Avalanche Air Bags – to buy or not to buy…that is the question.

Should I buy an Avalanche Air Bag?

An Avalanche Air Bag can save a life. There are other important backcountry tools as well. When budgets are limited where should I spend my money?

Sometimes our comments stimulate interesting debates. Here is one that I would like to share.

Unfortunately many sledders do not have unlimited funds to put toward the sport.
Let’s say that you are on a budget and have $1500 to spend. 
Your goal is to put together the best tool box for your budget that will be effective for the big picture of backcountry snowmobiling. What would you buy and what would you put off until next year?

Avalanche Transceiver – $350-600

Transceivers are definitely the fastest way to narrow down the search area. The best transceiver (avalanche beacon) is the one that you practice with. Learn the single and multiple search strategies recommended for your beacon. Sometimes simple is best.
Lots of functionality is great if you stay familiar with it. Read the manual, practice, take a hands-on beacon course, re-read the manual and practice some more. Yes, this is an investment in time, but remember…you are not simply finding a target. You are trying to save a life. The more familiar you are with your equipment, the more of your mental resources can be applied to the organization of an efficient rescue. This is what saves time and lives.

Avalanche Probe – $80-120

Avalanche Probes pin-point the exact location immediately following the beacon search. Without a probe your digging efforts may be misguided and you may move far more snow than necessary. This could be a huge waste of valuable time. I believe that you should choose a probe that is 300cm+ long. With the new shoveling methods taught in the AST Level 1, people have been recovered alive almost 3m deep. If your probe is short you will need to bend down to the snow surface and you still may not be confident that you have searched a livable depth. Consider the closure on the unit as well. Are there any parts that could freeze? Will the unit stand up over the long term and in rough conditions?

Avalanche Shovel – $50-85

I am sure you have heard of the success that sledders have had shoveling with clutch covers, skis and hands. Shoveling can be the most time consuming part of an avalanche rescue. A shovel built for avalanche debris is a must. Be sure that it is extendable with a large, durable scoop with flat shoulders. Curved sides help to control the direction of the snow as you throw.

Avalanche Training Courses – $340 and up

Learn the when, where, why and how of avalanches. Why would you run across the busy street with a blindfold on when you can take off the blindfold and cross the same street in a far safer manner? Recreational and professional level training courses are available that offer formal training, hands-on practical sessions, personal and professional field experiences, on the job training, and mentorship. The level of training is up to you. The sky is really the limit. Advancements in snow science, risk management, search technology and rescue techniques are happening in many countries around the world each year. There are always new tools to put in your toolbox.
Annual refreshers are highly recommended.

High Performance Outerwear – $500+

Buy the best clothing that you can afford. Waterproof, windproof and breathable. Many snowmobilers are cold because they get wet. Those that aren’t wet from the outside are often wet from the humidity on the inside because their clothing is too heavily insulated and will not release their perspiration. When we are active mountain sledding we often wear a hi-tech shell (E-vent, Gortex, …) with a pair of moisture wicking underwear. Usually our fleeces are stowed in our packs or on the sleds until we break for lunch. We get chilly if we stand around much, however, we stay warm and dry during our ride and we don’t smell like a stinky gym bag at the end of the day.

High performance clothing is key. If for whatever reason: broke down sled, injury, lost, whiteout, out of gas… you are forced to spend the night you will be much more comfortable if you start out the evening warm and dry. People can die of hypothermia spending a night out in the summer time. Think of a cold January night.

Underlayers – $150+

Moisture wicking under layer, clothing that dries quickly and preferably with low packing volume. Again, you get what you pay for. Invest in your under wear and socks AS WELL AS the spare clothing that you pack with you. How many times have you crossed an open creek and had someone get wet? Now what? Travel back with frozen clothes? Frostbite can set in pretty fast especially if you add in the wind chill factor. Properly equipped riders can put on dry clothes and use a fire and shelter warm up and dry off. Maybe it means putting on a fresh pair of dry, warm socks and a plastic bag to put back on the wet boots to ride out. It is comforting to know that you have packed to give yourself options.
I swear by SmartWool products. Summer or winter, these are my socks of choice. CLICK HERE for an example.

Survival Supplies – $350

Spare base layer (packable and quick drying), headlamps, spare batteries, light sticks, navigation equipment, whistle, multi-tool, solid shank knive, thermos, mini-stove, fuel source, tin pot, high energy food, dehydrated food, thermarest, reflective tarp, bivy sack, rope, sunglasses, sunscreen, toilet paper, mouth guard and specialty first aid supplies, prescription eyewear and medications… and the list goes on. Store everything in waterproof containers and bags. Consider the group that you currently ride with. Who would be mooching off who if you ended up overnighting? Would it be a comfortable evening of sleeping or playing cards and waiting for the sun to come up? Or would you be sitting in the dark and huddling together to stay warm? What if you get separated from the group? As an individual do you carry what it takes to survive?
Check out this post for a thorough list of gear you could take.

