We have mentioned the essentials you need for courses on the avalanche kit page. When ever you’re skiing in the Backcountry or in our view any time you’re skiing, you should have an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe. You and the people you are skiing with need to know how to use the kit. At Avalanche Geeks, privately or professionally, we will not ski with anyone who does not ski with a 3 Antenna transceiver, a shovel and a probe and the knowledge to use them.
Choosing these pieces of equipment is never easy as there is an ever increasing amount of choice. At Avalanche Geeks we choose not to work with any one provider of avalanche safety equipment as we want to be free to recommend what ever is currently the market leader. We aim to give you impartial advice from years of using this kit in the field, don’t just take our word for it, below you will find links to other review sites who’s opinion we value.
We will keep you updated with the latest units as they appear.
Avalanche transceivers or beacons as they are also known have been an essential part of ski equipment for over 30 years now. The technology is better than ever. Although a transceiver may seem expensive, compare the cost to other pieces of ski kit and weigh that with the cost of your life or the lives of those you ski with and all of a sudden they don’t seem so expensive. Which ever transceiver you choose to buy the most important thing is that you get out and use your unit. Every model is different and each has its own strengths, weaknesses and little quirks that a user needs to become familiar with.
Getting it out of the box on the first day of a ski trip is no use, you need to practice with it in the garden (use lots of upturned plant pots to hide the unit under), on the hill, in the house (sock drawers are particularly good hiding places). Your unit should feel like an extension of you not an unfamiliar piece of kit that you feel you should wear because its what everyone else is doing.
First of all, there are no ‘bad’ transceivers out there. All 3 antenna beacons work well. Some just feel easier to use than others. Having tested most of the units currently on the market we feel that Mammut are currently producing great units. They have two models: the Pulse and more simple Element. The Pulse has the ability to be switched between analogue and digital and has the myriad of other features that we are sure you would forget how to use if you were caught in a real avalanche situation. If you are a recreational skier who skis 2 or 3 trips a year you probably won’t remember how to use all these features, even as a professional I need to remind myself each year how to use all the different features so we would recommend the Element. Don’t just believe us; here are a number of other reviews: Beacon Reviews Element , Pulse Outdoor Gear Lab Element , Pulse
In additions to the Mammut beacons, last season Mike was very impressed during training exercises with the new Pieps DSP Sport which produced an excellent precise signal on single burials, and is also definitely worth considering.
Having a transceiver is essential but you wont find a buried victim without a probe or be able to dig them out without a shovel.
Shovels should be metal, if someone turns up on a course or a guided trip with a plastic shovel I will swap it for mine for the day, that way the person digging me out will have a good shovel. Plastic shovels do not penetrate avalanche debris as well as their metal counterparts when digging, even if the blade doesn’t brake it will flex so wasting energy. Bear in mind if you’re involved in an avalanche in a wooded area there is likely to be broken branches mixed amongst the debris that the shovel will need to cut through. Beyond being metal, having an extendable handle will make the shovel easier to dig with, having a flat blade makes digging clean snow profiles easier, and having holes at the corners allows you to use the shovel easily as part of a rescue sledge or deadman anchor in a pinch.
When looking at shovel size bigger isn’t better. If you think of the weight of snow you will be trying to move with each shovel full you will soon tire if the blade is big and the shovel full, digging with a medium sized shovel you will not tire so quickly and you will be able to move snow more effectively. Currently Bruce uses a BCA B1 and B2 and Mike uses a Voile shovel. So as we said, we have no strong preferences but prefer units that come apart as they are easier to fit in your pack. A few interesting links can be found below:
To give them their proper name in the industry – balloon packs. They’ve been around for over 20 years now, but it’s only in the last 3 or 4 years that their popularity has really taken off with multiple manufacturers jumping aboard and subcontracting licenses from the two big European providers: ABS (German) and Snowpulse (Swiss). Currently there are well over 20 different makes and size options to choose from. In North America both BCA and Mystery Ranch manufacture their own systems to add into the mix. As price, weight and bulk have reduced so popularity has increased. Do they work? Yes, they are without a doubt a major contribution to avalanche safety, but they aren’t anywhere near the much bandied 97% survivability statistical silver bullet that the manufacturers would have you believe. The latest independent figures place an overall survivability of 22% compared to 11% of those involved in serious avalanches –Haegeli & Falk 2014 to those that wear them against those who do not. Still very impressive, but no substitute for knowledge and appropriate decision making.
So what do we recommend and why? Well you’ll probably not be surprised that both Bruce and I use the Hagloff Vodj ABS 30. Certainly, that’s because Avalanche Geeks are sponsored by Haglofs and we trust in their gear, but that’s not the whole story here. Bruce is part of their Pro Team but I am not, and I made the conscious decision to buy the pack with my own hard earned cash. Here’s why: firstly and foremost the pack works as a pack. Now, that might sound obvious, but there are plenty of ski touring packs on the market ( both balloon pack or otherwise) that don’t perform well in relation to compartment size and access, lid systems, stowing ski’s and ice axes. etc. Balloon packs are notorious for taking up a large proportion of the interior space in baffles and gas cartridges. The Vodj looks and feels like just a regular pack. The materials are bombproof yet it’s one of the lightest ABS packs on the market. The ABS system has a two balloon deployment – I ski a lot of my winter in the treeline of North America where avalanche victims who deploy balloon packs in the tree’s can get the balloon ripped by sharp branches. Two balloons give me redundancy. I skied the pack hard for about 70 days last season in Utah, Canada and the Alps and there wasn’t a single issue with it. Bruce has over 200 days on his without issue. So they’re tough packs that work well.
So you should go and get one right? Ermm – well possibly not. It depends really. Here’s the thing. What kind of terrain do you regularly ski? A fan pack will provide you very little protection against trauma in tree’s and rocky and cliffy terrain. It arguably subjects you to risk homeostasis – that is subconsciously leading you to ski more risky lines, because: ‘Hey, I’m good to go – I have a airbag so I’m safe….right?’
One the biggest problems with most of the balloon packs on the market is the inability to take them on aircraft. If you’re from the UK this is a huge issue as we fly so often to go skiing. Irrespective of you having a fist full of documentation from the airline saying it’s ok and that you can fly with the cartridge, I have seen countless examples of people having them confiscated by over zealous airport security guards, either from hand luggage at security gates or pulled from the hold luggage after x-ray. The airlines and airports haven’t got anywhere close to getting their act together on this issue, nor is there any likelihood they ever will in my opinion. The only sure solution is to fly with just the pack and hook up with a canister at the other end. I currently have spare canisters in storage with friends in Chamonix, Utah and California – not exactly practical. To address this issue we suggest looking at the new fan packs that have started appearing on the shelves. Black Diamond are already well into production of the second generation of these. Called the Jet Force it follows the same principles of the current balloon packs but the balloons are inflated by a high powered fan, that is powered in turn by a lithium Ion battery – not gas. Ergo, you can fly with it.