The best strategy for surviving an avalanche is to avoid being caught in one. If you’re skiing, snowboarding or even snowshoeing in the backcountry, make sure you’re trained in avalanche awareness and know about the conditions and terrain you plan to explore. All the avalanche gear in the world won’t help if you don’t know how to use it, and none of this equipment will prevent an avalanche.
Each person in your backcountry group needs this avalanche safety gear:
- Transceiver (sometimes called an avalanche beacon)
“All these items are essential, and they work in conjunction with one another when performing a rescue.” – James Floyer, Avalanche Canada Forecasting Program Supervisor
One more item that’s newer to the backcountry snow safety scene is the avalanche airbag backpack – we’ll cover more on airbag technology below. And of course, along with the gear, you and the other members of your group need avalanche skills training before you head into the backcountry.
Avalanche transceivers (also known as avalanche beacons) are small electronic devices that send out a radio signal. Each person in your group needs to wear their own transceiver. If an avalanche happens and someone is buried, everyone else in the group can switch their transceiver to search mode and use the signal to find the person under the snow. Although most of today’s transceivers are pretty intuitive to operate, it’s important to practice using them on a regular basis.
Transceivers need to be turned on at the beginning of your trip and stay on all day (“on at the car, off at the bar”). At the start of every trip, check that everyone’s transceiver is working properly. Many transceivers provide a battery check when you turn them on; check the manufacturer’s recommendations for the minimum power and don’t go below it. Weather and the type of trip are also factors to consider – a multi-day trip in cold weather is going to take more battery power than a single-day in warmer temps, so adjust accordingly.
Wear your transceiver close to your body, ideally on your base layer and not in an outside pocket.
All transceivers, no matter the manufacturer, are compatible. That means they work on the same frequency so any brand can receive a signal from any other brand. Where they differ is in the way they show the direction to search, how many victims you can search for, the width of the search area and other features. Try out different models from Pieps, Backcountry Access, Ortovox, Arva and Mammut. Choose the one that you find the most intuitive to use.
Digital avalanche transceivers
All the transceivers MEC sells are 3-antennae digital beacons, which is the current standard. They are the easiest, most accurate and fastest to use. They have digital displays that show you how far away the victim is and the direction to start searching, and are also particularly precise during a fine search. Some models have a multiple burial mode function, which helps filter out competing signals if more than one person is buried.
Earlier models of transceivers used analog technology, which is now considered obsolete by Avalanche Canada. Digital transceivers can have a tougher time finding analog transceivers. This creates problems if there are multiple people buried – you don’t want to be the one wearing an analog transceiver while the search is happening, especially if the person next to you has a digital beacon.
Whichever avalanche transceiver you choose, check the manufacturer’s recommendations carefully and follow maintenance schedules faithfully. This keeps your unit in good shape and ready to perform when you need it most.
Once you’ve homed in on the buried person’s signal, it’s time to probe. The strongest signal may not indicate the exact location of a person due to things like depth or burial, the debris conditions, and the orientation of the buried and searching transceivers. You use your avalanche probe to pinpoint the victim’s exact location and give your group a target for the next step: shovelling.
Probes are made of aluminum or carbon-fibre and look like collapsible tent poles. Most poles extend to 240–300cm; if you spend time in places with a deep snowpack, there are also 320cm probes. Probes also have other uses, such as testing crevasse bridges and cornices, and checking snowpack depth (a 320cm probe is useful for this).
Always check that your probe is in good working order. If you use it a lot, the mechanisms that stiffen the sections into a useful probe wear out. You don’t want your probe to fall apart in the middle of a search.
Finding the location of a victim is critical, but effective digging is where you’re really going to save time. In the seconds after an avalanche, even fresh powder will solidify so densely that you can’t even push your hand into it. A tough avalanche snow shovel is a must. Some tips for choosing a backcountry shovel:
- Look for a tough metal blade so it won’t break in snow that can feel hard as rock. No plastic shovels.
- Make sure it fits into your backpack.
- Common shovel grips are the T-, L- and D-shape. If you want something lighter and more compact, go for the T- or L-shaped grips. But if you want a shovel you can use more comfortably with gloves, the D-shaped grip is your best option.
- Some models have telescoping handles that extend to give you better leverage when you’re digging.
The most important thing about shovels? That everybody in your group has one. It’s also worth practising your shovel technique in teams of two or three so your group is as efficient as possible. When you take an avalanche training course, you’ll learn the fastest ways to dig.
Avalanche safety training
Learn how to use your gear and practice using it often. Take an Avalanche Skills Training Level 1 course to learn critical skills and decision-making tools. We also recommend taking a one-day Companion Rescue Skills course. If you can, it’s great to take this course with your friends or backcountry buddies so you can learn and practice together. Remember – you’ll be counting on each other in the case of a rescue.
“Want a good demonstration of why training is important? Check out the inspiring story of Rescue at Cherry Bowl. Three people’s lives were saved because their rescuers knew what to do, and did it fast.” Mary Clayton, Avalanche Canada
Free avalanche safety package rental
As part of our ongoing support of Avalanche Canada, Avalanche Québec and backcountry safety, members participating in Avalanche Skills Training (AST) courses are eligible for a free safety package rental at any MEC location that rents Avalanche Safety gear.
“If you’re looking for some introductory material before taking a course, click on the learn section of avalanche.ca. We’ve got some great online education that can help set the stage for your backcountry training.” Mary Clayton, Avalanche Canada
Over the last few years, inflatable backpacks (sometimes referred to as “avalanche backpacks”) have becoming popular with backcountry users. They’re designed to help keep people closer to the surface during an avalanche, can help with visibility, and can help to protect against the trauma that causes many avalanche fatalities.
How does an avalanche airbag work?
When an avalanche happens, the person wearing the airbag system needs to pull a trigger to inflate the airbag – it’s not automated like a car airbag. Some manufacturers use compressed-air cartridges and some use electronically powered fans (like Arc’teryx Voltair or Black Diamond JetForce) to inflate the bag.
The bag stays inflated for a few minutes, which effectively increases the volume of the person wearing it. That can help them stay closer to the surface of the sliding debris. It also offers some protection for a person’s head and neck. The critical part of an airbag’s effectiveness depends on the victim being in the moving debris. If you’re caught near the bottom of the slide, or in a depression, the airbag won’t bring you to the surface.
It’s important that you know how to use your airbag properly, including how to set it up, wear it and deploy it. An avalanche airbag is never guaranteed to keep you safe, and it’s not a substitute for your transceiver, probe, shovel and avalanche training.
Air travel with airbags
Note: If you’re travelling by plane with your airbag, check the policies to see if you can have a full pressure cartridge onboard. In some cases, you might be restricted to carrying an empty cartridge that you’ll have to refill after you’ve reached you’ve landed, or go with an electronic option.