Getting out of the resort and off-piste is one of the best parts of snowsports. Floating over untouched snow and exploring the wilderness can be a fantastic experience, but it comes with added risk in the form of avalanches. The best way to deal with that risk is by avoiding situations where avalanches are likely to occur and then be prepared with the right equipment if they do happen.
Acquiring the skill of avalanche avoidance is a case of learning and experience. There are plenty of great courses to help you improve these backcountry safety skills.
Our buying guide is for those of you looking for the right equipment. Know what kit you need already? Shop Avalanche Safety Gear.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ESSENTIAL AVALANCHE SAFETY GEAR
WHAT IS AN AVALANCHE TRANSCEIVER?
If you get buried in an avalanche, the rescuers need some way to find you. An avalanche transceiver or beacon sends out a radio signal. This signal helps to locate an avalanche victim. Your avalanche beacon can also be used to detect another beacon’s signal in the event of a slide.
HOW DOES AN AVALANCHE BEACON WORK?
In transmit mode, an avalanche beacon gives out a radio signal at an industry standard of 457kHz. If someone is buried with their transceiver, the rest of the party will turn their avalanche transceiver to receive mode. The receiving transceiver will interpret the signal into audio beeps and a visual display that will help guide the rescuers to the victim.
In modern beacons, the visual display will usually consist of directional arrows and numbers to indicate the distance from the buried person.
AVALANCHE SAFETY PACKAGES
There are a few key bits of essential avalanche safety gear you’ll need before you head into the backcountry. Get them all in an avalanche safety gear package.
HOW TO BUY AN AVALANCHE BEACON
AVALANCHE TRANSCEIVER RANGE
The bigger, the better. This way, rescuers will pick up your signal from further away.
HOW DOES AN AVALANCHE BEACON WORK WHEN THERE ARE MULTIPLE BEACONS?
If there is more than one buried person, your beacon will have to be able to interpret multiple signals. The better models can also flag, or ignore, a signal. Multiple burial situations are technically challenging and require significant practice.
AVALANCHE TRANSCEIVER DISPLAY SCREEN
How does the device display directions and distance? What information can it give you? Some people prefer a more straightforward display with less information, as it’s easier to read.
AVALANCHE TRANSCEIVER ANTENNAE
More than one antenna means the transmitted signal on different planes. This means the searcher is less likely to experience dead spots where there is a low signal. Different brands use the transceiver’s processors in various ways to analyse the signals most effectively and aid your search.
WHAT IS W-LINK?
A secondary frequency transmits extra information to help identify different signals in multiple burial scenarios. It can also transmit the heartbeat of the victim. If the others in your group don’t have a compatible transceiver, they won’t be able to detect the W-Link frequency.
WHAT IS AN AVALANCHE PROBE?
An avalanche probe is one of the simplest bits of kit you can carry, but it’s essential for any avalanche rescue. Once you’ve located the victim’s transceiver signal, an avalanche probe can help you find an exact location and depth. If you don’t use an avalanche probe, it’s easily possible to miss the buried person when digging.
HOW TO CHOOSE AN AVALANCHE PROBE
The longer the probe, the deeper you’ll be able to locate a buried skier or snowboarder but the more it will weigh. Different materials, such as carbon fibre, can lower the weight of the probe, so you’re carrying less. The cable you pull to assemble an avalanche probe can have different handles on them. Some are easier to grab and pull with gloves on than others.
HOW TO CHOOSE AN AVALANCHE SHOVEL
As fast as you think you might be able to dig with your hands, a shovel is a faster and more efficient way of digging a burial victim. It can also serve a variety of other useful purposes on your day-to-day backcountry adventures.
AVALANCHE SHOVEL SIZE
We recommend an avalanche shovel with telescopic shaft can get you more leverage when digging. Shovel blades come in different widths, so worth checking they fit in the part of your rucksack you store it in.
AVALANCHE SHOVEL CONSTRUCTION
Although plastic shovels are available, they are far more likely to break compared to metal ones. As with most outdoor equipment, you can shave some weight off by going for the carbon fibre option.
AVALANCHE SHOVEL HANDLES
Avalanche shovel handles come in a couple of different shapes; ‘D’ shaped handles are considered the best for digging efficiency, especially with mitts on. ‘T’ and ‘L’ shaped handles are more common and worth trying for your preference.
AVALANCHE SHOVEL FEATURES
Most shovels fit together as a standard spade, but some have an option to fit at 90-degrees and be used as a hoe for efficient shifting of debris. Other dual-purpose designs include a hidden saw in the shaft for cutting blocks or an ice axe conversion for the shaft and the ability to use it as part of a stretcher.
AVALANCHE BACKPACKS AND OTHER USEFUL KIT
WHAT IS AN AVALANCHE BACKPACK?
As fun as riding around with a large pole and shovel in your hands is, it’s probably best for everyone if you keep them in a rucksack. Get the right backpack, and you’ll have space for lunch too.
