A guide to buying beacons & transceivers, shovels, probes, snow analysis kit, airbags, breathing devices and winter safety gear.
Whether you’re planning a slide into the sidecountry to catch some fresh tracks, or you’re leaving the resort behind to explore the wilderness, you need to make sure you’re armed with all the knowledge, training and equipment that you need to keep you and your buddies safe.
Sidecountry skiing, backcountry snowboarding, splitboarding or touring – whatever you’re into and regardless of what you call it – there’s always going to be a risk of avalanche. It’s your job to take steps to minimise that risk as much as you can. A lot of that will come from learning the theory, looking at the forecast, and making sensible informed choices, but you’ll also need the proper avalanche safety equipment and to know how to use it.
There’s a whole range of kit available for you to consider, but at the very least you’ll need a transceiver or beacon, a probe and a snow shovel. In this buy guide we’ll look at each of those key items – explaining what they’re for, how they work and what to think about when you’re looking to buy. Once we’ve covered the essentials we’ll discuss those other added extras that can take your safety level and knowledge up another notch.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Knowledge & Training
- Beacons & Transceivers
- Snow Analysis Tools
- Breathing Devices
- Winter Mountain Safety Equipment
Knowledge and Training
Before we get down to the nitty gritty on the equipment front, we’ve got to stress the importance of knowledge and training in the safety mix. Whether you’re brand new to the backcountry or you’ve got some experience, it’s absolutely essential to know as much as you can before you go and be ready to use your safety equipment if and when the time comes.
Before you hit the hill, you should understand avalanches, how they happen, what the risks are and how you can avoid getting trapped in one. The best way to do this is to enrol yourself in an avalanche awareness course. We recommend our friends The Avalanche Geeks. You can check out their Five Steps to Avalanche Safety here, and visit their website for details about the courses they offer.
The Know Before You Go (KBYG) campaign is a global movement to educate skiers and snowboarders about the risk of avalanche and how they can take steps to reduce it. They’ve also got a lot of free beginner information, resources and links on their website, so they’re well worth checking out too.
As well as understanding avalanche risk – which conditions, aspects and pitches are more dangerous than others and how to negotiate them safely, how to spot weaknesses in the snow-pack and more – you also need to know how to use your essential kit in the event of an avalanche
It’s not enough just to own the transceiver, probe and shovel. You need to understand how they work, how to use them effectively, and have practised extensively in different scenarios. You need to be confident that you can locate and rescue one (or more) of your friends in an avalanche, pinpoint them and safely dig them out. You also need to be confident that they’ll be able to do the same for you.
Practice makes perfect, no matter how experienced you are. Regular practice helps you to check all your gear is working correctly and lets you compare it to your friends’. It’s everyone’s responsibility to do it, encourage it, and don’t leave it until the unfortunate event to find out how much you all really know.
Beacons & Transceivers
Avalanche beacons or transceivers are safety devices that are used to locate avalanche victims who have been buried.
How They Work
Each member of a group wears their beacon in ‘transmit’ mode, during which it emits a regular radio signal pulse. In the event of an avalanche and burial, the rescue party (or riders who haven’t been trapped) will switch their devices to ‘receive’ mode. In this mode, their transceivers will pick up the victim’s signal and direct them towards the location that their friend or friends are buried in.
The transceiver will use a system of visual and sometimes audible signals or cues to direct the rescuer to the victim’s location. Exactly how each system of cues works will vary from one transceiver to the next, so whichever you choose, it’s important to get to know exactly how to interpret the signals and locate your buddy.
They can be very tricky and confusing, especially if more than one victim has been buried, so it’s important to practice lots of different scenarios regularly so you understand exactly how they work and can use your beacon quickly and effectively, even under pressure.
How To Wear Them
Wear your beacon somewhere covered and secure, where it’s going to remain with and attached to you if you’re caught in a slide. This could be in a secure pocket in your jacket or pants or worn with a strap under your outer layer. Wherever you keep it, make sure that it’s well away from your mobile phone, as cell phones can seriously disrupt the transceiver’s signal pulse transmission.
Signal Frequencies and Compatibility
Most models and brands of transceivers are compatible with each other. So, each model or brand will be able to locate another brand’s beacon and vice versa. This is because they mainly all transmit on the industry-standard frequency of 457 kHz.
