As mentioned above, some equipment - avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe - are essential when you head off piste. However, a growing number of skiers and riders are also investing in avalanche air bags and other kit that can help mitigate the risks of being in terrain where avalanches can occur.
Avalanche transceivers offer the best chance of rapidly locating buried skiers and must be worn by every member of the party. However, simply owning a transceiver is of no benefit. It's vital that you learn how to use it, and practice frequently.
Make sure you install new batteries at the beginning of each season and check the power level each time you turn on your transceiver. The unit must be worn close to the body where it won't be ripped off in an avalanche, ideally under your ski jacket but over your base layer for comfort.
At the start of the day the group should test all transceivers to ensure that they're working correctly. They are then left on the 'transmit' setting throughout the day.
If a member of your group is taken by an avalanche, those designated to search for the victim will switch to 'receive' mode. Someone buried in an avalanche generally has 15 minutes at the most to be located and an airway cleared, so when it comes to learning how to use a transceiver, practice, practice and practice some more.
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 transceivers 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 antennas. 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.
The Ski Club operates a transceiver hire scheme, making this essential piece of kit available at a price that suits all budgets.
A shovel is another essential piece of equipment to be carried in your a rucksack, used to uncover an avalanche victim once they have been located. There are a variety of models now available which are light and collapsible, and therefore easily fit into a rucksack.
A probe is a long, collapsible pole which can be used in an event of an avalanche to locate a someone buried beneath the snow. Probes Vary in length, and typically range from about 180cm right up to around 320cm. For most skiers a length of around 200cm -240cm would be suitable, and not add excessive weight to your backpack.
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. In fact, many top manufacturers now incorporated Recco material into their ski jackets, trousers or ski boots.
While these are better than nothing, they are absolutely no substitute for a transceiver. Rescue services normally need to be called out as they have the unit required to search for the buried victim. The time delay means that it is unlikely that a victim can be recovered in less than 15 minutes, therefore the chances of survival decrease dramatically.
An Avalung is basically a unit with a hose and a mouthpiece, which 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.
Avalanche Air Bags
Although ABS packs (the original avalanche airbag brand) have been around for about 20 years, in recent seasons other brands have begun to produce equivalent products, such as Snowpulse and BCA, and you can now also get removable airbag sytems to convert any backpack to an avalanche pack. As off piste skiing has grown in popularity, sales of air bags has risen rapidly, and are seen by some as must-have pieces of kit. Note that different airlines have differing policies regarding traveling with avalanche air bags that have compressed gas cylinders. Check before you travel.
These rucksacks have a cylinder of compressed gas, that when triggered, inflates an airbag from the pack, increasing the surface area of the skier. In a moving avalanche this has been shown to help the skier naturally stay near the top of snow pack, thus preventing deep burials where recovery is less likely. 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.