Unique demands of sidecountry, backcountry skiing influence apparel design
Once upon a time, there was resort skiing and there was backcountry skiing. One required a ski pack and hard work to reach, the other was a place where you rode lifts and didn’t have to work nearly as hard for your turns. But the backcountry had untouched powder, while the resort had tracked-out lines.
Then the rules began to change at ski resorts. Resort boundary gates and hikes traditionally closed to the public opened up, allowing skiers and riders access to backcountry terrain with the ease of riding a lift. Sidecountry skiing was born.
But the sidecountry is more than just popping out a gate at your local resort. According to ski legend Mike Hattrup, who helped design Outdoor Research’s Sidecountry apparel line, sidecountry skiing is “anything from lift-access backcountry to riding a snowmobile or helicopter. The sidecountry skier wants powder and a backcountry feeling, but they also want big vertical. They don’t care how they get up there—maybe they ride lifts to a hike, or maybe they just coast out-of-bounds to some low-hanging fruit. It’s all about milking pow.”
True backcountry skiing, on the other hand, is certainly about powder, but it’s also about the entire experience. It requires hard work on the uphill, skinning or hiking, maybe even putting on crampons or rappelling into a steep couloir. It’s not easy, but it is deeply rewarding.
Those two experiences require different gear. Backcountry demands self-sufficiency and the ability to adapt to changing conditions. Sidecountry? According to Hattrup, it’s a blending of what you need at the resort and what you need for the backcountry. And that difference is reflected in the apparel and other gear that people use for these two different activities.
To start, backcountry apparel needs to be cut tighter and more athletically, especially the ski pants. This may seem counter-intuitive at first. Shouldn’t more athletic apparel be a bit looser to accommodate motion. “Not exactly,” says Hattrup. “When you are climbing in snow and ice you need to see your feet. And you don’t want your crampons to rip your pants.”
An example is the Outdoor Research TrailBreaker Pants™, which are cut trimmer than Outdoor Research Sidecountry ski pants, and also employ a Ventia Hybrid™ construction—waterproof-breathable material on the lower legs, where the pants are more exposed to moisture, and stretch-woven soft shell on the upper part of the pants, where breathability for the uphill is more important.
Sidecountry apparel, on the other hand, is cut looser, so it’s easy to do things you’re not doing in the backcountry—like sitting down comfortably on the lift. Think about it this way, the fit in backcountry apparel is designed to move with you, while the fit for Sidecountry apparel is designed so that you move inside of it. Sidecountry ski jackets and pants also require durability to stand up to the abuse of the resort, yet they still have to be light enough and provide sufficient ventilation for backcountry laps.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Outdoor Research Sidecountry gear and apparel designed for the resort or backcountry comes down to the built-in features.
“When you are backcountry skiing, you carry a ski pack, but in the sidecountry your jacket often is your pack,” Hattrup says. “You may have to shove your hat or snacks in a pocket that you can easily access while racing up a boot pack for freshies.”
The most important detail on Sidecountry apparel, according to Hattrup, is the ventilation. If you are in the sidecountry you often need to deal with the rapid temperature change between sitting on a cold lift and sweating while hiking up a boot pack. Hattrup has experienced this over and over in the Jackson Hole sidecountry, where short boot packs turn into aerobic exercise.
“You need quick ventilation,” he says. “None of the boot packs are all that long and it’s such a frenzy that you don’t want to stop to deal with a pack and have people pass you. So it’s key to have quick access to the ventilation zippers.”
Thus, he helped Outdoor Research come up with its CrossFlo™ Ventilation Zippers. They’re like pit zips, except they stretch from hip to shoulder and are angled across the upper chest, instead of underneath your arms. This accomplishes a few things: First, they can be accessed while wearing a pack; Second, they’re easier to reach than pit zips; Third, they’re bigger and offer more ventilation than most pit zips; And finally, they allow access to big internal mesh Shove-It™ pockets so you can stash your hat or gloves quickly and easily during a hike.
The Axcess Jacket™, which is a GORE-TEX® fabric shell with light synthetic insulation and a relaxed, but not baggy, fit, includes the CrossFlo™ zippers. The Axcess Pants™ have similar zippers down the outer and inner thighs that allow skiers to dump hot air quickly when on a hike or a skin track.
Hattrup is also a champion of the zip-out Thermodynamic™ balaclava found in shells like the Axcess Jacket™ and the baffled down-insulated StormBound Jacket™. “I love a neck gaiter,” he says, “but it’s never there when you need it. The balaclava gives you complete protection and slips under your helmet during a storm. It’s always there when you need it, but it’s out of the way when you don’t.”
Finally, all Outdoor Research Sidecountry pieces include RECCO® reflectors for compatibility with the RECCO® avalanche search system used by ski patrols around the world.
In a nutshell, the features in the Outdoor Research Sidecountry ski line will give you flexibility and help manage quick turnarounds—just what you need when you are milking powder.