Some advanced transceivers will also transmit extra information on a secondary W-Link channel. This extra information might be designed to help in multiple burial situations, making it easier to isolate signals or identify the easiest signal to retrieve. They can also transmit vital signs, so you can judge the health of a victim without being able to see or communicate with them.
While certainly having a number of benefits, W-Link data can cause moral issues in a rescue situation by potentially giving away clues to the specific identity of victims in a multiple burial situation. Introducing personal relationships and preference to a situation can cloud judgement and lead to bad or wrong decisions being made. This shouldn’t deter you from buying one, but it’s certainly something that you have to consider before you make that choice.
Digital, Analogue and Multiple Antennae
Avalanche beacons were originally analogue, using a system of audible beeps to direct rescuers to a victim. These systems were later given LEDs and earpieces to increase their effectiveness, but have largely now been phased out in favour of digital transceivers.
Digital transceivers use two or more antennae to receive the signal pulse from one or more buried device. Generally, the more antennae that a receiver has, the more effective it’ll be at pinpointing the victim.
Digital transceivers will interpret the incoming signal and translate it into visual information about the direction and distance to a victim, which it will display on a screen, often with supporting audible cues. More advanced devices will do this all in increasingly detailed ways, but that’s not to say that they’re necessarily any easier to use – especially if you’re a novice or infrequent user.
One of the trickiest situations to deal with when using a beacon or transceiver is the multiple burial, where you’re trying to pinpoint more than one victim at a time. With the right training, it’s possible to locate multiple buried victims with even the most basic transceiver, but more advanced models will give you extra features aimed at making the process quicker and easier.
They’ll offer multiple burial indicators, be able to flag or block certain victims, or be able to provide increasingly detailed location information, but at the end of the day, you still need to understand it all and have practised using it.
Ultimately, the best transceiver is one that you’ve practised with extensively, are comfortable with, and know how to use effectively under pressure.
Don’t Forget Your Batteries!
A transceiver is an electrical device that needs to be running all the time when you’re in the mountains and could be responsible for saving your life or the lives of others. It goes without saying that it needs to be powered up with plenty of battery life so it doesn’t let you down when you need it most.
To make sure you’re always on the safe side, it pays to use the right kind of batteries, check it each time you set off, and keep spares with you all the time.
Alkaline batteries are best for using in transceivers and beacons. Never use rechargeable batteries and only use Lithium batteries in a select few specific models that advise you to.
If you’re in any doubt, check the manufacturer’s guidance.
Once you’ve used your transceiver to locate a victim, you’ll need to pinpoint their exact position and depth in the snow pack. This is where your probe comes in.
While it might seem like a really simple thing, it can make a real difference and help to dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes to pinpoint a buried victim. Digging through hard avalanche snow can be extremely tiring, so it pays to know exactly where you’re aiming.
Literally, every second counts in an emergency situation, so make sure your probe is somewhere easy and quick to access, even stored out of the sleeve or cover that it comes in, so it’s as quick as possible to remove from your pack, extend and use.
How They Work
Essentially a probe is a lightweight, thin collapsible pole. When extended, it’s driven into the snow to identify a victim’s exact depth and location. It should be long enough to be able to find a victim in deep avalanches while being lightweight and portable enough to be able to fit and be carried around in your backpack.
Generally, they come in sections much like a tent pole, with a fine cable running down the centre to connect them all together. A pulley, loop or handle, on the end of the cable, will help you to straighten the probe out and lock it in place as a single extended unit.
You need to make sure that your probe is long enough to locate your buddy, even when buried deep in an avalanche. As such, you’ll want your probe to be 2m or longer – ideally between 2m 40cm and 3m.
The length you choose will most likely depend on how light and portable you need it to be, how frequently you’ll be using it and in what conditions. Very lightweight or occasional tourers might choose a shorter probe, while more frequent users like guides and patrollers would opt for a longer, more robust model.
As one of the key functions of a probe is to judge depth, most probes have depth measurements clearly marked up the outside. This marking is one of the key things to think about when choosing a probe. The clearer the better.
Other features to look out for are how easy the cable pulley or handle is to use, whether or not it locks, and how grippy the handle on the end of the probe is – given that you’ll be forcing it into quite hard snow pack while wearing gloves, it must be solid, grippy and easy to hold.
