How to Choose the Right Avalanche Equipment

Text by: Kelsey Begg

Arc’teryx, Backcountry Access, Black Diamond. How to Choose the Right Avalanche Equipment

Exploring in avalanche terrain can be incredibly dangerous and requires expert knowledge and awareness. If you are not equipped with the appropriate equipment and information, you are not only putting your life at risk, but also the lives of the people around you. The first step before you can explore in the backcountry safely is to take an avalanche safety course. On the Canadian Avalanche Association website, you can find a list of courses in different regions throughout British Columbia and Alberta and find the one closest to you. On the east coast, you can find a series of avalanche courses on the Expé Aventures website.

Once you have signed up for an avalanche course, the next step is gearing up. Part of the curriculum for the avalanche courses will be how to use your equipment correctly and efficiently so you’re ready should you need to use it in the field.

The Gear

An avalanche safety kit includes a shovel, a probe and a beacon or transceiver. If you will be exploring regularly in avalanche terrain, you may want to look into investing in an airbag backpack. Although they are not cheap, these backpacks are designed to increase your chance of survival should you get caught in an avalanche. When the airbag is deployed, it acts as a balloon and allows your body to stay above and float on top of the avalanche debris rather than being buried.

Some brands like Black Diamond and Backcountry Access have avalanche kits you can purchase which include the probe, beacon and shovel and are slightly more cost-effective than buying each item separately.

backcountry access float 32 avalanche airbag

Backcountry Acces

Float 32 Avalanche Airbag

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backcountry access stealth 300 carbon avalanche probe

Backcountry Access

300 Carbon Avalanche Probe

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black diamond transfer 3 shovel

Black Diamond

Transfer 3 Shovel

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black diamond pieps dsp rpo beacon

Black Diamond

Pieps DSP Pro Beacon

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Choosing the right avalanche equipment is quite simple for the most part. You want a beacon or transceiver that works well and a shovel that can be easily stored in your backpack. Most are compactable and can be pulled apart into two pieces. The probe will require some choosing because they are available in different lengths so you want to ensure you choose one that is adequate for where you will be going.

Avalanche Beacons & Transceivers

For starters, a beacon or transceiver are the same things. They are your lifeline while you are traveling in avalanche-prone terrain so pay a little extra and opt for something that is brand new rather than a used model. When it comes to compatibility, it is important to know that all beacons operate at the same frequency which is 457 kHz and will be fully compatible. Because of this, you can shop for any type of beacon and not have to be concerned whether it will operate well with those who you are traveling with.

There are three main types of beacons on the market although the analogue models are no longer produced so you will most likely not find one brand new. These models were the first to be made although now designs have shifted and they are more commonly running with digital technologies. 

Analogue Avalanche  Beacons

  • big search range
  • great for picking up signals from further distances
  • require practice to be used efficiently
  • best price point

Digital Avalanche Beacons

  • easier to use although some are better suited for professional use
  • small range compared to analogue avalanche beacons
  • prices vary depending on features, performance and manufacturer
  • equipped with a microprocessor (like computers) which filters data and compensates for inexperience and cuts down search times
  • most popular avalanche beacons on the market

Analogue/Digital Avalanche Beacons

  • use both technologies listed above (hybrid beacon)
  • perform as well as some fully digital beacons although there is less of a demand for this type
  • nearly phased out much like the original analogue avalanche beacons
  • prices are comparable to lower-end digital avalanche beacons

What Type of Beacon Should You Use?

Because there different types of avalanche beacons vary in user difficulty, some are better suited for more beginner or novice users while others are more suited for experienced users.

Novice Users

A novice user would be someone who has used an avalanche beacon very few times in their life, has zero experience with multiple burials and is usually doing single runs in the backcountry or slackcountry accessed by a chairlift. 

Regular Users

Regular users are people who use their avalanche beacon a couple timers per year and have had some experience with multiple burials. This type of user travels in the backcountry regularly and is proficient with how a beacon works. Both Novice and regular users should be able to operate a digital or hybrid avalanche beacon.

backcountry access tracker 2 avalanche transceiver

Backcountry Access

Tracker 2 Avalanche Transceiver

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black diamond pieps dsp pro beacon

Black Diamond

Pieps DSP Pro Beacon

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Experienced Users

Experienced users are often mountain guides, ski patrol or rescue professionals and have had lots of experience with a variety of avalanche beacons. This user group can use analogue avalanche beacons no problem although many are switching to digital nowadays. 

 

How to Choose the Right Avalanche Shovel

While shopping for an avalanche shovel, there are a few main things to consider which include the size (both scoop volume and handle length), the weight and material it is made of as well as the use considerations. While the main role of the avalanche shovel is for digging when you need to uncover a buried person, when you think outside the box, this tool can do a lot more! You can use your shovel to build jumps in the backcountry, dig out your sled or even car if you become stuck, the shovel can be used to test snowpack and last but not least, to dig a shelter if needed.

Aluminum VS Plastic

Plastic is most often used for the top part of the handle on a shovel and the material varies for the scoop or blade of the shovel. The plastic used by different manufacturers may differ in toughness so you want to ensure if you are shopping for a plastic bladed shovel that it will be durable enough for your uses. Sometimes a plastic blade may not cut as easily through crusts and low temperatures can affect the shovel’s natural flexibility and cause it to break if you are not careful.

