All avalanche safety equipment acts as secondary protection to avalanche safety training designed to minimise the chances of being caught in an avalanche. At all times, a skier or boarder should act to minimise the chance of an avalanche impacting themselves or others in their group.
Once caught in an avalanche, survival comes down to luck. If avalanche safety equipment is available to hand and used correctly, this can bring the rescue time down to ~10 minutes but is not a guarantee of survival. Traditional avalanche safety equipment can be of huge assistance in the back-country, and it is essential for anyone heading into any avalanche risk zone – if caught in an avalanche, the equipment can reduce recovery time from over an hour down to as little as ten minutes.
You should ensure that you are appropriately trained on all elements of avalanche safety equipment in case of an emergency - having a transceiver and not understanding how it works can be as useless as not having one at all. See our Mountain Safety videos for more information, and strongly consider mountain safety courses if you wish to learn more.
Traditional avalanche safety equipment consists of three elements: a transceiver, shovel, and probe. To effectively increase the chances of surviving an avalanche, you should possess all three elements when skiing or boarding.
An avalanche transceiver is a device that emits a radio
frequency, allowing it to be located by other transceivers equipped with a
“search” mode. When searching for an avalanche victim, a transceiver will
display a range of information, such as distance to victim(s), number of buried
victims, and the direction of the victim(s). This will be indicated by a
digital display and by a beeping noise which intensifies in frequency the
closer to the victim(s) you become. Multiple searching transceivers can help
triangulate a victim quickly and efficiently when used properly.
Transceivers must be worn below at least one layer of clothing
using the harness provided, and kept on and in “send” mode (i.e. sending a
signal) at all times – this is to ensure that, if an avalanche strikes
suddenly, you can be located at any time. Many modern transceivers will default
to “send” mode following a period of time in “search” in case a second
avalanche follows the first.
The Ski Club strongly recommends purchasing or utilising a digital, three-antenna transceiver. Software must be updated regularly, and new, good quality batteries should always be used to guarantee the integrity of your transceiver. Our Mountain Safety Pages detail how to locate a buried victim using an avalanche transceiver. This should be used in conjunction with full training on how to avoid avalanche risk terrain when skiing or boarding.
Once a victim has been located on the surface using the
transceiver, use the probe to plunge the snow and establish the depth of the
victim. Modern probes are lightweight aluminium and can be collapsed down from
the full 2m+ length into foot long pieces to fit into a rucksack.
Finally, the shovel is used to dig out a victim once
located. This must be made of aluminium, as plastic shovels may shatter when
used in cold environments. Similar to a probe, they will be collapsible, almost
always via a detachable handle to allow them to fit into your pack.
- Recco Chips - You may find that many pieces of Snowsports clothing have a Recco Chip sewn into the fabric. This is a radio frequency reflector that Search and Rescue teams use to find avalanche victims. Note that these are passive elements – unlike transceivers, they do not emit their own radio waves. Therefore, they cannot be tracked by a standard avalanche transceiver; as a result, rescue times are almost always in the 40 minutes or more range, massively reducing the chances of survival. Recco chips should not be relied on in place of a transceiver when venturing into avalanche risk terrain.
- Snow Saw - Similar in size and shape to a pruning saw, these are used as part of the snow trench testing process. The saw is used to cut 30cmx90cm blocks in the snow to test the stability of the snowpack. Often they will feature a 30cm rule down one side to help achieve this.
- Inclinometer - often attached to a skiers pole, a small to help them understand the angle of the slope they are on by turning the pole into a spirit level.