Portability is one of the biggest selling points when it comes to probes. The size it collapses to is important for many, with weight being the other major factor. Of course, probes have to be structurally strong, robust and capable of resisting damage from repeated use – that’s why aluminium and carbon fibre are the two most common construction materials on the market.
Aluminium is most popular, due to its great strength to weight ratio, durability and relatively low cost. Although more expensive, carbon is even lighter – so can be a good option if weight-saving is a real priority for you – but both will perform well.
Your lightweight, portable snow shovel is the final part of the puzzle when it comes to avalanche rescue. Once you’ve used your transceiver to locate the victim and the probe to pinpoint them, you’ll use the shovel to dig them out and free them.
They’re also an essential in helping you judge the condition of the snow pack – allowing you to dig pits and perform stability tests.
The size and shape of shovel you choose will depend largely on your strength and the size of your pack, but you’ll also want to consider the shovel’s weight, features and how you intend to use it most frequently.
Blade Size and Shape
A larger shovel will move more snow each stroke but will be more difficult to move, requiring more strength on your part. You may find it’s a safer or easier option to use more shovel strokes with a smaller blade instead. Ultimately though, your shovel needs to be carried, so it will often be limited in size by the dimensions of your pack.
As well as the shovel’s size, another key element to both packability and usability is the blade’s shape. Some are flatter in shape while others are more rounded. Either could work better for packing, it really depends where in your pack you’re going to keep it and what shape the pack is. Remember, speed is everything when it comes to a rescue, so make sure your shovel is stored somewhere that’s quick and easy to access in an emergency. Don’t stuff it in the back or bury it under everything else.
Generally, curved blades are can be more structurally solid and durable than flat ones, but flat ones will allow you to cut nice clean flat lines and shapes into the snow. This will make the process of cutting neat snow pits easier. Or backcountry booters, if that’s your thing!
You also have some options on the leading edge of the blade, with some favouring a straight flat edge, some pointed and some serrated. A straight flat edge is most basic and will cut nice clean snow pits. A pointed leading edge will make it easier to penetrate and slice into hard-packed avalanche snow, whereas a serrated edge will give you the option to cut or saw through tougher icy sections.
It’s worth mentioning that we would advise that you don’t buy or use a plastic snow shovel. Plastic is too weak and can shatter with hard use. It won’t stand up to the forces involved in an emergency rescue in hard, icy, avalanche-packed snow. Aluminium and carbon fibre are both far more lightweight and durable. Aluminium is generally cheaper and more durable but weighs slightly more than carbon.
Most handles are variations of a T-shape, L-shape or D-shape. While the D-shape handle is commonly considered to be strongest, easiest to grip with mittens, and best at transferring power into the shaft, it’s also bulkier than the other options.
There’s not much to pick between T and L-shaped handles beyond personal preference and what fits better in your hand. If the shovel features an option to be configured as a hoe, to chop and drag snow, then an L-shaped handle may be preferable.
Shaft Length and Type
The final thing to consider when thinking about the shovel’s overall size and shape is the length of the shaft. A longer handle can give you more leverage and make digging more effective but will make the shovel less packable and portable.
Many shovels will come with a detachable handle to make them easier to pack, while some feature telescopic lockable handles. Whilst a telescopic handle can be a good compromise, what you add in leverage you can lose in strength and durability, so be cautious and look for good reports and reviews of long term durability.
Shafts with an oval or triangular profile will generally be more structurally rigid and hard-wearing than round ones.
Snow Analysis Tools
Carrying the bare essentials will allow you to carry out an effective avalanche rescue and the quickest and basic tests on snow pack and condition, but there are other very portable equipment options that can give you even more insight and detail on snow conditions, helping you to make the most informed decision possible on avalanche safety.
Whilst you might not want or need to use these extra tools on every ride, they can help settle your mind about any niggling concerns or help you to study how the snow pack develops over time on your local hill. Understanding how periods of warming or cooling or wind affect your favourite haunts will give you invaluable insights into how similar conditions will affect snow pack stability in the future.
