
- $35 synthetic or down light puffy. Get the REI brand puffys on clearance in March for this low-cost, or go to a used gear store. You can certainly get $90 puffys for $40 on Craigslist. Get synthetic if living in a wet climate, down can lose its fluff and insulative characteristics. Some high-end down products use a special hydrophobic coating to prevent this, but you won’t find this in cheaper products. In used high-end products the hydrophobic coating on the goose down will likely be broken down (REI, Dicks, EMS, Online)
- $180 waterproof weather shell, real Gore Tex, this is not an area to be cheap on. Can find some shells with real Gore Tex on sale for 180, although 250-300 dollars is a normal price. Do not buy used shells in my opinion. Used shells lose their waterproof properties and can be deadly in serious wet weather. (REI, EMS)
Hands and Heads:
- $50 generic brand gloves with Gore-Tex. Don’t skimp here, real water barriers are needed for all day dryness. Gloves that get wet halfway through the day are useless junk. Leather can work well too and can be cheaper. Try to get lanyards on the gloves or sow them on so they don’t blow off on a windy summit when you take them off. (REI, EMS)
- $20 back up mitts, waterproof. If you lose your main pair in high winds, or it does get wet, extra gloves will literally save your fingers from frostbite and amputation. Throw it in your pack and have that insurance policy. (ski stores, etc.)
- $20 Wool hat and buff. Buffs are cheap to cover the face, nose from high winds. They are not the best thing out there but it works on 98 percent of days in most climates. The hat is indispensable, but if you forget to bring it you can always use the buff with your helmet. Hope you don’t get injured and have to bivouac though cause you’ll be wishing for a real hat. (Walmart, Target, generic ski stores)
THE NEXT STEP: Upgrading:
$45 Underarmour base layer top (it wicks moisture away better than cheap layers)
$25 Underarmour base layer bottom
$100 Soft shell pant for use on dry days (better breathability in the legs)
$100 GoreTex gloves will perform better than the $50 options
$350+ better level GoreTex weather shell
$120+ Ortovox or other high-end brand puffy, these can come with some water/wind resistance so if your shell gets wet during a storm you can stow it away and switch to a dry puffy to deflect the wind.
$22-$30 DarnTuff other brands of smartwool socks which don’t stink due to special treatments
Winter camping is very serious, wait… let me back up, winter BACKPACKING is very serious because unlike winter camping, you may be very far from a car or building and if your setup is too cold, or wet, you easily can end up in a serious rescue and loose toes and fingers. My multiday setup is not too much different, but has some critical differences from the day trip. That’s something for another article to cover. More on winter backpacking see my article for Big Agnes >>
Skiing the “Snowy Half” of the Country:
See articles on the Skiing States project 1998-2019 where I’ve been skiing the highest peaks and sampling skiing in every snowy state in the country from Maine to California. See more articles here.
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