What gear do I need to recreate safely during the winter?

The question, “what gear do I need?” can feel daunting. With endless options, what items should you put in your pack for a day in the mountains? It doesn’t have to be overwhelming. There are a few pieces of gear essential to a safe and enjoyable day in the snow.

Learn more about the gear you need to travel in the backcountry at our upcoming workshop: Laying Tracks | Trip Planning & Prep: Identifying Gear and Resources for Winter Travel.

Avalanche Safety Gear

Avalanches are avoidable with an understanding of how and where they form. However, if an avalanche does occur you need to have rescue gear and know how to use it. This module is designed to help you understand what the critical gear is when you’re heading into avalanche terrain, but in order to use it you must get training.

These following three items of rescue equipment are essential for anyone traveling in the snow-covered mountains. They allow you to locate a teammate buried under avalanche debris and dig them out. You should carry them regardless of how you travel on snow and even if you don’t plan on going into avalanche terrain. It’s acceptable to go without your avalanche gear at ski areas or on highways, where professionals take steps to reduce the risk of avalanches. We’ll run through what each of these pieces of equipment does and how they relate to an avalanche rescue.

  • Avalanche transceiver: An avalanche transceiver, or beacon, is a simple electronic device that backcountry travelers typically wear on their chest, underneath their jackets. All transceivers transmit and receive a specific radio signal. While modern avalanche beacons have many features, at their core they all have two basic functions: transmit a frequency and receive the same frequency. If a person gets buried in an avalanche, rescuers can turn their transceivers to “Search” mode to pick up their teammates signal and determine the burial location. If you’re looking to purchase a beacon, you should buy a new (not used) 3-antenna beacon. You’ll learn more about how to wear, use, and care for your beacon in your Level 1 or Avalanche Rescue courses.
  • Probe:  Once rescuers have narrowed the location of the buried victim to a small area with an avalanche transceiver, they’ll use an avalanche probe to pinpoint the victim’s exact location. A probe looks like a long tent pole that can be broken down and carried in a backpack. Once assembled, rescuers can use it to systematically “feel” under the surface for a buried victim by probing through the snow. The victim will be higher in the snowpack than other probe locations and the probe will often have a “soft” or “spongy” feel when striking a person.
  • Shovel: Finally, the avalanche shovel is for digging out the buried victim. Even though shoveling may seem simple, it’s the most time consuming and often challenging part of avalanche rescue. You’ll want to make sure you have a shovel specifically designed for digging in avalanche debris. These shovels are made of metal and collapse so they can be carried inside your backpack. Much research has gone into techniques for effective shoveling. This includes beginning to dig downhill from the probe strike, strategically positioning shovelers in relation to the probe, and frequently rotating shovelers to maximize speed and minimize fatigue. You can learn and practice all of this in Avalanche Rescue and Level 1 avalanche courses.

Each person in a group needs to carry all of the three pieces of avalanche rescue equipment. The probe and shovel need to be carried inside a backpack. It’s equally important that you and your backcountry travel partners know how to use your equipment to perform an avalanche rescue. Hands-on training and regular practice is important to learn and maintain rescue skills. Avalanche rescue is taught in most field courses, including Level 1 and 1-day Avalanche Rescue courses. While avalanche professionals work hard to keep highways and ski areas safe, there are times when carrying rescue gear at ski areas or on mountain roads could be a good idea.

Other Important Gear

In addition to the three essential pieces of avalanche rescue equipment, there are a number of other items that are important to carry in the backcountry. Some of these could help in an emergency or they could keep a simple mistake or broken piece of equipment from cascading into a dangerous situation. Some of these include:

  • Travel equipment- snow machine, skis, splitboard, snow shoes, etc
  • Avalanche airbag backpack
  • Helmet
  • Extra warm clothing
  • First aid kit
  • Repair kit
  • Emergency tarp
  • Emergency sled
  • Communication devices
  • Navigation tools
  • Food and water

Read more about other important gear.

The first step to being able to travel in the snowy mountains is having the right gear. Everyone needs to carry an avalanche transceiver, probe, and shovel. Next we’ll go over how you can get the training to use your rescue gear and how to make safe decisions in or around avalanche terrain.

More resources

Next Module: Get the Training >