January 28, 2014 / Comments (0)

What’s in my winter rescue pack?

Long ago as a medical resident, I taught a backcountry winter survival course with Portland Mountain Rescue. We played a game I now call: “What’s in your pack?”

All of the instructors unpacked their gear, despite the rather mysterioso taboo of disclosing one’s personal pack contents.

Now, with a slew of junior members in our mountain rescue squad, I decided to unpack my winter kit again. It’s nearly the same for winter rescues, backcountry tours and spring/summer ski mountaineering.  I focus on gear that is light, compact and functional. Obviously for technical rescues, our team divides up the litter and rope rescue gear.


I’m a huge fan of the influx of European brands to the global outdoor scene. High tech fabrics are constructed into well-fitting garments with minimal accessories. Function, style and light-weight often come with a higher price tag, but cost is amortized if you keep gear for a long duration.


  • Synthetic boxers, Under Armor
  • Synthetic long underwear, Patagonia capaline
  • Soft shell pants, Mammut Castor 
  • Waterproof shell pant with full side zips, Patagonia Triolite


  • Synthetic long-sleeve zip-t, Patagonia capaline
  • Lightweight fleece, either a ¼ zip  Millet  pullover or full-zip Eider Hoody with a chest pocket
  • Thin uninsulated softshell windshirt, which I find more functional than a bulky insulated softshell, Outdoor Research Ferossi jacket 
  • Thin synthetic-fill vest or sweater for cold days,  Flylow Swindler jacket 
  • Waterproof Gore-tex shell , Mammut Eiger
  • Warm puffy big enough  to fit over all layers for belay, lunch and regrouping stops, Rab Xenon Hoody or Millet Belay Hoody
  • Accessories
  • Buff or neck gaiter
  • Two hats
  • Medium weight wool-synthetic blend socks
  • Ultralight CAMP Speed helmet 
  • Oakley goggles with yellow lenses
  • Oakley sunglasses
  • Lightweight Smartwool PhD gloves 
  • Storm-proof Outdoor Research Gore-tex Ambit gloves

Ski Gear

Sure you can make many different tools work: snowshoes, telemark skis, or a splitboard. But alpine touring gear is the most versatile for mountain rescue.

  • Dynafit Manaslu mid-fat skis with Radical bindings, precut Speed skins and ski crampons 
  • Dynafit Vulcan boots with the best liner in the industry, Intuition ProTour
  • Black Diamond Raven Poles

Avalanche Gear

I take this gear on almost every tour, except perhaps super stable conditions when I am inbounds and uphill skinning, in which case I take a CAMP X600 ultralight skimo pack. I used a Black Diamond Covert Avalung pack for years, before I got an airbag pack.

  • Backcountry Access Float 32 works for everything from the Haute Route to a two-hour sidecountry jaunt 
  • Backcountry Access Tour shovel  and probe
  • Mammut Barryvox beacon.

Glacier Travel

You’ll need steel gear for anything more than basic glacier travel. But for limited or emergency use on primarily ski tours, aluminum ski mountaineering gear is very light.

  • Black Diamond aluminum Raven Ultra ice ax
  • Black Diamond aluminum Neve crampons
  • Unpadded Black Diamond Couloir harness
  • Basic crevasse rescue kit: set of prussics, a sling, three locking carabiners, a 5-meter-long webbing, cordlette, pully, micro8, and a 20-meter-long  7-mm rope.


  • skin wax
  • chemical hand warmers
  • sunscreen + lip balm
  • Headlamp + extra batteries, Petzl Tiki or Fox Fury 
  • map, compass, and Garmin GPS 
  • A small repair kit: wire, steel wool, a binding screw, cord, zip ties, Gorilla tape, and a small Swiss Tool.  Epoxy and hose clamps for long trips to repair binders
  • A minimalist first aid kit: a roll of tape
  • Food and water or tea
  • Two stretchy polyurethane ski straps
  • SAR Radio + Cell Phone
  • Tarp or bivy sack

Christopher Van Tilburg, M.D., is Editor-in-Chief of NewsShare, International Society of Travel Medicine; Editor Emeritus of Wilderness Medicine and a Contributing Editor to Outside Online and Backcountry. He is the author of Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes: Oregon.

Last modified: January 28, 2014

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