As the largest provider of avalanche training in the Northeast, the EMS Climbing School knows a thing or two about traveling in avy terrain. EMS guide Mike Lackman, an AMGA Apprentice Ski Guide and AIARE Level 1 instructor, was nice enough to share what he carries while teaching an AIARE class.




Before we get started, though, Mike wants to stress that many of these items aren’t essential to the class; in fact, taking an AIARE class is a great way to see what works, what you like, and what you should be looking for before spending big money on your avy kit. Regardless, this a great tutorial at what a professional brings for a day in the backcountry.


Mike prefers panel-loading packs, “so you can place the heavy objects in the appropriate spots, but still have access to the items you need readily available.” Whatever you do, Mike’s overall pack advice is to “buy a bag that holds all your gear, so you don’t end up cramming it so full that you can’t get at anything or end up lashing things to the outside.”


Pick your probe length based on where you’ll be skiing. Mike says a 230cm probe is plenty for East Coast skiing, but if you’re spending time in deeper western snowpacks, you might want something a bit longer. Mike prefers Ortovox probes because of their superior locking systems.


For Mike, a D-handle shovel is a nice option, as it makes digging more comfortable. An even bigger bonus is if your shovel can be used as a hoe. Additionally, metal construction is a necessity, not an exception! Shovel blade size should be chosen based on snowpack, and Mike reminds us that, “Bigger isn’t always better, especially when dealing with refrozen debris.”

Credit: Mike Lackman
Credit: Mike Lackman

Snow Kit

Mike’s snow kit varies, based on the day’s objective. If he’s digging a pit, for example, he’ll have a saw, a Rutschblock cord, a crystal card and loupe, and a thermometer. Mike also likes to bring along a measuring tool, because “the markings on the probes aren’t always user friendly.”

Lightweight Ice Axe and Crampons

When Mike is traveling above treeline, he will always bring a lightweight ice axe and crampons. Conditions change quickly when you’re up high, and all it takes is a little shade to turn that sweet corn snow into a sheet of ice.


Every season, headlamps get brighter, last longer, and feel lighter. So, invest in a good one like the Petzl RXP and justify the expense by thinking of the great turns you can get by skiing at night!

Rescue Sled

“The ability to self-rescue is critical in the winter,” Mike says. Because of this, he frequently carries a rescue sled and the cordage and carabiners needed to drag it with him when skiing. If he leaves it behind, he at least carries a light tarp and the knowledge of how to build a sled.

Small First Aid Kit

If you need a rescue sled, you also need a first aid kit. Keep in mind that it might not be a person that needs attention, so further throw in a repair kit and, as Mike recommends, “add in a real bit driver with the appropriate bits for everyone in the team.” While you’re at it, include a small sleeping bag; if you or someone in your group gets hurt, you’ll be glad to have it.

Ski Straps

Lightweight, inexpensive, and incredibly handy, they’re kind of like a backcountry skier’s duct tape. Mike likes to carry five or six 25-inch long straps with him.

Helmet, Goggles, and Sunglasses

Keep your goggles in your pack when you’re not skiing. Mike warns that wearing them on your head while climbing, putting in a skin track, or digging a pit only invites sweating, and once that perspiration freezes, your goggles are useless. Instead, for this situation, bring a pair of sunglasses along: They fog less than goggles when you’re working hard.


Depending on conditions, Mike will wear a lightweight soft shell jacket that rarely, if ever, works its way into the pack. For layers, Mike packs a hard shell, intermediate insulation, like a lightweight puffer, and a big puffer jacket—and he makes sure to keep the last one accessible. He says, “Your puffy should be the first thing you are able to get to inside your pack.”

Although Mike doesn’t bring any extra socks or base layers, he does pack three or four pairs of gloves. He also includes a few Buffs because of their incredible versatility: Use them as a hat or a balaclava, or supplement your first aid kit’s bandages with them if you’re in a bind!


When in the backcountry, Mike likes to bring both something warm to drink and some water in a hydration bladder. And, while gels and energy bars might be all the rage, Mike prefers real, high-quality food, especially leftover pizza.

Pro tip: The warmth from your thermos and the heat from your back will keep your bladder from freezing on most days.

Credit: Mike Lackman
Credit: Mike Lackman


Other Stuff

Mike says to have “a plan,” or, specifically, do your research before you get there, and carry a field book with a pencil, a map, and a compass.

Notice Mike Didn’t Mention a Beacon?

That’s because it doesn’t belong in your pack! Your beacon should have three antennas at a minimum, be no more than 10 years old, and should be worn.

Traveling through avalanche terrain isn’t something you can pick up on the streets. EMS guides, with this year’s fresh new courses, can get you started on the right path to safely enjoying the Northeast backcountry’s incredible terrain and skiing adventures. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll ski with Mike. And, if you’re really lucky, maybe you’ll ski like Mike!