How to Choose Avalanche Safety Gear
Gearing up for a trip into the backcountry? Don't forget the safety gear! Ski Expert Hunter R. details everything you need to know about beacons, shovels, probes, and more.
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Avalanche safety gear is crucial to survival while backcountry skiing, splitboarding, or snowmobiling in avalanche terrain. So it's a good idea to take some time and research what the best options are when you're shopping around for your avalanche safety gear!
In this article, we will go over some characteristics to think about as well as the top three options for the main essentials when traveling into the backcountry: beacons, shovels, and probes. We will also touch on a few optional pieces of gear to consider adding to your backcountry safety kit.
Remember that the best gear is the gear you know how to use, so while it's important to do some research before purchasing, it's equally important to practice with your gear before you are in a situation where you need to use it. You can read more about how to use your avalanche gear by checking out this guide, but the best way to get comfortable and familiar with your gear is to take an avalanche class with a certified professional!
Okay, let’s get into it!
The most widely known of the three essentials is the avalanche beacon. These are little devices worn on your body at all times in the backcountry that emit a signal that can be picked up by other avalanche beacons. In the case that you are buried under an avalanche, your partners being able to pick up your beacon signal is your best hope of being rescued—and in the case that your partners are buried, it's also your best hope for finding them.
These should be turned on before getting out of the car and not be turned off until you return to the car at the end of your tour. You should also always conduct a beacon check before heading out on your tour for the day. Beacons all generally do the same thing but some have different features and ranges.
Here are the top three beacons on the market that have been tried and tested.
1. Mammut Barryvox
The Mammut Barryvox is consistently the best beacon when compared in several tests. It has a longer range than any other beacon that is suitable for backcountry users who are not guides. But that’s not even its best feature—where it really shines is its lack of interference compared to other beacons.
Since beacons use antennas to send and receive a signal, it's common for phones, aluminum cans, or even snacks in foil wrappers to interfere with the signal if they are too close to the beacon. Though you should never carry your phone and beacon on the same side of your body, for some of us smaller folks it can be difficult to feel you have adequate distance between the two, even when they are on opposite sides. The Barryvox has much less of an issue with interference and is, therefore, a safer option since there's really no room for error in the instances in which you need to use these.
Aside from that, it also has a relatively easy user interface, longer battery life, and is more shock resistant if dropped.
- Range: 70m
2. Backcountry Access Tracker 4
The Tracker 4 from Backcountry Access is a good second-place option. It's a bit smaller so people tend to like that it doesn’t feel as bulky to wear. It’s also incredibly fast and easy to use. The battery life, though still not as long as the Barryvox at 300 hours, is still 200 hours in ‘send’ mode, so this beacon can handle longer trips into the backcountry with ease.
- Range: 45-50m
3. Black Diamond Recon BT
The Black Diamond Recon Beacon, made by Pieps, had a bit of a controversial year in 2020 as there were some serious issues with the button getting stuck or sliding into ‘off’ mode while in use. That has all been resolved in the 2021 model.
Many people find the sliding button to be easier to use with gloves on than some of the other models. It also has a great range, just a bit shorter than the Barryvox.
Black Diamond is known for implementing cool tech into all of their gear and this is no exception. The Recon has Bluetooth capabilities that allow you to switch your beacon into training mode, change settings, and pair it with iProbe, a newer type of probe from Pieps which has a sensor at the tip of the probe that beeps when within a certain range of a transceiver. Though I still stick by the Barryvox as number one, that is a pretty cool feature.
- Range: 60m
Probes are the long, foldable poles that often leave new backcountry skiers wondering, “What is this for?” Though they are often forgotten about or deemed not as important as shovels and beacons, they have been shown to reduce average rescue times in burial situations from 25 minutes to 11 minutes. 15 minutes is a vital cutoff time in avalanche burials where victims uncovered after 15 minutes or less have a 93% survival rate but by the time you get to 30 minutes, the survival rate is closer to 35%.
