How to buy avalanche gear: What skiers need to stay safe in the backcountry

March 29th, 2013 by

Skiers everywhere are taking advantage of increased access to venture further into challenging, uncontrolled avalanche terrain. With this opportunity for steep, fresh snow comes the need for advanced and reliable avalanche gear. If you’re a first-time shopper in this category, it can be a bit confusing, but we’re here to help. In this latest edition of “How to Buy,” we break down some of the basics and give you an idea of what to look for.

The three most essential pieces of avalanche gear are a transceiver (also known as a beacon), shovel and probe. If you travel into the backcountry without these, you are not only putting yourself in danger but also the people around you. Beacons have the most extensive features, so we’ll start there.

Beacons

A beacon is a radio unit that transmits and receives a standardized signal to communicate range and direction to or from other beacons within range. While different brands compete based on features, they all adhere to the international standard of transmitting at a frequency of 457 kilohertz. This ensures that no matter what type of beacon you have, it will be compatible with all others in search and rescue modes.

The signals emitted by beacons travel along curved paths called flux lines. “Transmitting beacons create an electromagnetic field similar to the one that we follow with a compass to navigate around the earth,” says Bruce Edgerly of Backcountry Access (BCA). “There are two poles and an apple-shaped field that leads from one pole to the other. With a digital beacon, the lights will lead you along the flux lines to the transmitting beacon’s antenna, which corresponds to the core of the apple.”

Antennas

Beacons started out using analog technology, meaning they would work on a single antenna with no digital display. They would amplify the “beep” of a transmitting beacon and require the operator to judge the volume of the tone to determine where the signal was coming from.

Lucky for us, digital beacons now use multiple receiving antennas and process the incoming data with microprocessors to display those computations as directional arrows and numeric distance readings. When you search for a buried friend, or when your friend looks for you, the more antennas the better. This is particularly true as you get closer to the victim. The complicated flux-line patterns can sometimes produce false readings known as “spikes” or “nulls” within a range of about three meters. A third antenna is very useful in analyzing these patterns to eliminate faulty readings.

One common misunderstanding is how many antennas a beacon transmits or sends a signal on. No matter how many the beacon has, it will always transmit on one antenna. The orientation of this antenna has a large effect on the range of transmission. “Signal strength along the flux line is strongest when the receiving antenna is parallel to the sending antenna,” says Todd Walton, spokesperson for Ortovox. “Given these variables, it is best to assume that the range of your beacon is significantly less than the maximum range stated by the manufacturer.” These ranges are based on ideal conditions and being buried in an avalanche will hardly leave you in an ideal state.

While most beacons transmit on a predetermined antenna, Ortovox has recently introduced beacons with Smart Antenna Technology, which can transmit on whichever antenna is most beneficial to the scenario. Similar to the technology in an iPhone that determines which way the display reads, the transceiver assesses the orientation in which it’s buried and transmits through the antenna that will provide the longest range. This is a tremendous advantage when time is so critical.

Functions

Before setting out to buy yourself a beacon, consider what functions you’ll need. If you don’t have much previous experience, ease of use is the most important factor. Some of the higher end models come with a lot of built-in features that are great for guides, patrollers and other experienced users but can be confusing for the less experienced. “You want your beacon to do two things: transmit and receive,” says Edgerly, “and you want it to do those things very well. The more you ask it to do, the more compromises you’ll get when it matters most. Simplicity, speed and ease of use are king.” This is what has made the Tracker DTS and Tracker2 from BCA such high-selling models—they’re very simple and intuitive.

Most beacons will give you a distance reading and directional arrows that all work and display in a similar manner. Play with a few to see if you prefer one over another and look for beacons that automatically revert to transmit mode after a period of inactivity. This safety feature takes into account the fact that a second slide could happen while a search is being conducted.

If you’re comfortable with the basic use of a transceiver, a “flagging” function for multiple burials is another feature to consider. In the rare instance that you will have to use your beacon, it’s even more unlikely that a multiple burial will occur, but it does happen. This function can be tricky, so frequent practice of multiple burial scenarios is a must for success under the immense stress of a real incident. If you do find that you need more features, check out the Ortovox S1+ or the Pulse Barryvox from Mammut.

Shovels and Probes

Shovels and probes are basic instruments for the most part, but there are still variations to consider. “Mainly ease of deployment and strength,” says Walton. When an avalanche comes to a halt, the snow sets up like cement and you need tools that will stand up to that. Traveling with light and compact gear is nice, but there’s no excuse for skiing around with a plastic soup spoon for a shovel. Look for shovel blade and handle combos that deploy efficiently and always opt for a metal blade that can move solid chunks of snow and ice. “Also consider an oval or asymmetric shaft, as these are stronger on the prying axis,” adds Edgerly, “which is where most shovels fail.”

When looking for a probe, make sure it deploys quickly and locks securely once put together. Look for graduated measurements printed on the shaft and consider what size is right for you. Most recreational skiers will use a probe that’s between 240 and 270 centimeters, but it doesn’t hurt to go longer. An extra segment or two won’t add much weight and can be important if you live somewhere with a snowpack that tends to be deeper—such as coastal regions. No matter where you’re skiing, you’re hoping the snow is deep, so you might as well plan accordingly.

Education and Practice

Of course it would be irresponsible to talk about avalanche gear without mentioning education. You can have all the best gear in the world, but it will do you no good if you don’t know what you’re doing. Practice using your beacon with your ski partners. Make a game out of it in your backyard or use one of the many beacon parks set up at resorts around the country. Also practice deploying your probe and digging with your shovel. Down time while you wait for that one friend who’s always late is perfect.

Additionally, take an Avalanche I course. Gain the necessary knowledge and pay attention to the snowpack and avalanche bulletins starting with the first snowfall of the year. This awareness, combined with good decision making and the right gear should result in many more safe laps of virgin powder.

*This article originally appeared in the 2013 February issue of FREESKIER. Subscribe to the magazine, or get it on the iTunes Newsstand.

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About the author:
Damian Quigley is an Irish-born immigrant who traveled to the US with hopes of one day becoming an editor for Freeskier. Having accomplished his dream, he spends his days testing gear and sipping champagne.