Shit happens, even on gorgeous bluebird days when the pow is deep and stoke-factor high. We make emotional decisions in unforgiving terrain and, before we know it, are being swept downhill by uncontrollable forces. Being caught in an avalanche is like being hit by a car or washed away by a flash flood. Tons of debris rush downhill at speeds of up to 100 mph, bruising, battering and quite possibly burying anyone unlucky enough to be swept up. You can be strained through trees, tumbled against rocks or tossed over a cliff. If you’re lucky, you’ll get away with your life and a new respect for the mountains.
Gear is only one part of the avalanche safety and rescue equation. Trained professionals — some of them dogs — are responsible for rescuing people in distress. We spent a day with the dogs of Brighton Avalanche Rescue K-9 (B.A.R.K.) in Utah. Read the story
In the US, avalanches kill an average of 28 people each year, and those numbers are increasing along with the popularity of backcountry skiing and snowboarding. Four of the deadliest seasons have occurred in the past seven years, and the trend only promises to continue. But there are steps we can take to increase our safety when traveling in the backcountry. Avalanche safety tech — probes, shovels, beacons, airbags and the like — has evolved a great deal over the past couple of decades as backcountry sports have grown in popularity. Here we’ve sorted out the best gear to help you survive an avalanche, as well as some tools to help you better understand the snowpack and avoid avalanches in the first place.
But no safety gear is an adequate substitute for knowledge and good decision-making. The most important thing you can bring into the backcountry is a bit of education and some common sense. Take an avalanche safety course (AIARE and AAI are best) so you know the basics. Check the local avalanche forecast, and learn to evaluate the snowpack where you’re skiing. But if all that fails you and you still find yourself in hazardous terrain — or, worse, caught in an avalanche — consider this kit your backup plan.
Don’t head into the backcountry without ’em. It’s that simple.
The Transceiver: Even though it’s incredibly feature-rich — with multiple burial tracking and marking, automatic revert-to-send function, partner check and a built-in inclinometer — the flip phone-style S1+ is the most user-friendly beacon we’ve seen. The primary search mode is instantly engaged when you flip it open. Then, thanks to some heavy-duty computing, it takes you straight to the victim rather than angling around on a flux line. That saves precious time during a rescue, when every second counts.
Pro Tip: Always wear your beacon on its harness under at least one layer of clothing, or inside a zippered, sewn-on pants pocket. Be sure, too, that it’s at least one foot away from electronics (like a cell phone or GoPro) that might interfere with its signal.
G3 300 Carbon Speed Tech Probe
The Probe: This stiff, full-length (308 cm) carbon probe shaves ounces from your pack without compromising your ability to locate a partner in deep debris. More importantly, the quick-pull system is foolproof and deploys in a flash. Outside, precise graduated markings every 5mm allow it to replace a ruler for snow study (see “Professional’s Kit” below). Inside, the coated stainless steel cable won’t corrode, so you can rely on it for years to come.
Pro Tip: If you primarily ski in lower-snowpack areas — like Colorado or the East Coast — a space-saving 240cm probe, like the G3 240 Speed Tech, should be adequate.
Backcountry Access D-2 EXT
The Shovel: Digging is generally the most underrated, time-intensive portion of a rescue. Once-fluffy powder sets up like concrete after a slide, and quickly. The odd-looking D-2 is made to function like a hoe, to chop at the slope and drag snow away (sometimes the most efficient way of moving snow) — but it also converts to a traditional shovel in seconds. A telescoping handle allows a rescuer to adjust for maneuverability or leverage. The slip-proof grips are glove-friendly, and the flat blade is perfect for digging snow-pit walls.
Pro Tip: As with your beacon and probe, you should practice rescue shoveling before somebody’s life depends on it. Digging into slab avalanche debris is like shoveling concrete, and some methods, such as chop and drag, are more efficient than the standard method. Shoveling technique is the next frontier in avalanche rescue research.
As technology improves, so can survival rates. This optional hardware, when deployed properly, can dramatically increase your chances.