After the beacon has given you a general idea of where your victim is, these foldable poles can be locked into a tool that you essentially use to poke around in the snow in hopes of locating the buried person with the end of the pole, pinpointing where to start digging to get them out. They don't have nearly as much tech as beacons so there aren’t as many considerations but here are a few things to keep in mind.
The main determinant of length is the areas in which you're spending time in the backcountry. In areas with higher snowfall, you’ll need longer probes because, in the case of an avalanche, the victim will likely be buried deeper than in an area with lower snowfall.
Longer probes are also generally made of a bit more durable material and are easier on your back if you are probing for an extended period of time. Most probes are between 240-300cm. It's much better to err on the side of getting a longer probe because the weight of carrying the extra length is better than having a probe that's too short and can't find someone in an emergency situation.
Probes are pretty much always one of two materials: carbon fiber or aluminum. Carbon fiber, though a bit more expensive, is lighter to carry. Aluminum is heavier but is generally more durable and can pierce through hard snow better. Since there are usually hard chunks in avalanche debris, it's nice to be able to get through that quicker without fear your probe will break.
The last consideration of probes should be the locking mechanism on top. Some are a bit easier to use than others, and since you want to be able to get this ready quickly, it's important to choose one that works for you, be sure to practice deploying it with gloves on!
1. Black Diamond Quickdraw Carbon 300 Probe
This probe is both lightweight and has a “cordlock technology” locking system to stick together when it’s in your pack. Not a necessary feature but it is nice for keeping your pack organized for an efficient rescue if disaster strikes.
- Weight: 270g
2. Ortovox ALU 240 PFA Probe
This probe has an easy trigger system and a sturdy, aluminum build.
- Weight: 310g
3. BCA Stealth 270 Probe
The Stealth probe is also aluminum, so will be sturdier but on the heavier side. It has a Quicklock System which I’ve found to be a little more reliable in keeping your probe locked together during use than some of the other systems.
- Weight: 328g
Shovels are important and useful in both digging out the victims of an avalanche and for performing snowpack stability tests. Given the necessity for speed and efficiency when digging out a buried victim, it's important to have your avalanche shovel pretty dialed in. Here are a few considerations and recommendations for shovels.
Weight and Size
Though weight is an important consideration in most backcountry gear, shovels should not be slimmed down just for ease of carrying. A flimsy or small avalanche shovel could break or be inefficient in an emergency situation, and then you’d be left without a tool to unbury someone. In terms of size, you’ll want to make sure it fits in your backpack when it's disassembled. If the handle is sticking out of your pack, you’re at risk of losing it, among a multitude of other issues. You’ll also want to make sure you get something with an adjustable shaft size. Having a shorter shovel is nice in tighter spaces but having a longer shovel is better for leverage and being able to move snow more quickly.
Avalanche shovels are made of metal for maximum durability. Though it's a bit heavier, aluminum is the best option for avalanche shovels. It can both chop up hard snow debris with ease, and won’t break as you are rapidly moving loads of snow.
Blade Shape and Size
Avalanche shovels come in a range of shapes and sizes. Some shovel blades are flat which is nice for snow pits, while some blades are serrated in order to be better at chopping snow. In terms of size, it's better to have a slightly deeper and bigger shovel in most situations as these are the most efficient at moving snow. Smaller shovels can be nice for fitting in tight places and for being lighter to carry, but won’t be as efficient when you really need them to be.
Some avalanche shovels have holes in the blade which can be used for a snow anchor or a rescue sled. Though it’s not a common need, it's a nice feature in case you are in an emergency situation.
Handle and Grip
Shovels have a few different handle options with the most common being a T shape, a D shape, or an L shape. When you are choosing a shovel, make sure the handle is comfortable in your hand. If it’s not, that’s ok because you have a few other handle shape options to choose from!