For digging pits and carrying out accurate snow stability tests, it’s important to use neat pits and profiles of a consistent size. A snow saw will help you to make sure that each pit and test is as consistent and accurate as it can be from one pit to the next. Many will feature ruler markings up the side to help you to quickly measure and judge the size of your snow test profiles.
Snow Depth Ruler
When digging detailed snow pits and recording your results over time, you need to be able to accurately record the depth, number and type of layers that exist in the snow. Your snow depth ruler is an essential tool for making reliable depth recordings.
As well as knowing the air temperature, it can be incredibly useful to know the snow temperature – not just at the surface, but at the various sub-layers throughout the snow pack. Knowing which layers are reaching their melting point, heating up or cooling down over time can give you real insights into stability and safety.
Snow Crystal Card and Magnifying Loupe
Again, for in-depth snow analysis, the snow crystal card and magnifying loupe allow you to look closely at the flake type and condition in each layer of the snow pack to determine stability and predict how each layer will interact with and behave in comparison to the next.
Slope Angle Meter
A slope angle meter does pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. When placed in line with the snow surface, it’ll help you to judge the angle of the slope you’re studying or skiing – slope angle being a key contributing factor to avalanche risk. Many meters will also give you the option of a basic compass to allow you to measure the slope’s aspect.
If you find yourself caught in an avalanche, chances are it’s been as a result of something that you’ve done yourself. And regardless of what you buy to help you survive an avalanche, there are no guarantees to say that you will. So, the best option is to avoid being caught in one in the first place – prevention is better than cure – get the knowledge, understand the risk, and stay out of harm’s way.
At the end of the day though, you can never fully escape the risk that an avalanche may happen, and if it does, there are some products out there on the market that can help improve your chances of survival.
Certain avalanche backpacks come with gas-powered inflatable airbags, that can be deployed using a trigger on the shoulder strap, in the event that you’re caught in an avalanche.
The idea is that these airbags give you a larger surface area and help to keep you naturally towards the top of the snow pack as you move through the avalanche, reducing the chance that you end up buried by the avalanche at all.
There are a few different options out there on the market but most work in the same way, using a small compressed gas canister to rapidly inflate the bag when needed. It’ll usually pop out of the top of the pack so it can also protect your head and create air pockets for you to breathe.
Another way to decrease your chance of death from avalanche is to improve your ability to breathe and avoid suffocation when you’re trapped in the snow pack. Black Diamond introduced the concept of the Avalung a number of years ago and it has gained in popularity since then.
A snorkel mouthpiece is located on the backpack strap close to your mouth. By breathing through it you can expel CO2 away from your head and inhale oxygen-rich air from the area around your head. Black Diamond claims that the Avalung can significantly improve your survival time in an avalanche burial, allowing more time for your partner or the rescue team to locate and rescue you.
Winter Mountain Safety Equipment
While not strictly related to avalanche safety, there are some items of winter mountain safety gear that can prove invaluable for your safety when touring, particularly as you access more exposed, difficult-to-reach areas or icy wind-blown slopes. They can certainly help you to avoid areas that might be at risk of avalanche by helping you to move around, over or through areas of higher risk safely.
Ropes, Harnesses and Anchors
If you’re trying to avoid an area of increased risk, reach a safe area that has difficult access, or you want to rope a group together for safer traversing or movement in glaciated terrain, then the use of ropes, harnesses and anchors can be an essential part of ski mountaineering. Just make sure you get adequate training before you attempt to use this stuff as roping-up in the wrong situation could end up increasing your chances of having a dangerous incident.
Ice Axes and Crampons
Ice axes and crampons will form an even more essential part of a skier or snowboarder’s touring setup. It’s often difficult to judge when you’ll reach a section of terrain that is too icy or steep to skin up, so having a set of crampons and one or more ice axes available will help to ensure you have the option for safe passage.
If you do find yourself slipping or falling on ice, regardless if you’re in crampons or not, it’s your ice axe that could be the difference between life or death. Falling on ice or hard-packed snowy slopes can lead to you picking up speed quickly and it can be very difficult to stop before you run into or off something that you don’t want to.
Your ice axe can be dug into the icy ground to quickly and safely arrest your fall, allowing you to regain your footing and composure. Again, it’s something that takes training and practice in safe conditions, so make sure you’re well versed before you need to use your ice axe in an emergency.