Price is secondary to safety. Gear is secondary to wisdom.
In the past few years there has been some significant advances in the usability and quality of avalanche equipment. The biggest advances being with the development of three antenna digital avalanche transceivers and airbag rucksacks. Everyone has their favourite piece of equipment, here you can find out thoughts on what kit we like to use and what kit you will need to bring along on your course.
Unless booked specifically as a foot course, all our courses are based on skis. We will use ski’s fitted with skins to access terrain and study sites on most courses so please come with ski touring equipment and be ready for full days out.
Avalanche Transceiver – This should be a digital three-antenna unit. Our current preference is for one of the Mammut units, but all the three Antennae units work well. See our blog page for our review of the new Barryvox S.
Avalanche Shovel – The blade should be metal, if you have a plastic shovel we will lend you a metal one for the course. A model with an extending handle is easier to dig with. A smooth blade makes the job of digging a clean snow profile easier. Look out for UIAA markings on the shovel. These have passed a testing standard. See our reviews.
Avalanche Probe – The probe should be a minimum length of 2.4m we would advise against models that use a fabric cord to tension as these tend to stretch or snap. A model with a wire self locking mechanism is easiest to use. We would also advise against the skinny super light weight carbon fibre models as they are easily deflected by debris when probing – the fatter carbon fibre ones work well. See our reviews.
You do not need to bring anything extra on the course other than a notebook and pen / pencil. A notebook with waterproof paper is much easier to use on the hill.
A small loupe type magnifying glass and crystal screen is useful for looking at snow crystals but is not essential on the level 1 course. For Scottish Courses a map of the Cairngorms is useful. We like the Harveys map of this area. For the Alps courses we will likely be using IGN Megeve 1:25 000 (sheet 3531).
If doing a level 2 course it would be useful to bring the following items if you have them.
The above can be purchased as complete kits. BCA snow science kits are available online from Facewest and Snowsafe. These complete kits are very nice but a little pricey. The cheapest way to put a kit together is to create your own by sourcing items individually on the web.
We have mentioned the essentials you need for courses on the avalanche kit page. Whenever you’re skiing off piste or in the backcountry, or in our view any time you’re skiing (your plans not to ski off piste at the beginning of the day often change once on the mountain), you should have an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe with you. You and the people you are skiing with need to know how to use this rescue equipment.
Choosing these pieces of equipment is never easy as there is an ever increasing amount of choice. Although we are affiliated with Mammut Safety Equipment we aim to give you honest and 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.
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. Whichever transceiver you choose to buy the most important thing is that you get out and practice with your unit. Every model is different and each has its own strengths, weaknesses and little quirks that a user needs to become familiar with. Any transceiver that is available on the market is only as good as the person using it – Practice, practice practice! Your unit should feel like an extension of you not an unfamiliar piece of kit that you feel obliged to wear because its what everyone else is doing it.
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 Barryvox S and the simpler Barryvox. The ‘S’ has the ability to be switched between analogue and digital modes and has the myriad of other features. If you are a recreational skier who skis 2 or 3 trips a year you probably won’t need 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 simpler and cheaper Barryvox. Don’t just believe us; here are a couple of reviews: GearLab and Beacon Reviews
In additions to the Mammut beacons, over the last few seasons Mike has liked the BCA Tracker 3 which is a great simple unit that is smaller than most which produces 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. If you ski or ride with mitts then look for a D shaped handle instead of a T shape. Currently Bruce & Mike both use the very light but very capable Mammut Allugator Light. For those on a budget the Black Diamond Lynx shovel packs a really good bang for your buck (although it’s in the process of being discontinued as the lack of extendable handle means it doesn’t meet the new UIAA standards). A few interesting links can be found below. All avalanche shovels should have a UIAA stamp on them – this shows that they meet minimum standards.
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 4 or 5 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 – & now a part of Mammut). In North America both BCA and Mystery Ranch, and Black Diamond 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 some manufacturers originally bandied about. 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 terrain choice.
So what do we recommend and why? Well you’ll probably not be surprised that we both use the Mammut Pro X 35L and the RAS Light 30L. (The RAS system stands for Removable Airbag System – so we just swap the airbag between the two packs depending on what kind of work we’re doing). Certainly our choice of packs are down to Avalanche Geeks being sponsored by Mammut and we trust their gear, but that’s not the whole story. First and foremost these packs work well as a pack! Now, that might sound obvious, but there are plenty of ski touring packs on the market that don’t perform well in relation to compartment size and access, lid systems, stowing ski’s and ice axes. etc. Airbag packs are notorious for taking up a large proportion of the interior space in baffles and gas cartridges. The RAS Light in particular looks and feels like just a regular pack. The materials are bombproof yet it’s one of the lighter packs on the market. We’ve skied these pack hard for about 100 days over the last couple of seasons in Utah, Canada, the Alps and Svalbard and there wasn’t a single issue with them. 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? An airbag 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 an 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 on a number of occasions 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.