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Hut Hacks: Gear, Tricks, & Tips to Make the Most of Backcountry Ski Trips

The irresistible lure of a backcountry yurt or hut is one of the reasons I was motivated to begin dabbling in backcountry skiing six years ago.

As a good friend often proclaims, “Yurt life is the good life,” and I agree wholeheartedly. There’s nothing more special than time spent unplugged in nature, where the necessities of melting water, chopping firewood, and preparing a yurt feast are your chief concerns (besides powder snow, of course).

yurt1With luck and planning, your home away from home for the weekend.

Having taken excursions to various huts and lodges around Utah, Idaho, and British Columbia, I’ve learned a few things that can take your trip from fun to fantastic. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but with these tips you’ll be better prepared to maximize your yurt enjoyment.

Step One

Bookings for yurts and huts can fill up fast, so the trick is to reserve far in advance. The problem, of course, is that you have no way of predicting what the weather or conditions will be like at the time of your trip. But to ensure availability I do suggest booking early and putting confidence in the whims of Mother Nature. In the months and weeks leading up to your trip keep an eye on the snowpack and consult the local avalanche report regularly, so that you’re equipped with the knowledge you need to make smart decisions in unfamiliar terrain. And finally, don’t forget to check the weather forecast and the local avalanche report the day you depart.

snow-hutHitting the jackpot with Mother Nature.

Ready, Set, Beacon Drill!

Oftentimes you’ll be experiencing a hut- or yurt-based ski trip with strangers or possibly friends with whom you haven’t traveled in the backcountry before. The first thing you should do before even departing the trailhead is a beacon drill. Make sure everyone in your party knows how to use and operate his or her beacon. In addition to completing your necessary beacon check, you’ll practice invaluable skills every backcountry traveler needs to hone regularly. Ditto on taking an avalanche course beforehand to educate yourself before heading out on any sort of backcountry excursion.

Enough of the preaching, on to the tips and hacks to make your trip a success …

Taking Stock
The amenities will obviously vary from shelter to shelter but most huts or yurts will be stocked with basic necessities. If in doubt, consult the person with whom you made the booking. You can probably expect dishes, platforms or cots with sleeping pads, a wood stove, basic cookware and possibly a propane stove for cooking. Inquiring about the amenities beforehand can save you a boatload of weight and hassle; this is a step I do not recommend skipping.

Essential Gear

Voile straps: If this article doesn’t convince you of the value and utility of the glorious Voile strap, chances are you either never break equipment or you live in Neverland. From securing a climbing skin that just won’t stick to saving your day after a binding explosion, you should never venture into the backcountry without stuffing 3-5 of these bad chickens in varying lengths inside your pack. You (or your touring partners) will thank us later.

Voile-Strap

Booties: These Baffin Cush booties weigh practically nothing and they will ensure the utmost comfort in yurt living. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as slipping into toasty down booties that have been warmed fireside after a day of bagging vert by the yurt. Also consider packing a lightweight pair of oversize Crocs. You can slip your Crocs on atop your deliciously warm slippers for the trek out to the pit toilet or for wood-chopping and water-gathering duties. Just note that while this system works well once a trail to the toilets has been established, it’s not ideal in a powder setting.

Dry clothes: After a day out in the cold, I like to slip into a warm, dry outfit once the team has returned to home base. I prefer party pants to enliven the scene, so I always pack a pair of Teeki pants and don a dry long-sleeve merino wool top while I hang my wet clothes to dry near the wood stove.

hut-necessitySome hut necessities: wood stove, booties, party pants, wool socks, & hot toddies.

Headlamp: A headlamp is essential for midnight trips to the loo or possibly an ambitious moonlight tour. I prefer the Petzl Tikka RXP Headlamp for its rechargeable nature and variable settings.

Maps: If you are one of those people who don’t like to track down and carry maps then I suggest coughing up the cash to download the phone app Topo Maps. The downloadable USGS maps can be saved to your phone so you can still access them sans service in the backcountry. It can be helpful to navigate to your shelter and will also assist you in identifying possible areas to explore.

Garbage bags: Many yurts won’t stock them and you’ll be relieved you don’t have to pack smelly beer cans directly in your pack. Some garbage you just can’t burn, so it’s nice to have the option to pack it out easily.

Thermos: A lightweight thermos is an utter pleasure on the summit, and you’ll appreciate a warm cup of tea while transitioning into downhill mode. This item isn’t a total essential but it does add comfort and enjoyment.