WHEN TO USE AN AVALANCHE BACKPACK
In theory, you can use any rucksack, but technical rucksacks designed for carrying avalanche equipment have their benefits. Most have a designated pocket for your shovel and probe with attachments to make sure they’re easy to remove when required. They separate these items from the rest of your gear to keep it dry and undamaged. A waist strap keeps the bag close to your body, reducing the effect it has on your riding and stopping it getting caught on branches or rocks.
AVALANCHE BACKPACK SIZE
Technical backpacks vary in size from around 10-litres to 40-litres. The longer your spending away from the resort, the more stuff you’ll need. If most of your adventures are walking distance from the piste, then you shouldn’t need more than a 25-litre backpack. If there’s any touring involved, you’ll need to fit in all the bits that go with it. A 30-litre plus rucksack should do the trick, depending on how much you like to carry. Some models have adjustable back lengths, so it’s worth measuring-up or trying those on to check they fit. Take a read of the Freeze Backpack Buying Guide for more information on finding the right size rucksack.
AVALANCHE BACKPACK FEATURES
Most backpacks designed for off-piste adventures have the facility to store a hydration bladder. Having additional straps in case you want to attach your board or skis to the bag is very useful, especially if it allows a few different configurations. An easy-access goggle pocket to store your goggles in while hiking can be handy. Helmet nets stop your lid swinging around and getting bashed. Bottom-entry zips are convenient for accessing items buried at the bottom of your bag.
WHAT IS AN AVALANCHE AIRBAG?
An avalanche airbag backpack can help to prevent you from being buried in an avalanche. The rucksack has an inflatable airbag that makes you more likely to stay on the surface when deployed.
HOW DOES AN AVALANCHE AIRBAG WORK?
A stored airbag lines the edges of the rucksack. When you deploy an airbag, a canister or fan inflates it, pushing it out of the backpack and surrounding the wearer. In short, the inflated airbag effectively makes you lighter, so you are more likely to stay on top of the avalanche.
WHAT IS THE BEST AVALANCHE AIRBAG FOR ME?
Canister or Electric Airbag Inflation System
Electric airbags use a large rechargeable battery to power the fan to inflate it. Gas canisters have compressed air in them, which is released to inflate the airbag. These canisters have to can only be refilled professionally, and you generally have to pay for each refill. Both systems sometimes use a turbofan to help speed up inflation. Some complicated specifications go into the argument of whether air canister or fan avalanche airbags are better. Keep an eye out for our in-depth comparison in the future.
Avalanche Airbag Weights
Airbags are generally much more cumbersome than standard technical backpacks of the same volume. The two inflation types weigh roughly the same unless you splash out on a superlight carbon fibre gas canister.
Travelling with Airbag Canisters
One of the problems with airbags is taking them on flights. Security and airlines can get jittery about allowing you to take both compressed gas and large lithium batteries on a plane. Sometimes taking the manual and a letter from the airline can stop you getting your expansive kit confiscated. But we can’t guarantee it. It’s always worth seeing if your destination has shops that sell avalanche canisters or fan-system batteries just in case.
Avalanche Airbag Backpack Size
Avalanche backpacks come in a range of volumes, just like regular technical backpacks. However, even the bigger sizes are a squeeze for a day’s full touring gear. It’s always worth trying an airbag backpack on to check back length is suitable for your height. Read our guide to find out more about backpack sizing.
DO I NEED AN AVALANCHE AIRBAG?
Avalanche airbag backpacks just reduce the chances of you getting buried. That said, anything that can help prevent you from getting buried is a good thing. You just have to remember to pull the handle!
AVALANCHE BREATHING DEVICES
If you get caught and buried in an avalanche, an avalanche breathing device can prolong the amount of time you can survive before you suffocate.
HOW DOES AN AVALUNG WORK?
An avalanche breathing device (or Avalung) fits onto your body or in your rucksack. In a burial situation, you can breathe into the mouthpiece which pulls in air from around the snowpack. The device filters the air, taking the poisonous carbon dioxide away from your air supply. Estimates say that some avalanche breathing devices could add up to 58 minutes. That’s a significant difference, considering survival rates drop significantly after 18 minutes.
WHICH AVALUNG SHOULD I GET?
There aren’t too many on the market, but the ones that fit into a rucksack will only fit into compatible models, so make sure you’ve got the right bag. The avalanche breathing devices that you put on your body come in different sizes, so check the size guide for the best fit or even better try one on.
DO I NEED AN AVALUNG?
It is better to plan not to get into an avalanche, than plan for getting caught in one. That said, any extra time could be a lifesaver if you can get to the mouthpiece.
WHAT ARE SNOW ANALYSIS TOOLS?
If you’ve had the appropriate training, these pieces of kit can help work out where the snow is more likely to avalanche. You can then make an educated decision on where you should ride that day.
WHAT SNOW ANALYSIS TOOL SHOULD I GET?
Thermometer, depth ruler, snow saw, snow crystal card, magnifying glass and slope angle meter.
DO I NEED SNOW ANALYSIS TOOLS?
Snow analysis tools are very handy if you’ve had the training on how to use them, and you make time to analyse the snowpack.