How To Use Your Avalanche Gear
New to backcountry travel? Check out this guide from Ski Expert Hunter R. on how to use your beacon, shovel, and probe to maximize safety in avalanche terrain!
So you just got into backcountry skiing. You signed up for an avalanche course, but it's still at least a few weeks out, and you don’t want to be the only one who shows up on the first day of class wondering what a probe is for.
Maybe before your class, you’re planning a backcountry tour or two in low-angle terrain with people who are more experienced and know what they are doing. So you want to have some idea of how to use this gear before getting your formal education.
Don’t worry! We’ve got you covered. In this guide, we break down how to use the three non-negotiable pieces of avalanche safety gear you’ll need during winter backcountry outings, as well as touch on a few pieces of optional safety gear.
Note: None of this is intended to be a substitute for taking an avalanche course with a certified instructor. Backcountry travel is inherently dangerous, and avalanche safety is not something to be taken lightly. Reading about how to use your gear is not a substitute for taking an in-person course where you practice these skills under the observation of a certified instructor, but it is a good place to start.
First, here are the big-three items you should have at all times while skiing out-of-bounds:
1. Avalanche beacon (should be worn and turned on while traveling in avalanche terrain) 2. Probe (should be in your ski backpack) 3. Avalanche shovel (should also be in your ski backpack)
When you think of avalanche-safety equipment, a beacon is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Beacons, also sometimes called avalanche transceivers, are battery-powered devices that can both search for another beacon’s signal and send a signal to another beacon. A common phrase you’ll hear about beacons is “on at the car, off at the bar” because this device should be turned on from the second you get out of the car until you’re finished with your day in the backcountry.
In the event that you are buried in an avalanche, this will save your life by alerting your skiing or riding partners where you are so they can dig you out.
In the case that someone you’re with is buried, it’s your best tool for rescuing them. Statistics from the Utah Avalanche Center show that in nationwide avalanche fatalities, 67% of victims were not equipped with basic avalanche safety gear, which is devastating because the survival rate for those who can be dug out in under 15 minutes is 93%.
A huge part of being able to dig victims out is knowing where they are quickly, and without a beacon, your chances of that are pretty slim. Before heading out into avalanche terrain, make sure to practice beacon drills so you are familiar with your particular tools.
How to use
Beacons will come with a harness that you wear under your main jacket but over all other layers. You want this to be as easy as possible to access in case you need to use it, so it shouldn’t be worn under multiple layers of clothing. Some people also keep it in a pocket, but make sure it’s securely attached so it doesn’t fall out.
Every beacon is different and you should take a few minutes to get familiar with your beacon, but my expert pick is Mammut Barryvox, so I’ll use that as an example. You’ll notice an “off”, “search”, and “send” button on the top right. To turn the beacon on, hold down the locking mechanism on the top left and slide the orange button to “send”. It will then make a beeping noise, and you’ll see a red flashing light above “send”.
In send mode, it's sending a signal. If you are buried, your partners will be able to pick up that signal with their beacon and dig you out. As this is worn on the chest and works by use of antennas, make sure you keep it on the opposite side of your body away from your phone, as phones have been known to interfere with beacon signals. Also, be sure to keep it away from any chocolate or other snacks that may come wrapped in tin foil or aluminum cans as these have also been known to interfere with the beacon’s signal.
How to use for rescue
In the event that you need to use your beacon to find a buried victim, you will press down on that same locking mechanism and slide your beacon to search mode. From here, you will zig-zag back and forth across the area where the victim was buried. The screen will show a zig-zag pattern (first image below).
When it picks up a signal, it will give you an arrow with the number of how many meters away the signal was detected (middle image). Keep walking along that arrow until you get into as low a number as possible. When it gets below 3 (right image), you’ll want to move the beacon around very close to the ground so it’s more accurate. When that number is as low as you can get it (don’t be too picky; time is critical), place a visual indicator, such as a ski pole, in the location you got the shortest distance reading. Then it’s time to get the probe out.
In some cases, you will have a triage situation where more than one victim is buried. If that’s the case, use the mark function on your avalanche beacon after one victim has been rescued and your transceiver will stop picking up their signal and start looking for another reading. (In this instance, you will hopefully have more than one person helping with the rescue, so one or more people will dig out the first person you marked as you continue to look for others).
Any time you venture into the backcountry, be sure the beacon’s battery life is above 50%. When winter ends and it comes time to put the beacon away for the summer, take the batteries out before storing it.
Probes are long, foldable sticks that help you pinpoint exactly where someone is after you locate their transceiver. It may be strange to think of a long metal stick as a life-saving device, but the research shows that rescues without a probe take an average of 25 minutes whereas rescues with a probe take an average of 11 minutes. Remembering the previously mentioned statistic about the 15-minute mark, this proves that probes are a valuable asset to one’s safety gear.