Duct tape: Always wrap 1-2 feet of duct tape around your ski pole or Nalgene water bottle. Easy access to duct tape is always wise; I can’t tell you how many times it’s come in handy on the trail or inside the yurt.

Extra powder basket: Having one for ski pole malfunctions is helpful; this item isn’t heavy, and is a total life-saver should the need arise.

First aid kit add-ons: In addition to the basic items you’ll find in any decent first aid kit, I like to add the following essentials:

  • Sunscreen: I like Sun Bum products.
  • Space blanket: I once offered mine to a guy that had broken his hip and was waiting for a backcountry evac. They weigh practically nothing and can be used to construct a shelter or prevent hypothermia in an emergency.
  • Cayenne pepper: I’ve heard that sprinkling this in your socks can improve circulation for toes prone to numbness; I have not tested this theory, but it’s worth a mention.
  • Heavyweight blister supplies: My feet are prone to blistering and nothing ruins a trip faster. I always tape my feet with medical tape or duct tape before every tour and carry extensive supplies for blister treatment.
  • Burn dressings: Wood stoves are hot and bad things can happen around them, especially to a clumsy ox like myself.

Power & Tunes

Like many folks, my camera is my phone, so to conserve power I make sure to immediately put my phone on airplane mode the moment we’re out of range of civilization. I’ll then tote my Goal Zero Nomad 13 Solar Panel to help everyone charge their musical devices and phones. Depending on how the mileage looks to get to the yurt, I’ll carry (or pawn off) my portable Goal Zero Rock Out Speaker which can also be charged with the panel. A yurt without musical tunes is silly, so make sure one person in your group has a speaker.

Food Wisdom

The general rule is to pack high-protein, high-energy food because you will be burning lots of calories. Often this will involve repackaging the food yourself beforehand to save both space and weight. Pre-cracked eggs in a small water bottle like the 8oz CamelBak Podium Arc will save you space, time, hassle, and the danger of egg-soaked clothing. The protein provided by eggs will fuel you for a big day.

Meal prep beforehand is key. I like to make a big batch of chili and freeze it in a gallon bag; it’s easy to transport and I all I have to do is heat it up in a pot at the yurt. For more advanced dining, I’ve seen some folks create delicious meals in crock pots and then vacuum seal the meal. At the yurt all you have to do is place the vacuum bag in boiling water and presto—no dirty pots or pans. Others opt for backpacking meals which just require a bit of boiling water, but I think yurt life calls for something a little more homemade. Just remember to keep it simple and cut down on weight wherever you can. Rice and pasta are always a great bet because they are filling and won’t weigh down your pack.

And finally, do not underestimate the power of snacks; I always pack way too many but I can’t function with hanger and I’m always down to share. My favorite on-snow snacks include Margarita Clif Shot Bloks, Superfruit Slam ProBar Meal Bars, Lamb Currant Mint Epic Bars, and Honey Stinger Waffles. I also love the pre-packaged servings of flavored almond butter for a huge kick of energy that can be stowed in my bibs.

The Battle with Booze

The biggest challenge facing any backcountry traveler is the perilous decision of how much alcohol to bring, and what kind. If you can sled or hitch a ride on a snowcat to your destination, then this doesn’t become a saga. But if you are slogging miles into the backcountry on your skis or splitboard, then the choice to bring beer, liquor, or wine becomes an agonizing one. In my experience, I’ve found that I crave a beer immediately after finishing a long day and returning to shelter so I’ll pack some high-percentage beer (i.e. not from Utah), 1-2 for each day spent outside, so I can get my fix.

I’ve seen dudes opt to tote beer behind them in a cheap plastic sled for the journey into the backcountry. This works fine if your route doesn’t contain many switchbacks; watching someone trying to force the sled to cooperate around a tight curve is comical indeed. But beer doesn’t have the best weight-to-intoxication ratio for backcountry hauling. (Perhaps you are of a lineman build and the extra weight doesn’t faze you, but since I’m small every ounce counts.) I favor a bladder of boxed wine to enjoy during the evening or on down days. I’ll also throw a small, lightweight flask of whiskey or maple-flavored Crown Royal for nips on the summit or frigid times rambling around the yurt.

boozeThe PlatyPreserve and GSI Outdoors Flask vs. a weightier option.

Don’t worry, I don’t consume all this alcohol by myself, but use it to ingratiate myself with all my yurtmates, friends and strangers alike, who are unlikely to turn down a sip. If you don’t want to look like a total wino, you can downsize to the PlatyPreserve. I also forgo my metal flask and bring a lightweight plastic container like the GSI Outdoors Flask.

