Get the Gear: essentials
Before you head out into the backcountry it is important that every member of your group is carrying an avalanche Transceiver, a collapsible Probe, a metal Shovel, and ever increasingly an avalanche airbag backpack.. This will help you to locate and recover your buried friends if there is an avalanche accident.
Someone buried in an avalanche may only have a few minutes to survive, and it will be up to the rest of the party to search for them using a Transceiver, pinpoint their exact location using a Probe, dig them out with a Shovel, then begin to treat their injuries.
Avalanche Airbags work by keeping you close to the surface of avalanche debris and minimising how deeply you might be buried.
NO GUARANTEES !
The bottom line is that avalanche rescue gear will only save about half of those that get caught, and the best approach is not to get caught in first place. Traveling in avalanche terrain is full of uncertainty and increasing the odds is worth investing in.
KNOW YOUR MATES
This gear wont be much use unless it is stored securely in a backpack, and it doesn't work by itself, so make sure whoever you are heading into the hills with has the same gear AND knows how to use it.
These are small electronic devices worn close to the body. While traveling in the backcountry everyone’s transceiver is set to transmit and sends out a radio signal. If an avalanche occurs, everyone still on the surface can switch their transceiver to search/receive mode and follow the signal toward the buried person(s).
Several companies manufacture avalanche beacons and they are all standardised to operate on the same frequency and be compatible. The technologies they use vary from being completely analog (older models only) to completely digital, with some operating in a digital/analog mix.
Three antennae digital transceiver with a visual display and audio display set the standard for ease of use, speed and accuracy. Features and functions may also include a marking function for locating multiple burials.
Single antenna (analog) transceivers are considered obsolete and should be traded in for a three antennae digital models. These have been proven to be optimal and work around difficulties such as signal overlap.
Whichever avalanche transceiver you choose, practice before, during and after the season. It is usual for Mountain Guides and Ski Patrollers to practice once a week. Always wear your beacon under your jacket, never in your pack. Make it a ritual! When you put it on, turn it on. When you take it off, turn it off.
Transceivers will 'home-in' and put you over a buried avalanche victim, but digging in dense avalanche debris is often very time consuming. Use a probe to get an exact location before digging. Inserting a probe following a systematic pattern in the snow lets you physically pinpoint someone under the snow so that time isn’t wasted digging in the wrong area. Probes are collapsible like tent poles and can vary in length, stiffness and materials, which translate into difference in weight, durability and cost. They are generally made of aluminum or carbon, and have a screw or quick clamp fitting to lock the sections in place.
Your shovel may be your most universal tool in your backpack. Everyone needs one, not only to dig out a buried victim, but to dig snowpits when trying to spot weak layers in the snowpack. Modern shovels are constructed out of strong lightweight aluminum, and have a shaft/handle that can be removed to fit into your pack. Plastic shovels, and those with blades smaller than 20 x 20 cm are not recommended for digging in hard avalanche debris. Practice effective shoveling techniques, as this part of a rescue is the most time and energy consuming.
Avalanche (Balloon) Airbags
Airbags have been available in Europe and North America since the 1990’s and numerous stories and U-Tube clips are a testament to their effectiveness. They work by the principle of inverse segregation, a bigger object will rise to the top. So by making you bigger they increase your chances of winding up on top of the avalanche debris.
Avalanche airbags come in a wide range of brands and models but generally they are a deflated bag stuffed into the top of a bag pack which can be rapidly inflated by pulling a trigger mechanism, as you sense an avalanche release. Most models use a single use refillable canister of compressed air or nitrogen to fill the airbag but a new advancement in battery-powered devices are on the way.
Although airbags are very common in the northern hemisphere they have been slow to catch on here in New Zealand. This is partially due to the price and availability of the products and it is a bit of a ‘chicken or the egg’ situation. Until there is a demand, the product importers are hesitant to invest in bringing them in and shops are wary of over stocking them. Once people start to buy and use them, the prices will drop and more of a range will be available.
Four main brands available in New Zealand; ABS, Backcountry Access, Black Diamond and Mammut however more options will be increasingly available and I would recommend the follow websites for further information:
PURCHASE avalanche safety gear.
As the growth of backcountry travel increases more retailers are stocking essential avalanche safety gear. Most major cities, as well as ski/snowboard/sports shops in resort towns are now carrying stock.
RENT avalanche safety gear.
We understand this gear can be a large investment for those just starting to venture out into the backcountry, but it is as essential as your ski/splitboard setup or your climbing kit. If you cant afford all the gear right away, Avalanche NZ has a limited number of Transceivers, shovels and probes available which you can rent per item and per day. Here is a list of outlets where you can rent our quality & current avalanche safety gear.
(click for directions and contact numbers - opens in Google Maps)
Avalanche transceiver (Ortovox 3+ model) = $15/day
Collapsible Probe (mostly Black Diamond models) = $10/day
Metal shovel ( Voile & Black Diamond models) = $10/day
There are plenty of other items we recommend you take with you into the backcountry. Some of these will be carried by each person and some may be shared within the group. Items will likely vary depending on the length and nature of your trip. Click here to download a comprehensive GEAR LIST.
Below is a comprehensive video by Eli Helmuth to help explain what you might take and why: