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.


Transceiver

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.


Probe

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.


Shovel

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.  


Other Equipment 

  • 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.

Avalanche Airbags

Avalanche airbags are a recent innovation that have been entering the mainstream as additional avalanche safety equipment more and more over the previous few years. Before taking the plunge and buying one, it is important to understand how they work and major differences between equipment, such as deployment mechanisms.

 

The Muesli Effect

Granular Convection, known colloquially as the Muesli Effect owing to its ubiquitous presence in packets of cereal, is the physical phenomenon by which airbags work; by increasing your size with the airbag, you move to the top of the surface of the snow as smaller clumps move into the space around and below you, in a similar way to large chunks of muesli when you shake a box of cereal. Airbags should be primed and ready whenever skiing in avalanche risk terrain and should be deployed as soon as an avalanche is noticed. You should continue to attempt to escape the path of the avalanche as an airbag is not a guarantee of survival.



Deployment Mechanisms

There are two major deployment mechanisms used by avalanche airbag models – gas canisters with an explosive detonator, and battery powered fans. Performance wise, there is little difference between the two mechanisms – each however, has their own drawbacks, as will be noted below.

 

  • Gas Canister Airbags - Gas canister airbags use a small explosive detonator to trigger the gas canister, which then fills the airbag with the expelled gas – normally carbon dioxide. This generates enough pressure to inflate the bag and sustain this for a long period, i.e. well beyond the course of a normal avalanche situation. These canisters are single use, and cannot be readily refilled, although they can be recycled at stores that retail the canisters and airbags for a fee.
  • Battery and Fans - A battery pack built into the backpack powers a fan that inflates and continues to sustain the airbag throughout the course of the avalanche.


Avalanche Airbags and Flight Safety

Avalanche airbags are a recent evolution in avalanche safety, and still present headaches for airlines when travelling with them. Broadly speaking, avalanche airbags, both gas and battery powered, are able to be carried on planes safely and freely, although a whole host of potential pitfalls lie along the way. It is essential you follow the appropriate guidance when packing and travelling with your avalanche airbag to ensure it all arrives at your destination safely. The following guide is designed to help you understand the myriad of different procedures for travelling with an avalanche airbag. Whilst International Air Transport Association (IATA) rules do allow for the carriage of both gas and battery powered airbags, this is open to the discretion of individual national authorities, airlines and airports to implement the specifics of the rule.

Please Note – Gas powered airbags are not permitted on American carriers or on flights to/from the USA owing to stringent FAA regulations. A small minority of American carriers may allow empty gas canisters, but this is done at their discretion.

The Ski Club advises following the below steps to ensure your avalanche airbag arrives safely.

Gas Canister Airbags: 

  • IATA regulations allow for an avalanche airbag equipped with one (1) gas canister (full or empty) and one (1) explosive trigger to be carried by an individual.
  • Ensure all elements of the system are detached from each other to avoid accidental triggering of the system mid-flight – it is advisable to place some elements in clear plastic bags to further demonstrate they are fully detached.
  • Place the gas canister inside the avalanche airbag – this demonstrates to security staff that the gas canister is part of the avalanche airbag system, and therefore allowed by IATA rules, and not simply an independent canister of gas, which is not normally allowed
  • It is advisable to slip a copy of the relevant part of the IATA regulations in with the canister – whilst this advice is a few years old from when avalanche airbags were not common items, it can help re-assure airport security staff who may search your bag without you present that this is indeed allowable in your bag.
  • When travelling with the airbag in checked baggage, place this at the top of the bag to allow you to easily access it to demonstrate it has been packed appropriately to airport check-in or security staff.
  • Double-check with your airline whether you need to pre-register your airbag with them – different airlines have different rules on this.

    Battery Powered Airbags:
    Travelling with battery powered airbags is a much simpler affair. IATA rules allow for one (1) battery below 100kwh rating to be carried in either checked or hand luggage. American carriers and flights to the USA do allow batteries, but only if the battery or system model has not been part of a previous product recall – this is something that effects a surprising number of battery systems.