Some shovels come with two methods of connecting the head to the handle. One is the regular shape and one is called “hoe mode” (shown above). Hoe mode lets you scoop snow more quickly, though it’s not as efficient for chopping up heavy chunks of snow. It's nice to have the versatility of this feature since shoveling methods will vary quite a bit depending on the terrain, the depth, the slope angle of the mountain, and more. It’s especially nice if there are two shovelers in a burial situation, as the second shoveler will almost always want to use hoe mode.
1. Backcountry Access Dozer 1T
The BCA Dozer has been a top seller in North America for the last 5 years or so. It’s slim so fits well in a pack, has holes so can be used to build an anchor, and is overall just really sturdy. It works in hoe mode or regular mode with an extra handle above the blade on hoe mode for maximum efficiency.
- Weight: 595g
- Blade Size: 9” x 10”
2. Black Diamond Transfer
The Black Diamond Transfer has a larger blade volume than a lot of other shovels on the market. The blade isn't bigger but it just has a deeper design so is more efficient at scooping snow faster. Though this does make it a bit bulkier in your pack, it's still pretty manageable. It's extremely durable and the handle has gotten many compliments and positive reviews on being comfortable and efficient. The one con is it does not offer hoe mode.
- Weight: 692g
- Blade Size: 10.5” x 8.5”
3. Mammut Alugator Pro Light
One of the lightest on the market for its size, this shovel from Mammut has a T-shape handle, holes in the blade for a snow anchor or rescue sled, and can be used in regular or hoe mode. The shape of the blade is meant to be both efficient at moving snow and to fit into your pack without being too bulky.
- Weight: 675g
- Blade Size: 10.8” x 9.5”
Other Gear to Consider
Though your beacon should be worn on your body, your shovel, probe, water, snacks, and extra layers will need to be hauled around in a backpack. Backcountry ski- or snowboard-specific backpacks vary from standard backpacks in a few ways. They normally have a specific section for your shovel and probe, a goggle pocket, large zipper toggles that can be used with gloves, and a method to carry your skis. For more info on ski backpacks, check out this guide.
Here are a few of the top-rated packs:
- Osprey Soeldon 32L
- Black Diamond Dawn Patrol 35L
- Patagonia Snowdrifter 30L
2. Avalanche Airbag Pack
If you’re looking to invest in a pack with some additional safety features and you don’t mind spending the extra money, an avalanche airbag pack is a great replacement for a backpack. It's essentially a backpack that, upon deployment by the toggle on the shoulder strap, turns into a huge balloon. This balloon helps to keep you on top of an avalanche in the case that you are caught and carried.
Check out this guide for more details but here are a few of our top picks:
- Black Diamond Jetforce Tour Pack 26L
- Backcountry Access 12 Float Pack
- Mammut Pro Protection 3.0
A radio is another awesome tool for keeping safe in the backcountry. It can be useful in the case of avalanches but also just in case you get separated from your riding partners. It’s essentially a walkie-talkie but with better range and battery life, and a clip to attach to your backpack strap for ease of use.
Pro Tip: Get two so you can still use it if you go touring with a partner that doesn't have one!
4. Inclinometer/Snow Saw/Crystal Card
This tool is useful for digging snow pits, measuring slope angle to assess avalanche danger, and getting information on the stability of snow layers. A saw generally has a crystal card and an inclinometer, and an inclinometer usually has a crystal card. These are all pretty small, cheap, and can give you important insight on conditions while in the backcountry.
Here are a few favorites:
- Saw and Crystal Card: Backcountry Access Snow Saw
- Inclinometer Only: Ski Pole Inclinometer
- Inclinometer Only: BCA Slope Meter
- Crystal Card Only: BCA Crystal Card
I hope this breakdown was helpful as you get ready for your next adventure, but if you have any questions or need help searching for the best avalanche safety gear for you, hit up one of our Ski Experts on Curated—we’d be more than happy to help get you squared away. Stay safe and have fun!