Avalanche – it's the one word that makes backcountry skiers and snowboarders shudder in fear. Although avalanches can occur at any time and in any season, it's the winter traveller who's most at risk, especially in the hours immediately after a fresh snowfall when the snowpack is settling and consolidating.
Avalanche safety gear is designed to work after the fact, after an avalanche has slid and the buried victims must be found. The only thing that will help prevent accidents is your own skill at assessing both terrain and conditions. The mandatory items that a backcountry skier or boarder must carry are a transceiver, probe, and shovel.
Read our Avalanche Safety Gear article to learn about these items.
We strongly recommend taking avalanche awareness and rescue courses. The standard backcountry avalanche course will teach you recognize the terrain and weather conditions that contribute to avalanche hazards, and how to choose a safe route. Consider taking an avalanche course prior to investing in equipment and certainly before venturing into the backcountry – avalanche gear is usually supplied to students on introductory courses, and the hands-on experience will give you insight into what to look for when you do buy your own equipment.
Read articles in our Avalanche Awareness Series, written by experts in avalanche safety.
Theis a valuable source of information on avalanche safety courses and also issues backcountry advisory bulletins. The bulletins, issued several times a week, along with other local area advisories and your own weather observations and records, can provide your best source of information before you head out.
For testing and observing snow pack layers, you'll need your shovel and probe. For further study, you can also carry a field kit that includes a clinometer (for determining slope angles), thermometer (to assess snow layer and surface temperatures), a collapsible ruler (to measure snowpack layers), a snow crystal screen or card and loupe (for observing snow crystal structure), and a field book (for recording observations). Also recommended are a snow saw (for cutting and isolating snow blocks), and a cord (for isolating Rutschblock from snow profile pits). It is important not to use snow-pit test results in isolation, but to combine them with avalanche forecasts, weather information, and ongoing terrain and stability assessment.
Many telemark and alpine skiers and snowboarders use lift-serviced resorts and even buy tickets to access (legal) backcountry areas that are beyond the area boundaries. However, policies vary dramatically from area to area, and country to country. Some places condone the practice for well-equipped parties, while others simply close their boundaries to everyone, regardless of skill. Never venture into a closed area (for one thing, it will likely be your last visit to the resort, should you get caught) as it is likely to be an avalanche-prone terrain trap. If you are legally accessing the backcountry always do your research before heading out and carry all your safety gear. MEC carries a number of products that enable you to bring along a light load of safety gear for short sojourns in the backcountry.