- Pre-Trip Planning
Recommended gear is that stuff which is endorsed by the International Commission for Alpine Rescue (IKAR) or is proven effective through empirical, independent research. We encourage you to consider adopting this gear if you haven’t already done so.
Avalanche airbags reduce the severity of the effects of being in an avalanche by reducing burial depth (or even preventing burial) and facilitating rapid localization. They also help with visibility and may provide some degree of trauma protection. There are three manufacturers making airbags for the North American Market: Backcountry Access, ABS and Snowpulse.
One thing that is clear when you look at Canadian statistics for avalanche fatalities is that an airbag is not a magic device. You need to know how to set it up, how to deploy it properly, and when it is not going to be an effective tool.
Strapping an airbag on your back mindlessly is worse than not having one at all. While thinking you are safe, your terrain choices may become bolder. However, tragic experience shows that you can still be buried and die. Failure to deploy the bag, failure to set up the equipment properly and failure to recognize the seriousness of terrain traps all occurred for airbag users in 2008-09. These shortcomings resulted in death.
Helmets reduce your vulnerability to trauma. Canadian fatal avalanche statistics suggest trauma accounts for somewhere around 25% to 33% of deaths. Helmets are standard gear at ski areas and out-of-bounds, not to mention amongst cat- and heli-skiers, and we’re starting to see more and more in the backcountry. In our view, it’s not a bad idea.
For mountain sledders your full-face helmet is a secret weapon, and, of course it is an essential part of your gear. Helmets that protect the face and mouth increase the chance that you will have an air pocket if buried in an avalanche. One challenge you may face is how to get your buddy’s helmet off in the heat of the moment when digging him up, without torquing on his neck.
RECCO is a two-part system used by organized rescue groups to pinpoint a person under the snow using directional radar. Rescuers use a detector to find reflectors which are built into apparel, helmets, boots, or safety gear. The search procedure is similar to a beacon search; however, the RECCO system is not intended for self-rescue. It is not an alternative to using a beacon; it is a back-up.
RECCO is inexpensive insurance – and like insurance you need to read the fine print of how you are and aren’t covered. However there is one use category where a pair of RECCO reflectors on your body should be considered essential gear. If you are skiing or riding out of bounds at a ski area or even chasing after the last bit of hangfire within in the controlled areas of a resort you need RECCO. Most ski areas in Western Canada are equipped with a RECCO detector and the trained personnel. Although it takes precious time to deploy searchers, RECCO makes finding you a real possibility whether you are lost on the backside, or buried under a pile of debris.
Stories from avalanche survivors and analysis of fatal avalanches suggest that once a person is no longer on their feet trying to escape, having skis or board attached to your feet hinders your ability to fight. Your skis or snowboard ends up acting like an anchor resulting in deeper burials which lessens your chance for survival. We recommend a releasable binding on your backcountry snowboard. And although telemarkers are immune to most of the laws of nature, in this case we think that tele skis should come off too. Releasable tele-bindings are available.