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Off-piste kit and equipment

The fool-proof guide to skiing off piste and the relevant safety equipment needed.

Avalanche Transceivers

Transceivers are vital if you're venturing off-piste but they're only one of three essential pieces of equipment. You also need to carry a probe and shovel.

Avalanche transceivers offer the best chance of rapidly locating buried skiers. They must be worn by all members of the party.

Make sure you install new alkaline batteries at the beginning of each season and check the power level each time you turn the transceiver on. You must wear the unit close to your body where it won't be ripped off in an avalanche, such as under your ski jacket but over your base layer for comfort.

At the start of the day the group tests all transceivers to ensure that they are all working. They are then left on the 'transmit' setting throughout the day.

If a member of your group is taken by an avalanche, the rest of the group switches their transceivers to receiving mode to locate the person caught by the avalanche. You have a 15 minute window of opportunity to locate the person buried and clear their airway. After this time their chance of survival quickly drops.

Practice is essential as you need to know how to use your transceiver to locate a buried unit. When one of your group is buried it's too late to be reading the instructions.

Watch the Ski Clubs guide to Transceivers:


Pure analogue transceivers have just one antennae and therefore you don’t get a distance and direction when locating buried units. These are the most basic model and take the greatest amount of practice to become proficient when searching with them.

Digital transceviers have two or three antennae. With two antennae these allow the processor in the unit (it is a digital processor, hence the name digital) to work out distance and direction to the buried unit. In recent years, digital transceivers have been launched with three antennaes. These offer increased speed of location when in the final pin-point phase of your search. Some models, such as the Ortovox 3+, have also introduced technology to optimise the transmission. It can tell which way the unit is lying and selects which antennae to use for transmission to give the greatest detection range possible.

Shovel

A shovel is another essential piece of equipment to be carried in a rucksack when skiing or boarding off piste. If a member of your group is buried in an avalanche, a shovel is vital for helping to dig the person out of the snow. There are a variety of models now available which are light and collapsible and therefore easily fit into a rucksack.

Avalanche Probe

A probe is a long, collapsible pole which can be used in an event of an avalanche to locate a somone buried in the snow.

If the amount of off-piste skiing that you do does not justify buying your own transceiver, you can hire a transceiver by the week from the Ski Club or by the day from ski shops in most ski resorts. You can buy probes and shovels from Lockwoods or 01926 339 388 where Ski Club members get special rates for purchasing safety equipment.

Recco Transmitters

Recco transmitters consist of a chip of material that can be detected under snow by a receiver (the system is similar to a shop's anti-theft device). They're cheap and light, and can be attached to your clothing or ski-boots. They're also now incorporated in many ski jackets or trousers and even on some ski boots.

While better than nothing, their disadvantage is that the rescue services normally need to be called out as they have the unit which can search for buried Recco transmitters. The time delay from the alarm being raised to them getting to the scene means can be considerably longer than one of your party searching with a transceiver. When someone is buried, time is of the essence so it's essential when skiing off piste for all in the group to have the kit mentioned above – transceiver, shovel and probe.

Avalung

Although there's lots of air in an avalanche, this can be of little use as you can end up re-breathing exhaled carbon dioxide, leading to suffocation. An Avalung is basically a unit with a hose whose mouth piece you put in your mouth when skiing a slope you suspect may avalanche. If you do get caught and buried you then breath through this hose and the exhaled carbon dioxide is released around your back. Inhaled air is brought in from the front of the unit, providing you with a much cleaner air source than re-breathing your exhaled breath.

You can buy an Avalung as a stand alone unit you wear like a mini harness around your chest, or you can buy backpacks with them built in.

Bags with inflatable balloons

Although ABS packs (the original avalanche airbag brand) have been around for about 20 years, in recent seasons other brands have become available such as Snowpulse and BCA. This style of safety pack has increased in popularity in recent years, and have been shown to greatly increase your chance of survival should you be caught in a moving avalanche.

These packs have a cylinder of compressed gas that when released inflates the airbag (the gas is not usually air) from the pack, increasing the surface area of the skier. In a moving avalanche this then allows you to naturally move up in the snowpack. An easy way to think about this is that if you shake a packet of cereal, the larger pieces always come to the top. Therefore by essentially making yourself bigger by inflating the bags you move towards the top of the snowpack and can be more easily found, even if you are fully or partially buried. As you do not travel inside the avalanche as much the risk of impact trauma is also reduced. These packs do only work if the avalanche is moving.

Helmets

Helmets are now quite trendy as well as being comfortable and could save you from serious injury. Some helmets have hard covers over the ears and others have soft ear covers, and most helmets come with a clip or strap for securing your goggles.

Ask the sales assistant to help measure your head by wrapping a measuring tape around your head directly above your ears and forehead. Take the reading - this is your helmet and hat size. Try on the correct size helmet, but bear in mind that different models will be different shapes so you may need to try on a few to find the perfect fit. Place the helmet on your head directly above your eyebrows. Make sure the helmet pads are snug against your head, with no large gaps. Fasten the chin strap and try to roll the helmet off your head. If the skin on your forehead moves, you have a snug and correct fit.

When buying a ski helmet, make sure your ski goggles still fit on your face when they're attached to the helmet. It's often worth taking your goggles with you when buying a helmet to make sure they'll work together.

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