Black Diamond Halo 28
The Avalanche Airbag: Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it could save your ass in an avalanche. For three decades, one-and-done compressed-air cylinders have been the standard for inflating airbags, but Black Diamond’s disruptive new Jetforce technology is about to change that. It uses a rechargeable, lithium battery-powered jet fan to inflate a 200-liter overhead bag. Not only does that allow for four deployments on a single charge (good for an extended hut trip — get the bigger Saga 40, in that case); it also means you can practice deployment hassle-free before your life depends on it.
Pro Tip: The best way to survive a slide is to not be buried in the first place, and airbags are still your best bet for floating on top. If the Halo isn’t in your budget, pick a reliable cheaper alternative, like the BCA Float 32 ($725, including cylinder).
Black Diamond Alias AvaLung
A Second Set of Lungs: A buried avalanche victim has little more than a 15-minute air supply. Either the snowpack is too dense for his exhalations to escape, or his warm breath creates a sealed ice mask around his face. That’s why 2/3 of all avalanche fatalities are the result of asphyxiation. The BD-patented AvaLung extends your air supply — and with it, your survival chances — to nearly an hour by allowing you to draw air in through a strap-mounted snorkel attachment, and exhale through an exhaust port at the bottom of your pack. The Alias pack it comes in is streamlined and, like the Halo, hits the 30-liter day-trip sweet spot.
Pro Tip: Always keep the AvaLung snorkel unzipped and close to your mouth when backcountry skiing. Some skiers put the snorkel in their mouth before dropping in on an iffy slope, or while skiing through glades where tree wells are known to form.
Sewn-In Safety: Here’s a little life-saving doodad you can’t buy (not directly, at least), but which you may already be using. RECCO is a rescue system that, like avy beacons, is used to locate buried slide victims. The main difference here is that there’s a designated detector — which is used by ski patrols, heli-ski operations and search-and-rescue teams — that bounces radar signals off of reflectors embedded in a victim’s clothing. Plenty of outdoor companies already stitch the reflectors, which weigh less than four grams and are about the size of a USB stick, inside jackets, boots, bibs and helmets. Popular examples are The North Face Brigandine, Patagonia Powder Bowl Pants and the S1+ beacon.
Pro Tip: The RECCO reflector is the cheapest, least intrusive piece of safety avalanche safety gear you can wear. If you spend a lot of time off-piste, look for the label when buying your kit.
The Pro Kit
With solid training, this know-the-snow kit helps you judge avalanche danger before you even drop in.
Brooks-Range Mountaineering Basic Snow Study Kit
Class Is in Session: In most mountain snowpacks, what you see at the surface is only part of the story. Down below, there are many more layers. When there’s weaker, less cohesive snow (faceted snow, surface hoar or depth hoar, for example) below a stronger, more cohesive slab, a slope is unstable and avalanche danger is high. The best way to understand relative risk is to dig a snow pit and perform snowpack tests on a slope that’s representative of what you plan to ski. As its name suggests, this kit includes most of the basics: slope meter, thermometer, folding ruler, magnifying loupe, snow crystal card and notebook for recording observations. Supplement with a snow saw (the Brooks-Range Igloo 35 folding model ($59) saves space) and, if you like, a Rutschblock cord. To use it, you’ll need to take an AIARE course.
Pro Tip: Check the local avalanche forecast before heading out, then supplement with your own snow pit tests. If you want to trim your kit, the S1+ beacon’s slope inclinometer stands in for the slope meter, and a probe with precise graduated markings can replace the ruler.
The Future of Snow Study: Digging snow pits is laborious, and reading them accurately requires a good deal of training and expertise. The brand-new SP1 promises to drastically simplify snow study, giving both trained professionals and recreational backcountry users accurate, accessible snowpack data in seconds. To take a reading, simply drive the 150cm probe into the snowpack. It measures how much force (in minute kilopascals) it takes for the tip to break through each layer and displays snowpack stratigraphy, revealing any risky weak layers that might be lurking below. Every measurement syncs to your smartphone (via Bluetooth), which uploads it to the web for others to use in their decision-making. The $2,250 unit is currently available to professionals only, but widespread adoption would result in crowd-sourced, standardized real-time avalanche risk data that could dramatically reduce the number of backcountry accidents.