A probe can be used after locating the buried person's beacon. Each has a locking mechanism that varies between different probes, but is located on the top and simply ensures that the probe sticks together while in use instead of folding back down when pushed into the snow.
How to use for rescue
Once you've found your lowest reading and marked it with a pole, strike your probe into the snow where your lowest reading was. Push it in until it either hits the buried victim or ice (practicing this will help you figure out what striking a person/backpack feels like compared to striking the ground/ice). Continue striking 25cm apart in a spiral pattern until you find the victim (as shown above). When you’ve struck the victim, leave the probe in the snow where you got a positive strike and grab your shovel.
How to use for a stability test
Probes also come in handy when you are doing a snowpack-stability test. These tests require digging a pit in the snow, looking over the different snow layers, and doing a compression test with a shovel. The frequency in which you dig these pits will vary a bit, but it's good to practice and dig them once in a while. The probe comes in handy for measuring the area and depth of the snow layers, as well as ensuring a straight line when doing a compression test (more on this in the shovel section below).
A shovel is the most obvious of the non-negotiables, and while I probably don't need to tell you how to use one, I do have some specific tips. Once you’ve pinpointed the victim’s location with your probe, you will start to dig them out of the snow.
How to use for rescue
The shovel method varies a little bit depending on the terrain, the depth, and how many people you have digging, but in general, a few things stay the same.
First, you’ll always want to dig downhill from where the probe had a positive strike. The snow is easier to clear if you’re scooping it downhill. You also won’t get a pile of snow building up on the sides or even on top of where the buried person is, and it creates a platform on which you can pull the victim out and administer first aid if needed.
Second, you’ll want to paddle the snow rather than scoop it (shown in the video below). It's both easier and faster so will help you uncover the person faster.
Some shovels have two methods of connecting the head of the shovel to the handle. The first one, “regular mode”, is better for chopping up hard snow. While the second mechanism, “hoe mode”, is better for quickly clearing snow downhill.
If you have two shovelers during a rescue, the first person can use their shovel in regular mode to chop up the big pieces, and the second shovels in hoe mode to clear the chopped-up snow downhill.
The digging methods will vary depending on different circumstances, so it's good to practice a few scenarios to make sure you’re ready.
How to use for a snow pit
Avalanche shovels are also useful for the stability tests I previously mentioned.
When digging a snow pit, you will take a few measurements, and at the end, you’ll perform a compression test. To do this, place your shovel on top of the snow column you’ve been looking at, and tap it with your hand. Keep tapping 5 or so times until the snow column breaks. If it doesn’t break, you have a solid snowpack. If it does break, the area it breaks is your weak layer of snow, and that's what you will want to watch out for as it's where the avalanches will likely break.
Now let's talk about some other more optional avalanche gear and how to use it.
Avalanche Airbag Pack
Avalanche airbags are essentially backpacks that have a pull valve on the shoulder. In the event of an avalanche, this pull valve will release a huge, balloon-like structure that helps you stay on top of the debris when you are being carried down the mountain by an avalanche and helps your rescuers see you. For more info on avalanche airbag packs, check out this guide.
Also sometimes called a slope meter, inclinometers help you gauge terrain in the backcountry. Avalanches can occur on slopes with inclines between 30-45 degrees, with most occurring at 38 degrees. Carrying one of these can help you determine the likelihood of an area to slide, so if you are in the backcountry and not sure which line to take, this can be a useful tool to mitigate risk. Inclinometers are generally very inexpensive, $25 at most, often come paired with a crystal card, and there are even a few slope-meter apps available for smartphones. They can be used in a few different ways as can be seen in the video below.
This small, aluminum card can help with stability tests by allowing you to measure some grains of snow to determine the snow’s stability. Larger, more crystal-shaped snowflakes indicate instability and could lead to avalanche issues. The card has a grid, some measurements, and a basic guide as to what to look for. It’s normally paired with an inclinometer, and most snow saws come with a crystal card.
Snow saws are useful for digging pits and various other tasks while winter camping, but can also be a great rescue tool. In many avalanche situations, you will be working with not only snow removal but some debris as well, such as branches. It’s often faster to cut through these instead of trying to remove them, so it's nice to have a saw in your backpack.
I hope this guide was helpful in getting a preliminary idea of how to use your new backcountry safety gear! If you’re still feeling a bit nervous about your first day of class or first day out in mellow terrain, make sure to read our checklist of what to bring touring. And if you’re still dialing in your ski-gear setup, check out this complete guide to touring gear. For any other gear or ski-related questions, hit up a Ski Expert on Curated, and we’d be more than happy to walk you through whatever questions you may have! Stay safe!