Before you buy that beacon, shovel, and probe, read this list to make sure you buy the right ones. Stay safe in the backcountry with our guide to avalanche safety gear for backcountry skiing and snowboarding.
My AIARE 1 course cost close to $600. That is not cheap. But educating myself about life-threatening avalanches was paramount to my participation in backcountry skiing. Put simply, I don’t want to die in an avalanche.
But throw on top gear, travel, and a lot more gear, and you’re looking at a hefty investment for backcountry skiing.
In my opinion, it’s worth it. Whether it’s the thrill of descending open powder fields, making critical decisions in the backcountry, planning the trip, or solitude, backcountry skiing is one of my favorite ways to get outdoors during winter and spring.
Avalanche Safety Gear: Guide Choices
Avalanches can and do kill. So safety gear becomes much more important. At the end of my AIARE 1 course this winter, I spoke with skiing guides Andy Hansen and Steve Banks to learn some dos and don’ts for selecting backcountry ski gear.
Andy Hansen is an AIARE course instructor and AMGA-certified Rock and Alpine Guide. Steve Banks is an IFMGA Guide.
You’ll notice the opinions of these two certified guides differ at times. However, experts agree that a solid foundation and lifelong commitment to backcountry education are fundamental to safety out of bounds. Consider taking an AIARE 1 course, or attending a free and local introductory AIARE seminar.
Note: Colorado Mountain School, where Hansen works, is sponsored by Backcountry Access and other brands. Steve Banks is an IFMGA guide and Mammut team athlete. Regardless of the sponsorship, the recommendations are warranted. The guides trust these items every day.
Interview With AMGA Guide Andy Hansen on Backcountry Ski Gear
GearJunkie: What’s important to consider when buying a beacon?
Andy Hansen: One of the more important considerations for an avalanche transceiver is how intuitive the transceiver is to use (i.e., easy on/off, simple, advanced functions).
I think newer users of avalanche transceivers often gravitate towards a beacon with many advanced functions but then are confused by the use and operation of these functions. Or, some transceivers convey a lot of information on the digital interface that will confuse a newer user.
In addition to this, buying a modern digital transceiver with triple antennae is always recommended. The BCA Tracker 3 is a simple machine to operate with easily understandable advanced functions.
Steve Banks: Beacon buyers should be wary of stripped-down or overly simplified beacons. Some tout light weight or single-battery operation but come at a cost of lower processing speeds or glitchy search functions. Three-antennae beacons are now the standard; anything less is subpar. Consumers should look for fast processing and marking features as well as a user-friendly interface.
The Mammut Barryvox S is an example of a high-end beacon with lots of features. Mammut also makes the Barryvox (no S), which is a simpler version without all the technical bells and whistles. These types of beacons are designed for recreational users who want high performance but won’t dig into more technical nuances of complicated rescues.
Hansen’s avalanche beacon pick: BCA Tracker 3
Banks’ avalanche beacon pick: Mammut Barryvox or Barryvox S
What should you consider when buying a shovel and probe?
Banks: The most important thing about a shovel is that it needs to be strong. Most metal shovels these days are. Buyers should look for an extendable handle shaft to maximize digging effectiveness. A flat back end of the shovel (where the blade meets the shaft) should be flat to allow for a boot to assist in the digging.
D-shaped handles are good if the user commonly wears mittens and for lots of digging. T-shaped handles tend to fit in the backpack better.
Plastic shovels are out! These deflect when chopping into avalanche debris rather than cutting into it. Blade size — bigger is better!
Hansen: The most important components to me when buying a shovel again are the ergonomics and its intuitive use. Some shovels do operate as a hoe as well, but this isn’t critical to have as an option. It is nice for the rapid evacuation of large amounts of snow, but a standard shovel can be effective as well.
BCA makes a wide variety of shovels — some are more robust than others and offer a more reliable shovel than something that is lighter and made of lesser materials.
I think the consideration for the probe depends largely on the type of snow environment you’re planning on spending the majority of time in. For instance, a longer probe would be more effective in a maritime snow climate whereas a shorter probe (240 cm) would work sufficiently well in a continental or transitional snowpack.
But, again, a great idea is erring on the side of caution. A probe at a minimum of 270 cm would be sufficient for a variety of environments.
Banks: A probe should be a minimum of 280 cm long. Average avalanche burial depth is 150 cm, so you don’t want to come up short! Carbon is lighter than aluminum but more susceptible to cracking when hit with a shovel blade or ski edge.
Look for an attachment device that locks into place when pulling on the cable or string automatically rather then needing to be screwed or levered into place. Avoid probes that require this “fiddling” to assemble.
Banks’ shovel pick: Mammut Alugator Pro Light or Alugator Ride 2.0
Hansen’s shovel pick: BCA B-1 EXT Bomber Avalanche Shovel
Banks’ probe pick: Mammut Carbon Probe 280 Fast Lock
What should you avoid when buying avalanche gear?
Hansen: Avoid brands that are less known and don’t have a reputable history. BCA is a great brand with great customer support and is based in Boulder, Colorado.
How should you carry your beacon, shovel, and probe?
Hansen: The avalanche rescue tools should be carried in a backcountry ski/ride-specific pack, ideally. If you have to carry your avalanche tools in an “alpine-style” pack, then the shovel should be carried close to the back panel, in two pieces, and should be accessible.
The probe should then be kept in its sleeve so as to not get caught on other items (clothing, gloves, goggles, etc.) when retrieving it from the pack.
More than a beacon, shovel, and probe, are there any other essentials people need to consider?
Banks: Within the group, it is also prudent to carry a robust first-aid kit that can address anything from a blister to bleeding and splinting.
A rescue sled is also a good idea. These nylon fabric devices can utilize a set of skis or splitboard to effectively drag an injured person out of the woods.
Communication devices are a must! Cellphones don’t work everywhere in the mountains, so consider a small satellite communication device that can pair with your phone to send a text or SOS message. These can also give rescuers your GPS coordinates if they need to come find you.
Hansen: An airbag should be high on the consideration list for those looking to recreate in the backcountry. The use and deployment of an avalanche airbag can greatly increase your chance of survival if caught in an avalanche — the law of displacement truly works in these scenarios.
What advice would you give to folks purchasing their first set of touring gear?
Hansen: My advice for those looking to purchase touring gear is to head to their local shop and chat with the salespeople at the shop. They are likely highly skilled, trained, informed about current/modern products, and can steer most folks in the right direction.
In addition to this, try to get to an “on the snow” demo that are held at various resorts around the West. This is a great way to get hands-on experience with the gear and equipment you’re thinking of purchasing. A lot of companies will send a rep to these demos, and they can also assist you with any questions you may have.
Banks: For first-time backcountry users, try renting some gear first to get an idea of what boots fit your feet and how the skis differ from on-piste skis. You will want to consider where and how you are likely to use this equipment.
Are you just looking for powder stashes? Or going for ski mountaineering objectives? Light-and-fast or ski area crossover? A good ski shop will discuss these options with you and point you in the right direction. Remember that while a lightweight touring setup is a good thing on the way up, the point is to be able to enjoy the down as well.