In Get The Gear, we review the three essential pieces of avalanche equipment: transceiver, probe, and shovel. While everyone must carry these three items, there’s other gear that’s also very helpful to have with you in the backcountry. Some items like helmets are for individual use while other items could be for the whole group.
Avalanche Airbag Backpack
Avalanche airbags are a piece of safety equipment that could increase your chances of surviving being buried in an avalanche. While not mandatory, they’re quickly becoming very commonly carried. The airbag system is stowed into a specialized backpack, and can be deployed, like a balloon, when a person is caught in an avalanche. By creating more volume, the airbag allows the wearer to stay on the surface of an avalanche, and it reduces the chance of being buried. Research shows that airbag packs could potentially increase chances of surviving getting caught in an avalanche by as much as 50%. Your best chance to stay safe is to avoid triggering or getting caught in slides. Airbags generally don’t prevent trauma, which is the second leading cause of death in avalanches. They are also expensive and heavier than most backpacks. Many people believe any downsides are worth the added protection. It’s common practice for avalanche professionals to carry airbag packs while working in avalanche terrain.
Helmets can prevent or minimize head injury, whether from an avalanche, rockfall, or hitting a tree while sliding on snow. Helmets should be rated for the specific activity (snowmobiling, skiing, climbing, etc) you plan on using it for. Consider a helmet that allows you to layer a hat or gaiter under it for warmth. For activities like skiing or climbing, having an effective helmet carry system on your backpack will make it easier to manage a helmet when you’re not wearing it. Some helmets have specific technology, such as MIPS, to further reduce the chances of head injuries. Finally, be aware of how helmets can limit your hearing or ability to communicate effectively, especially in the case of full-face or motorized helmets.
Extra Warm Clothing and Food
There are many scenarios where having extra items of warm clothes would be important in the backcountry. During a standard winter day in the mountains, it’s common to need to take layers off to keep from getting too hot or to add layers to stay warm. On a more severe level, hypothermia and frostbite are potential hazards that can be dangerous in remote settings. It’s easy to get cold when not moving for even a short amount of time. This could be dangerous if a person can’t move on their own due to an injury. Even a relatively uninjured avalanche survivor could still be hypothermic or need to take off wet clothing to stay warm. You could be forced into an unplanned overnight stay in the mountains due to injury, poor visibility, navigation error, or equipment failure. For all these reasons, it’s important to carry extra warm clothing. A compressible jacket with down or synthetic insulation is a good idea. If you’ll be digging in the snow or doing high exertion activities, having an extra pair of gloves is helpful. Similarly, it’s always good to have some extra food in case you’re in the mountains longer than you expect.
First Aid Kit
A first aid kit is always a good idea when traveling in remote places. Equally as important is first aid training. Often one first aid kit per group is enough. Consider bringing items for trauma and CPR (gloves and masks) as well as more common issues like blisters or minor aches and pains. There are many items that we carry that can be put to use in an emergency. Poles work as splints for injured limbs. Clothing can be used as compression bandages to stop bleeding. Basic self-care can prevent emergencies. Bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and other sun protection.
It’s not uncommon for equipment to break and limit our ability to travel. Broken bindings, snowmobiles, or crampons could add many hours, if not an overnight stay to a trip. With one simple repair kit, per group, there’s a lot you can fix. Common items are multitools, pliers, wirecutters, screw drivers, metal wire, ski straps, duct tape, and hose clamps. For motorized travel, you’ll want a more extensive kit including wrenches, spark plugs, belts, and a tow rope. A headlamp is important for unexpected long days. Extra batteries can keep you from heading home when you realize your beacon is dead at the trailhead. A small battery backup is great for charging phones or communication devices.
GPS phone apps are great for finding your way in the mountains. Pay attention to your battery life and bring a backup if you need it. Many people choose to carry a map and compass as they don’t rely on batteries. Planning your route before going into the mountains is a good way to prevent getting lost.
Many parts of the mountains lack cell phone service. A satellite communication device, like an inReach or Spot, can allow you to send and receive text or email messages via SMS. These can be used in an emergency to call for outside help or even to let friends know that everything is ok when you’re late returning to the trailhead. Two-way radios can be helpful to communicate within a group, between groups, or even with outside resources. Basic FRS radios can be purchased in electronic stores. VHF radios have a wider range of use, but typically require a license, training, or knowledge.
Emergency Shelter and Sled
A simple lightweight tarp can be used as an emergency shelter in the event of an unplanned night out. More elaborate designs can double as an emergency sled to transport an injured backcountry traveler who can’t move on their own. These systems take trial and error and practice in non-emergency situations to do well.
Being prepared with the right tools can keep a simple mistake from turning into an emergency. With limited space it’s important to balance having what you need with keeping your pack minimal and light. Hopefully you won’t need emergency gear often. The time you need it will make all the days of carrying it worthwhile.