Clothing Packing Tips

For a 2-3 night hut trip you don’t need more than two pairs of long underwear, seriously. I tell myself this rule every single time I pack and I still have to resist the urge to pack too much clothing. Some folks will only pack one set of clothing, but I think that’s risky. After arriving at the yurt you’ll switch into your dry set and allow your dirty, wet clothing to dry near the fire. Swap each time you require a change of clothing. Nobody ever said yurt life wasn’t smelly, so revel in that fact and have no shame.

The one item you should not skimp on is an extra pair or two of socks; they don’t weigh much and take up very little space. Dry socks, for me, are the difference between success and misery on a hut trip. A few more words on socks: put your ski socks on at the very last possible second before heading out for the day. Don’t wear the socks you slept in, and don’t pad around the yurt or hut in your socks during breakfast and saddling up. They may not feel wet, but they are probably holding on to a little moisture from sweat or they may have absorbed dampness from puddles near the door. Don dry socks the moment you are ready to put your boots on to maximize your comfort all day. I always keep a spare pair of dry ski socks in my touring pack, too.

For my unmentionable layers I prefer merino underwear and pack one pair per day. They dry quickly, retain warmth when wet, and resist sweaty stank. For the ladies out there one or two supportive sports bras are all you should need for your trip. Again, I prefer wool to synthetics, but that is a personal choice.

I also prefer to pack something fresh to sleep in, but I know many a dude who has no issue sleeping in dirty thermals. The Teeki party pants I always bring will double nicely as sleepwear, so all I need is one additional sleep tee.

Your favorite dorky hat is 100% required for style and protection from the sun or snow. Raid your dad’s closet, head to the thrift store, or steal one from your friend. The search for the perfect hat may take years, but you’ll find one. Mine is aqua blue, features snap-up ear flaps, insulation, and a cheeky brim. Not only will a dorky hat command respect on the trail, it will protect you while letting people know you are a serious backcountry traveler not beholden to the whims of fashion or meaningless trends.

attired2Properly attired for backcountry skiing—airbag backpack, Gore-Tex, dorky hat and all.

I also always carry two pairs of gloves: a thin pair for ascending (when my hands grow warm and sweaty) and a much thicker, waterproof pair for descending (when my hands require more insulation). I prefer a thin, wool mitten for skinning up; bonus points if you grab a pair like the OR Lost Coast Mitt that can fold back to expose your fingers so you can adjust gear or snap a photo on the fly.

I get cold easily, so I always take one puffy down jacket to insulate myself on peaks while transitioning or when gathering water and wood outside. While not practical for touring, I find that I always end up using my biggest puffer so it always comes with me. I’ll include a thinner, synthetic layer to insulate me while I skin or ski. Then, of course I pack my lightest weight Gore-Tex shell for protection from the elements.

Down Days

The inevitable risk in hut tripping is the reliance you place upon Mother Nature. Sometimes she is simply not willing to cooperate. One pastime I have discovered in situations where the weather is simply too warm is the art and sport of Paco Pad sledding. Many huts or yurts will equip their sleeping platforms with these self-inflating foam sleeping pads, often spied on river trips because they are both resilient and waterproof. Turns out they are also excellent sleds and can be used as such in the mornings or evenings after the sunbaked snow has cooled down. They also create a near perfect platform for sunbathing or day drinking as you wait for the corn cycle to kick in.

paco-3

On days when the avalanche danger is high or the weather is bad, your best bet is a handy deck of cards or a flask of whiskey. Have the rules to a couple games, like Scum or Hearts, on hand.

Necessary Business

If you’re a dude, you can go ahead and skip this section; if you’re a lady, get ready to graduate to the next level. Nothing is quite so fearful as squatting in the snow, hovering over a disgusting pee hole and trying to summon the urge to pee in sub-zero temps. Now consider how much drinking probably occurred the night before and realize that stepping or falling into frozen snow pee around said hole is nearly unavoidable. The GoGirl will change your life, this I promise. Nothing has revolutionized my backcountry kit like this wonderful little device.

IMG_7280Feel the cool breeze on your cheeks.

Post -Trip Tip

I always have a very comfy, dry set of clothing waiting in the car for me when we return to the trailhead. All your clothes probably stink and the ones you are wearing are probably wet, so an extra set of dry stuff in the vehicle ensures a much more comfortable reentry into civilization.

If you’ve got tips, tricks or hacks of your own, make sure to leave them in the comments for us below!

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