For those looking to use their shovel for more than just saving and may want to build the occasional jump, your best option would be to purchase an aluminum shovel as these are the most durable although slightly heavier. 

black diamond deploy 3 shovel

Black Diamond

Deploy 2 Shovel

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backcountry access b-1 ext avalanche shovel

Backcountry Access

B-1 Ext Avalanche Shovel

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backcountry access rescue shovel

Backcountry Access

Rescue Shovel

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If lightness is key and you generally travel light or ski into the backcountry from chairlifts, you can use a plastic shovel which is tough enough for 99% of conditions. These are more lightweight and can still get the job done although for serious backcountry explorers, you should stick to aluminum. 

Weight & Size

When it comes to the weight and size of an avalanche shovel, you want something that will fit into your backpack and will not be weighing you down. Most shovels really don’t weight that much so the weight will generally be a factor in other preferences such as the material it is made of and the size. As mentioned above, aluminum shovels are generally more durable than plastic ones although they weight slightly more. As for size, the larger the blade, the more snow you can move at once so a larger size may be more efficient. For handles, they are almost always telescopic and can be packed down small to fit into a backpack. At the end of the day, you want a shovel that is going to get the job done when it’s necessary and will comfortably fit in your backpack among your other gear.

How to Choose the Right Avalanche Probe

Choosing an avalanche probe is more simple than choosing a beacon and will have less of an impact on your wallet. The three main factors to keep in mind when choosing one is the length, the material it is made of and the assembly system. 

Avalanche Probe Length

When it comes to the length, there a few standard sizes to choose from (200cm, 240cm or 320cm)  although recently, there are other lengths that have entered the market and may become the favoured sizes in the long run. These new sizes are 220cm, 260cm and 280cm. 

The standardly sized probes are broken into 40cm long segments whereas the longer lengths will be slightly longer and can sometimes pose a problem when trying to fit into a backpack. When you’re shopping for a probe, it’s important to know which lengtt is long enough to fit into your bag so you don’t end up having some excess probe sticking out like an antenna. 

Avalanche Probe Material

Similar ot shovels, you wil notice that most probes are made of aluminum although carbon is becoming quite popular in the market. The biggest different between the two is weight with carbon be slightly lighter in compariosn to the aluminum models.

black diamond quickdraw probe

Black Diamond

Quickdraw Probe Tour 320

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black diamond quickdraw probe carbon 240

Black Diamond

Quickdraw Probe Carbon 240

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backcountry access stealth 300 carbon avalanche probe

Backcountry Access

Stealth 300 Carbon Avalanche Probe

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 For those who are using their avalanche probe daily, the aluminum option will be more durable and less likely to break when compared to a carbon model. They may bend slightly but the material is strong and should ot snap easily. Having said that, manufacturers are working to create carbon probes that are as durable.

Avalanche Probe Assembly System

When it comes to the assembly system, this is very much a preference of the user and is not often compared. All the assembly systems work quite well and if you are really unsure, it is best to ask a few friends who may have experience with multiple systems and see if they have a preference. 

Avalanche Airbag Backpacks, Do You Need One?

Avalanche airbags have recently become big in the backcountry market and have saved many lives of those who have been caught in avalanches. The way they work is similar to a ballon. When the airbag is deployed, it is filled with air and allows the wearer to remain on the surface of avalanche debris which keeps them from being buried. Before using one, it is incredibly important to learn how to use it correctly because the difference of seconds can be the difference between life and death when an avalanche occurs.

Most avalanche airbags will be deployed by a cord located on the shoulder strap of the backpack. The airbag is most often inflated with CO² or compressed-air cartridges and usually can only be deployed just once. The Arc’teryx Voltair on the other hand, can be deployed multiple times making practice easy and the investment worthwhile.

arcteryx voltair 30 airbag

Arc’teryx

Voltair 30 Airbag Backpack

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black diamond saga 40 jetforce backpack

Black Diamond

Saga 40 Jetforce Backpack

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backcountry access float 27 avalanche airbag backpack

Backcountry Access

Float 27 Speed Avalanche Airbag Float 2.0

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It is no secret that avalanche airbags come with a price but when it comes to your life, you can’t name a price. If you are frequently in the backcountry and exploring terrain in avalanche prone areas, it is well worth it to invest in an avalanche airbag. If you are someone who only does a few backcountry trips per season in lesss dangerous terrain, you may not necessarily need an avalanche airbag, but if you have the money or are ever in doubt, bite the bullet and make the purchase. Be aware because quite often the airbag itself or the batteries will be sold separately from the backpack so ensure you are reading the products details carefully.

There are multiple brands which carry avalanche airbag backpacks and The North Face also carries and avalanche airbag vest. 

Other Avalanche Tools

While a shovel, probe and beacon make up the bulk of an avalanche safety kit, there are additional tools you can purchase to add to your collection to be even more equipped. These tools are generally for more advanced backcountry travel and will be most common among guides, rescue teams or patrol.

  • Snow Saw: used to perform snow stability tests although is also handy for creating snow shelters.
  • Snow Crystal Card: used to classify snow crystals by their characteristics.
  • Slope Meter: used to determine the angle of a slope and whether an avalanche is probable or not.

Other additional safety features including choosing ski or snowboard jackets and pants that are equipped with RECCO® reflectors.

Once you have the correct avalanche equipment, all that is left to do is to sign up for an avalanche safety course and learn how to use it!

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