Welcome to the winter
It’s fair to say that the winter season for 2019 is looking hopeful already. There’s a decent December covering across the Alps and some consistent dumps across the States. Scotland’s even starting to feel fairly wintery too! There’s something shifty about that early season snowpack though, and the lack of consolidation means those sidecountry powder-fields might be poised to attack at the slightest mention of “fresh tracks”. Make sure you minimise the chances of becoming a statistic this season with the right knowledge, training and equipment you’ll need to keep you and your buddies safe.
"Knowledge comes before experience comes before equipment"
Our comprehensive Avalanche Safety Gear Guide has a heap of great information from finding the right transceiver to choosing the best shovel. We’ve rounded up a few of our favourite avalanche beacons, probes & shovels, and avalanche airbags for this season with some top products from BCA, Pieps, Mammut , Arva and more.
Choosing the right avalanche beacon or transceiver is they key to your backcountry safety system. Without a transceiver, and the knowledge of how to use it, there’s very little chance of finding anyone in a burial situation. With that in mind, remember that the best transceiver on the market might not be the best one for you. There’s no point getting kitted out with all the latest Ortovox technology if you aren’t totally comfortable using it in any situation.
Ask your pals!
Another big consideration with avalanche transceivers is the kit your touring partners use – in a situation where you have to use a different beacon then familiarity is going to make everything a whole lot smoother. We've got a heap more information about choosing the right beacon over here.
Your avalanche probe is much more than a fancy stick, and there are various factors to take into consideration. You’ll want to make sure you get the right length firstly. Unfortunately, if the victim is buried more than 2m (6 and a half feet) then the avalanche survival rate drops to almost none. As a result, you’ll see manufacturer’s make probes between 200~300cm, so you’ll want to go for something between 2.4-3m in length. Unless you’re choosing to travel really light and know the avalanche risk is relatively low. Generally, longer and more substantially constructed avalanche probes are used by rescue professionals with the training and facilities to potentially save deep-buried victims.
Probe construction and design
Avalanche probe construction is probably the second most important factor to consider after probe length. Typically, most probes will be made from aluminium or carbon. Whilst aluminium is generally stronger than carbon (and costs less), carbon constructed probes weight a lot less in your pack. You might see steel probes for sale too, but these are normally only used by rescue professionals due to their robust but heavy construction. When it comes to probe design, there are a few critical things you’ll want to consider. There are a few secondary considerations to weigh-up too, but these aren’t really as important. Depth markings are essential to know how exactly how deep a victim is buried. Have a look for poles with laser-etched markings as these won’t rub off with prolonged use. Depth markers are also useful in a multiple burial situation, when the victim closest to the surface would be dug-out first. Have a look at each probes tip and diameter, a ‘sharper’ tip will penetrate dense snowpack easier and a thicker pole is more robust but weighs more.
Packing your probe
There are two considerations here – deployment time and probe/bag compatibility. You’ll need to make sure the probe will fit into/onto your backcountry pack securely when it’s folded down. Manufacturer’s will normally give a folded length in their product information. When it comes to packing your pole make sure that it’s as accessible as possible. In a burial situation every second is vitally important. See how long it takes you to get your probe out and ready for use – consider not packing the pole in its bag for speedier setups.
‘Use it or lose it’
As with all backcountry technology and equipment, there’s no point carrying it if you can’t use it. Remember to practice regularly too as skills rapidly diminish when they’re not used. Make sure to refresh your burial situation system before you head out for the season.
Not just a small spade. Avalanche debris is notoriously solid, so choosing the right shovel is still a critical consideration. The avalanche shovel is designed to be lightweight in your pack and efficient at shifting snow. Whilst getting the right helmet and choosing the best transceiver will probably come before picking out your snow shovel, it’s still a good idea to do your research before buying. We’ll have a quick look here at some shovel statistics, but we’ve got a more comprehensive guide here if you’re after a more detailed explanation.
When choosing a snow shovel, it’s important to consider that you’ll be using it for a whole host of things aside from avalanche survival. Hopefully, you’ll never really have to use it in a real burial situation. You’ll need a shovel for all manner or backcountry tasks and winter mountaineering so remember that the lightest and smallest shovel might not be the best choice for everyone. A top-quality shovel will last for years potentially, so look for something that fits you just right.
It should be made of tough stuff
A good snow shovel will be made almost exclusively from aluminium, with the exception of plastic trimmings. Shovels made from steel will weigh an unfathomable amount and definitely too much for even short sidecountry adventures. Fully plastic-made shovels are also out of the question, they’re just not tough enough.
Spade size and shovelling shape configurations
Your snow shovel will be used for a whole heap of touring tasks from Rutsch Block testing to snow-hole digging and backcountry-booter shaping. Remember, that in an emergency situation it’ll still need to be ready to shovel quickly and efficiently. When choosing a blade size, you’ll want to consider two things: will it fit into your pack, and are you strong enough to lift all that snow? A larger blade will shovel more snow but tire you out quicker, it also stands a chance of not fitting into your backcountry pack. Smaller blades will shovel less but allow you to move snow for longer. As with all things avalanche-related: a tried-and-tested technique will save valuable seconds in survival situations and potentially keep someone alive.