If you’re out hiking or snowshoeing in terrain that poses the threat of an avalanche, plan to carry three pieces of essential avalanche gear with you: a beacon, a shovel, and a probe. An avalanche can occur in hilly or mountainous terrain when snow suddenly cascades down a slope. The Avalanche Triangle can help you determine what key factors can trigger an avalanche, but if and when you should find yourself in the middle of one, you’ll want to have these three essential tools with you.
Carrying these three essential items with you in your backpack will rarely help you if you’re traveling alone. They’re designed for use by skilled partners traveling together. Here’s how and why these three pieces of avalanche survival gear are essential for every member of your group to carry in areas that pose even the slightest avalanche risk:
An avalanche beacon, also known as a transceiver, is a battery-operated device that anyone traveling through snowy, avalanche-prone terrain can wear. Avalanche beacons are small--usually about the size of a person’s open palm--and they can be strapped across a person’s shoulder and waist so that they can easily be worn underneath an outer layer of winter clothing.
An avalanche beacon can be set to transmit a signal or to receive a signal. When in “transmit mode,” the beacon emits a signal that can be picked up by a receiving transmitter. If a person wearing an avalanche beacon becomes buried in the snow, then another person searching with a transmitter in “receive mode” can pick up that signal and locate a person who has been swept away or buried by an avalanche.
A receiving transmitter often has visual and auditory displays that guide the searching party towards the avalanche victim. Numbers shown on the display usually give the searcher an estimated distance to the victim. While a beacon can help guide a searcher, still other tools may be necessary in locating a buried avalanche victim.
An avalanche probe is a long, slender device that you can use to poke into the snow in order to locate the depth of a buried avalanche victim. Once your beacon tells you that you've found a buried victim--or that you're very close, then you can use your probe to help fine-tune a more precise location before you begin digging.
Avalanche probes are usually constructed of aluminum and are collapsible, much like tent poles that break down to fit inside of your backpack. They come in lengths of ten to fifteen feet or longer. Depending on snow conditions and avalanche type, you may need to use the entire length of your probe to locate a buried avalanche victim. Determining the precise location of a victim before digging is essential, however, as it may save precious minutes and result in a life-saving recovery.
Once you've located a buried avalanche victim with a beacon and probe, you'll need a shovel to dig him or her out of the snow. According to recent statistics, only one out of three buried avalanche victims survive; two-thirds of victims die of suffocation while one-third of avalanche victims die of traumatic injuries. However, if you're able to reach a buried victim quickly and identify his or her location with a probe, get out your shovel and begin digging.
An avalanche shovel should be sturdy enough to do a great deal of hefty digging. Avalanche shovels are often constructed of aluminum or other metals and can have a detachable handle that's made to be fitted easily onto the shovel for quick assembly and use when needed in an emergency.
To recover an avalanche victim buried underneath a mere one meter of snow, 1.5 tons of snow must be moved. Therefore, choose a shovel that is big enough to do the job yet light enough to carry in your pack every time you're in terrain that poses avalanche risk.
Essential Avalanche Gear: Final Tips
Practice using these three pieces of essential avalanche gear before you’re ever at risk for surviving an avalanche. Train with partners, and make sure that everyone in your group is equipped with a beacon, a shovel, and a probe if you're traveling together through an area with avalanche potential. Careful terrain analysis, proper route selection, and information from local avalanche agencies can help you to avoid avalanche-prone terrain, so study your route carefully for signs of danger, and don't hesitate to turn around if the avalanche risk is too great.