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Avalanche equipment guide: beacons, shovels and probes

Avalanche equipment: transceiver, shovel, probe and the avalanche airbag backpack

You should have - even when you're just riding a few metres to the side of the piste - at least a set of an avalanche transceiver, a shovel and a probe. An avalanche backpack is an additional safeguard which is highly worthwhile. The avalanche transceiver is used to search for victims, the probe for finding under the snow and the shovel for digging out victims. The avalanche backpack adds to the chance that you'll stay towards the surface of the snow because even at a low burial depth your chance of survival decreases dramatically. Without this basic equipment, you should consider not riding out of bounds. Even with the safety equipment, you should still keep vigilant. A check of the avalanche report is essential. Depending on the alert level you should be able to assess the potential risks in the snowpack.

  1. The avalanche gear on the mountain
  2. Transceiver: to search for the avalanche victims
  3. Avalanche Probe: For Measuring and searching in snow.
  4. Avalanche shovel: Compact for quick recovery
  5. Avalanche Backpack: Additional life insurance on top on the usual equipment

The avalanche gear on the mountain

Even though the mountain can have the most beautiful conditions you can imagine, an emergency can happen in a split second. The avalanche risk can be high, even if it has not snowed for a while. Even without fresh snow, an untracked slope can still avalanche. The proper avalanche equipment – regardless of the weather conditions and the snowpack – save your life. It consists of,

  • An Avalanche transceiver
  • Shovel, and 
  • Probe.
Another survival helper is an avalanche backpack, which can minimise the chance of your becoming submerged in snow. The avalanche backpack is quickly becoming an essential for freeriders, ski-tourers and splitboarders. Most importantly, though, is that you make yourself familiar with your equipment and keep your alpine knowledge fresh.

Transceiver: to search for the avalanche victims

Avalanche Transceivers can send and receive radio signals. If you are caught in an avalanche, your friends can receive your ‘send’ signal on their transceivers. At the same time, if one of your friends is buried, with your transceiver in ‘search’ mode you can find out how far away and in which direction they are buried. It is important to be always wear the transceiver close to the body in its harness and all the party have their transceivers turned to ‘send’ when riding. In the event of an avalanche, the searching party needs to the turn their transceivers to ‘receive’ so that only the victim's signals can be traced.
With modern three-antenna models – most manufacturers use this technology now – multiple buried victims are shown in the reception range. The direction and distance to the victim are indictated on the display and when you are closer to the victims, a finer search mode is available. Of particular importance is the approach to the victims, where an appropriate method is required to refine the search. For this is vital to be well practised with your transceiver so that you can work efficiently in the instance of an emergency.

Transceivers withtwo and three antennas from Mammut, Orthovox; BCA and Pieps
Avalanche Transceivers from Pieps, BCA, Ortovox and Mammut

Avalanche Probe: For Measuring and searching in snow

The Probe is used when you have found the approximate position of the victim with an avalanche transceiver. The probe is then thrown and assembled for a search of the snow under the location the transceiver indicated the victim was buried. From here you can find the burial depth of the victim and the resistance of the snow in which they are buried.
Apart from emergency situations the probe also has uses which are very helpful to get to know the snowpack; you can test snow depth and layers in the snow. With a probe, to effectively search, training is essential so make sure you practice before you head out freeriding or on your next tour.

Avalanche Probes from Pieps, Black Diamond, Dakine, Ortovox and BCA
Probes with different lengths and closures

Avalanche shovel: Compact for quick recovery

In an avalanche rescue situation, you don’t just need the transceiver and probe but also a shovel. When you have the located the victim with the probe and transceiver you can dig them out with the avalanche shovel. Due to the compact nature of the shovel, you can quickly get stuck in to rescue your friend. Some of the shovels Blue Tomato sells have the capability to convert into a hoe, a snow anchor and lifeline and a rescue sledge. A Hoe can move the snow much faster, a snow anchor and lifeline are useful if you are in exposed terrain. A rescue sledge ensures that you can transport injured victims quickly if you are far in the backcountry, and are not in the range of emergency responders and ski patrol.

Shovels from Mammut, Oneballjay, K2, BCA and Pieps
Avalanche shovels with different grips, shafts and blades

Avalanche Backpack: Additional life insurance on top on the usual equipment

An avalanche backpack – whether it’s ABS, Mammut, BCA, AVABAG or Jetforce – protects against full submersion in the snow and will drastically increase your chance of survival. Because the higher volume which an avalanche backpack gives you, you have a better chance of rising to the top of the debris. This, in technical jargon, is what we describe as the ‘brazil nut effect’. Some of the manufacturers have a removable system for the airbag, which allows the whole airbag and activation system to be removed and the rucksack be used for everyday use. The Jetforce system from Pieps and Black Diamond even works without compressed gas, with the Jetforce system inflating via a battery-powered fan. Which backpack and which system is suitable for you is covered in our extensive guide. Naturally, an avalanche backpack is not a replacement for common sense or the proper avalanche equipment, which are still vital in the mountains.

Airbag systems from ABS, Pieps, Black Diamond, BCA and Mammut
The different airbag systems of ABS, Mammut, BCA and Black Diamond with Pieps