As mentioned above, some equipment - avalanche transceiver (also known as Pieps, Arva or Beacons), 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 snowboarders 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, and checked before heading off piste. 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 a 15 minutes survival window at the most to be located and dug out, 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. Some of the more modern transceivers have a range of display methods, showing distance, depths, multiple burials etc. Whichever model you purchase make sure you practice with it extensively before heading off piste, you can do this anywhere, even without snow, just get someone else to hide a 2nd transceiver (switched to transmit) and play hide & seek!
The most popular brands of Avalanche Transceiver include Ortovox, Pieps, BCA, Mammut and ARVA.
Transceivers typically cost between £150-300 depending on the brand and features, the Ski Club operates a transceiver hire scheme for a low cost and if you are skiing with Ski Club Leaders, Instructor-led Guiding or Freshtracks holidays you can borrow a transceiver for the duration of the session.
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. Though plastic (or Lexan) models used to be popular for their light weight and low price, they are insufficient to deal with post avalanche snow that has often hardened. Modern metal shovel are now almost as light but have improved rigidity and strength for more efficient shovelling, which is essential when time is crucial. Look out for shovels that fold to suit the inside of your back pack (T handles & L handles fit differently depending on the layout of your pack), some also have holes that allow them to be used as part of a rescue stretcher, or add-ons to turn the handle into an ice axe.
Popular makes of avalanche shovel include Ortovox, BCA, Black Diamond and Mammut.
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. Carbon fibre, aluminium & steel probes are available, with carbon being lighter but aluminium & steel being stronger and better built for compacted snow. Some probes including one from Pieps have built in signal receivers that help find those buried underneath the snow. Probes are available from Ortovox, BCA, Black Diamond, Pieps and Mammut.
Recco reflectors consist of a chip with an antenna that can be detected under snow by a RECCO detector (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 incorporate Recco reflectors 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. To make sure the resort you are skiing in has a Recco detector, you can check here.
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 from BCA. It's worth noting that a substantial number of avalanche deaths occur as a result of impact or trauma and not just suffocation, which is possibly why the next category of equipment is becoming more popular.
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, and you can now also get removable airbag systems 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 travelling with avalanche air bags that have compressed gas cylinders. Most now accept them but whether or not they go in the cabin or in the hold and if they are allowed on fully charged can vary, check before you travel. Some systems feature refillable canisters, some require replacements so it's worth checking before you head to resort in case you need to replace the gas.
Most of these rucksacks have a cylinder of compressed gas, that when triggered by either a small explosive charge or a cable release, 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.
In the last few years there has also been the introduction of fan based airbags that use batteries and high powered mini fans to inflate the bags in pretty much the same time as it takes a gas cylinder. The advantages of this system are that you can reuse the bags without having to recharge or replace the gas canister, and that airlines should be more comfortable with carry the packs (though you still need to check as some have maximum battery size restrictions). These bags tend to weigh a little more than gas ones but are getting lighter as the technology improves.
The most popular gas air bag systems are -
A.B.S. (Air Bag System - A.B.S. Ortovox, Dakine, The North Face, Salomon, Evoc, Burton) which features a base unit that different packs can zip on to, however the explosive triggers and canisters are not refillable so need to be replaced each time.
Float (BCA) which can be recharged in shops.
R.A.S (Removable Airbag System - Mammut/Snowpulse/Oakley/Jones/Dakine/Evoc) & P.A.S. (Protective Airbag System -Mammut/Snowpulse) are both refillable and the latter features additional head & neck protection thanks to its unique design.
There's only currently three battery & fan based systems -
Alpride E1 (Scott)
Jetforce (Black Diamond/Pieps)
Air bags, being relatively new technology, are still quite expensive, with the cheapest models coming in around £300-600 and new battery fan versions costing at least £800.