HOW TO CHOOSE YOUR AVALANCHE SAFETY EQUIPMENT
Your transceiver leads to the probe, your probe leads to the shovel, your shovel leads to your friend. These three items are the most vital part of any backcountry skiers’ equipment; you should never step into the backcountry without them. With so many options on the market, finding the right avalanche safety set up can be difficult. To help clear the confusion and aid you in the decision, we have assembled a guide to walk you through everything you will need to know when purchasing avalanche safety equipment that could save your life.
Know Before You Go
The transceiver, shovel and probe, are the basics of your avalanche safety equipment, we cannot stress enough the importance of these items. With the backcountry becoming more and more accessible through wider, backcountry specific skis, the risks of getting caught in an avalanche are getting higher and higher. The most important thing you can take into the backcountry, is your knowledge and judgement. Your judgement of knowing when to and not to go and the knowledge of how to use your equipment when your judgement fails you.
We strongly recommend seeking out a local, fully qualified mountain guide whenever you head into the backcountry. Mountain guides will have a wealth of local knowledge and will help to keep you safe in the backcountry.
Finding The Right Kit For You
If you are a hard-core super touring type of skier, then smaller blades and short probes will help save valuable weight and space in your pack. Professional rescuers will opt for a super durable blade and a sturdy 300cm+ probe. However, the majority of the backcountry skiers fall somewhere in between. How far you are travelling and pack size all contribute to your purchase decisions. When it comes down to it, at the end of the day, the best equipment on the market is the equipment you have practiced with and know how to use confidently.
The transceiver is most complex of all avalanche safety equipment; these mini computers are a necessity for anyone thinking of stepping into the backcountry. Without a transceiver you will be unable to search for a buried skier and no one will be able to find you, in the event of an avalanche. There is a range of different avalanche transceivers on the market, with a range of different features that you need to consider.
When in transmitting mode, a transceiver sends out an electronic magnetic signal, in a circular flux line, from the front to the back of the antenna. These signals can be picked up by a transceiver when in search mode via its antenna. Having more than one antenna allows the transceiver to send and receive more flux lines in multiple dimensions, making it more efficient in searches and easier to find when transmitting.
Original transceivers were equipped with a single antenna, these had a long reception range, however the flux line was only one dimensional, meaning if the transceiver was turned 90 degrees on its side the search beacons would not be in line and would be unable to find a signal.
Dual Antenna transceivers retain a strong signal even when turned 90 degrees, as the second antenna is then aligned with the transmitting beacon’s flux line. However, dual antenna transceivers are unable to resolve spikes, causing an inaccurate reading in close range.
In today’s market, the majority of transceivers will come with three antennas. Three antenna transceivers have the same advantages of a dual antenna, in that they can display a directional indicator. However, they also have a vertical third antenna, which activates when the avalanche victim is near. This third antenna reduces or eliminates spikes.
Manufacturers usually state the range of which a transceiver can pick up a signal from, the longer the range the better. However, the range listed is the optimal coupling position of the two transceivers. A three antenna transceiver has an x, y and z axis antenna. The longest ranging axis, x can reach up to 60 meters or more when aligned up with x axis of the transmitting transceiver. In a practical world, these axes will very rarely be lined up once a skier is buried and the range will reduce significantly. It is unlikely to find a signal greater than 50 meters away, when the optimal antennas are uncoupled.
If an accident occurs where multiple skiers get buried, transceivers with a marking feature are extremely helpful. Marking enables the searcher to suppress the signal of the found victim, so they can move on to the next victim whilst others begin shovelling. Most advance transceivers incorporate this features but, if you are looking at one that does not, you may want to think about the disadvantage of not having the marking feature when skiing in a group.
Designed to aid in multiple burial situations, the W-Link feature can only be found on the Mammut Barryvox. W-Link allows the transceiver to share addition info, on a separate frequency, such as the presence of movement or vital signs. This feature will only work if both the buried and searcher has a Mammut Barryvox, so do not postpone a rescue based on the lack of vital signs or movement when operating with a different transceiver.
SMART ANTENNA TECHNOLOGY
Smart Antenna Technology is only found in Ortovox transceivers. The integrated system, analyses the position of the antennas in the avalanche and automatically switches to the best transmission antenna. The result, almost double the range of signal in the worst coupling position, regardless of the transceiver used for searching.
Any shovel on the market will be capable of moving snow however, when an avalanche strike, the soft, easily moveable powder quickly compacts, presenting a mammoth challenge of digging through concrete-like debris. In this situation, a shovel that is a bit more formidable then a standard shovel is needed.
BLADE SIZE AND SHAPE
Small blades are great for saving weight or when pack space is limited but are not as effective at removing large amounts of snow. A larger blade with more surface area, requires more strength but the wider leading edge chops up dense snow easier and gives you greater shovelling power. Skiers who like to build jumps in the backcountry will also prefer a wider shovel to rapid building.
The shape of the blade and its interface with the handle is also an important aspect of the shovel. some handles have a ferrule that extends from the blade, whilst others are integrated into the blade. Both constructions have been shown to be a sturdy as each other, personal preference and packing space need to be taken into consideration when looking at the shovel interface.
Curved or squared blades lend themselves to be more packable, yet it is still unclear whether they are more efficient at moving snow. When digging a snow pit, a flat backed blade makes it easier to keep the walls smooth and clean.
Perhaps the most important feature of the shovel is the length and shape of the handle. When it comes to handles, it is best to look for a non-slip grip and a suitable length to fit in your pack. The most popular grip, the T-style grip is effective when moving snow and take up little space compared to the D-style grip, that offers more comfort whilst shovelling. Telescopic handles are also a popular option found on a lot of shovels, this allow the shaft to extend, for additional leverage when digging through snow.
WEIGHT AND DURABILITY
Most shovels will use an aluminium handle, this material choice has proven to be strong and reliable for when digging through debris. Ski tourers are usually very conscious of every gram they put in their packs and available room for other necessities. These skiers may opt for a lighter weight option, such as tempered plastic, that is lightweight but at the cost of overall strength.
Some shovels will also function like a hoe to allow for better chop and dragging motion for when moving hard packed snow and debris. Other shovels such as the Ortovox Professional ALU also allow the handle to be transformed into an axe head and shaft spike.
A probe is the last piece of avalanche safety equipment, they come in a variety of sizes and will have measurements along it, these measurements help to determine the depth of someone who is buried as well as identifying layers in a snow pit wall.
The shortest length of a probe you should consider is 240cm, however some touring probes will be far shorter to save weight. Longer probes are usually made of heavier, more durable materials to reduce the likelihood of breaking.
WEIGHT AND MATERIAL
Just like shovels, the proven choice of material is aluminium however carbon probes have become very popular as they help to save weight, without the decrease of size.
Probes are broken into segments of 30-40cm to make them more packable and adds overall strength to them. The main difference in regards of deployment is the locking mechanism. Some probes use a looped cable, whilst others utilise a t-style pull tab. Once assembled most probes will “click” letting the user know that it is locked and ready to go.
Now you have your avalanche safety equipment, get out with some friends and practice with your equipment, practice so much that when something does happen, using your equipment to find your buried friend is like second nature. To help build your knowledge, we recommend that your first time in the backcountry with our new equipment should be with a backcountry guide, such as the International Snow Training Academy, to get some professional education on snow safety.