This poster is available during our classroom sessions. Not all of the items posted are recommended…you get what you pay for. Shop wisely.

Backpack – $100-350

So, now that I have all this stuff, where am I going to put it? The sleds hardly have the storage capacity to pack their tool kits any more! Consider mounting storage bags to your snowmobile.
One suggestion is to pack the absolute essentials on your back. Store the heavier items and the ‘comfort’ items on your sled: camera, lunch, heavy water bottles, tools… The ability to build a fire, heat snow/water, create a shelter, emergency food, first aid… should be on your back. My system is to load my water resistant pack for the winter. This means that I rarely ever open the pack throughout the season. This way I know that everything is in place that I didn’t forget to repack items that were splayed all over the hotel room to dry out. All the items that I plan to use throughout the day are stowed on my snowmobile.
To give you an idea, I had a completely jammed 15 litre ABS pack and I found that too small and upgraded to comfortably packed ABS bag built by Ortovox 32+7 litre. I am 5’2” and weigh 130 lbs. If I can carry this much gear and climb hills…I am pretty sure that most of you can too.  😉

Communication Devices – $200+

Handheld two-way: cheap, many people have one limitation – short range, battery life in the cold (especially if linked to a GPS unit

Programmable 2-ways – great range, hooked into rescue resources, Limitation – need permission to use frequencies, must know key contacts in each area, cost is significantly more

Satellite Phone – can be a great 2 way communication link to outside help, can receive calls Limitation – cost, battery life in the cold, bulky and relatively heavy, satellite coverage can be inconsistent. Check out the coverage schedule before you buy or rent.
CLICK HERE for more details related to Communication Devices.

The Spot Messenger System at www.findmespot.com
is a lower cost system to keep in touch and send out basic emergency messages.

Limitation – this is a one way system. It only sends the message of HELP or 911. While those responding to your distress call may know WHERE you are, they only receive your pre-programmed message. They really don’t know WHAT your problem is. What resources should they send in? Are you lost? Is someone injured? Was this an accidental call? Has there been an avalanche?

InReach – two way texting capability through the Iridium Satellite system. Can be tethered to a smart phone. There is a deal on the InReach product for ASA members.

Different problems require different professionals.

Avalanche Floatation Devices

To understand how these devices work, please take some time to view the distributor’s websites.

Based on the understanding and experiences that I have had…these are my opinions. I encourage you to research and develop your own opinion.

Floatation devices are effective WHEN:

  • if the victim has the ability to react and trigger the unit
  • the victim is caught and carried in the flowing motion long enough for the motion to percolate them to the surface of the snow.

Floatation devices are not effective when:

  • the person doesn’t have the time or where with all to activate the trigger
  • many people naturally activate the trigger with their right hand. If they are trying to ride their snowmobile out of the path, what is their right hand busy doing? ..on the throttle. Have they practiced deploying the bag with their left hand?
  • if the person hits a tree (there are many more trees in the North American recreational areas than in Europe. The majority of the data for the floatation device statistics was gathered from European avalanche incidents.)
  • if the debris is unusually dense (hard wind slab) and the motion of the big blocks of snow causes trauma
  • if the person is carried over a rock face
  • if the person is caught by the avalanche near the end of its run
  • if a full air canister is not installed (accidentally deployed bags need new canisters installed. Do you carry a spare? How easy to get the empty refilled?)

The flotation packs on the market today are excellent products. In an ideal world I would like to see all backcountry users with this personal safety device.
If you are considering a pack, spend the time to try on the bags and check for comfort, ventilation on your back, storage capacity and convenience of the compartments.
Remember all the items that are listed in the gear listing above. What is vital that you carry on your back and what items are ‘luxury’ and can be stored on your sled?
Due to the configuration of the packs I have found that for my physical size and storage needs the ABS 30 litre pack was good, however to have convenient access to the same gear in the SnowPulse style pack I prefer a 45 litre pack.

This is a pack that you are investing in and will use for many years. Choose one that will serve you well.

Follow this link for a news article about the ABS pack.

The order that these items are listed in this article are basically the order that I believe that you should purchase them if you are locked into a budget.

100% of the days that you are riding you could be faced with:

  • mechanical troubles
  • injuries
  • overnighting
  • wild mountain weather changes

You need to ALWAYS be prepared for these situations.

Only on certain days are there avalanche hazards. With avalanche training you can:

  • learn to recognize the timing
  • avoid high consequence terrain
  • avoid obvious weak spots
  • manage your group effectively to reduce the overall hazard

I believe that you should prepare yourself for the most likely events first. Some of these events are uncontrollable by you. You choose to be in avalanche terrain. You can control the timing of that.

Oh, by the way, stock sleds are running so well that all those modifications that you are keen to do….can wait until your budget has carried you through to the end of this list first!