How to Choose Avalanche Safety Gear
Having the right avalanche safety gear—and the know-how to use it—is critical before heading into the backcountry. Learn how to choose the beacon, shovel, probe, and airbag pack that are right for you.
Avalanche beacons, also known as transceivers, are essential for both transmitting your own location as well as finding others buried in the snow. Today’s digital avalanche beacons are easier and faster to use than ever before. Get one, practice like your life depends on it, and then do everything in your power to keep from having to use it.
A beacon does not have to have a lot of extra features to be effective; in fact, if you are a beginner you might want to stick with a simpler model. No matter which one you choose, practice with your beacon until its operation is second nature and you’re sure you can use it in a stressful situation.
Two or three antenna beacons have quickly become the norm due to their improved distance and directional sensitivity; the three-antenna design is a further improvement that helps to reduce signal spikes when doing close, precise searches.
The greater a beacon’s range, the more likely it is to be able to receive a signal early in the search process.
Some advanced beacons enable you to mark multiple burial victims, and can automatically guide you to the closest signal (blocking out all others) to drastically reduce search time in the event of a multiple burial.
Avalanche Airbag Packs
Avoiding potentially hazardous situations in the backcountry is key, but should you get caught in an avalanche, an airbag backpack may increase your odds of survival. The pack features an air bladder that inflates with the pull of a handle to keep you closer to the surface of the slide. The air bags also offer protection against blunt force trauma, another danger of avalanches.
Most airbag packs use a sealed, single-use cylinder or a refillable, multi-use cylinder (usually compressed air) to store the propellant that inflates the airbag. TSA tightly regulates travel with airbag packs that use a cylinder; rules will vary depending on the type of propellant. The new Black Diamond JetForce and Arc’teryx Voltair airbag packs use an extremely powerful battery-driven fan for inflation. They have the advantage that they can be transported without problem and can be deployed at any time for practice.
There are several basic types of airbags. Single bags can either be shaped like a ‘pillow’ behind your head, or with wraparound ‘arms’ that extend down over your chest for greater protection. Dual-bag systems have a smaller bladder on either side, like ‘wings.’ This system has the advantage of offering a backup if one bag fails.
The size of your pack will depend on the kind of touring you’ll be doing; day-long tours will require a larger pack, while you can go more streamlined for heli-riding or snowcat-accessed terrain. Many bags come with a removable airbag base unit that can be swapped out to a different ‘cover’ pack according to your needs.
The fastest beacon search ever doesn’t do you any good if you can’t dig out your friend. A bomber shovel with an aluminum blade should be considered essential for backcountry travel. In addition to being critical in emergency situations, a shovel is also used for snowpack study, and may also come in handy to dig an emergency shelter.
A plastic blade isn’t strong enough to dig through concrete-hard avalanche debris. Aluminum is the only choice for safety in avalanche terrain. Some blades offer a serrated edge or pointed shape for extra digging power. Blade size is also a factor; those with larger blades will move more snow, but are harder to manage.
A fixed-length shovel is lightweight and makes for easy storage in a backpack, but a shovel with an adjustable-length shaft gives you the potential for more leverage so you can move a lot of snow quickly. Some shafts feature extras like saws or probes stowed inside, to save space in your pack.
Handles come in three basic shapes: T-grip, D-grip, and L-shaped. The T-grip is the most common, and generally functions well. L-grips are the lightest in weight. D-grip handles are bulkier and heavier, but can be easier to hold, especially with mittens.
A lightweight folding pole between nine and ten feet long, a probe is an essential piece of backcountry gear. It’s nearly impossible to determine the exact location of an avalanche victim using only a beacon; a probe is needed to pinpoint where you want to start excavating snow. Knowing where to dig can be the difference between seconds of digging and minutes of digging, which may make a critical difference.
Almost every probe features length measurements printed on the shaft. These measurements are handy for gauging snow depth when you’re digging test pits or doing quick spot-evaluations of the snowpack.
Probes generally range in length from 190 to 320cm (75 to 125in) when fully extended, and 15 to 18 inches when collapsed. A short probe is lightweight and easy to pack. A longer probe might be heavier and bulkier, but it gives you peace of mind knowing you have enough length to pinpoint a victim in a deep burial.
Carbon is ultra-light and makes a great choice for weight-obsessed backcountry skiers. Aluminum’s durability makes it a solid pick for those who dig many test pits or prefer more traditional materials for their safety gear.
Snow Study Tools
Staying safe in the avalanche terrain depends on smart decision-making. The more reliable your snowpack data is, the more reliable your decision-making will be. Snow study tools help you learn about the condition of the snowpack in the specific area you’re looking to ski.
A snow saw is invaluable when you’re isolating a block of snow for a stability test in your test pit. It also comes in handy if you have to build an emergency snow shelter.
Avalanches are possible on any slope steeper than 30° and most frequently occur on slopes between 35° and 50°. A slope meter allows you to measure the angle of the slope you’re planning to ski.
This metal or plastic card features a measured grid so you have a uniform surface to analyze individual grains of snow to determine size and shape. This information helps you easily identify weak layers and make a more informed decision.
Regardless of what avalanche safety gear you have, you should not travel into the backcountry before taking a formal avalanche safety class (At minimum, Avy 1). Also, practice your beacon search and digging techniques regularly; nothing beats experience in the backcountry.