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You’ve probably seen the mysterious tracks disappearing into the trees at your local resort, grizzled folks with big backpacks heading out the gates, the turns painted on distant, inaccessible peaks. These days everyone seems to be ditching the crowds and heading for whatever lies beyond the ropes. Whether drawn by the promise of fresh tracks, the desire for solitude, or the simple satisfaction of earning your turns, it’s impossible to ignore the allure of the Backcountry.

Before making a beeline for the resort boundary it’s important to equip yourself with the gear, skills, and knowledge required to manage the inherent risks of exploring wild, untamed terrain. Here, we cover the basics of avalanche safety equipment so you can dive in with confidence and choose your own adventure in the mountains.

Avalanche Beacon

A beacon is an electronic device that emits a steady signal used to locate buried victims in the aftermath of an avalanche. They range from streamlined options, like the BCA Tracker S, to more feature-laden products aimed at experienced riders and professional guides, like the Mammut Barryvox S. The Tracker S offers a relatively stripped down experience, favoring simple, intuitive operation for speed and efficiency of use. The Mammut Barryvox S, meanwhile, comes with a myriad of advanced features designed to assist the user in extreme scenarios, like those involving multiple burials. While there are pros and cons to both types, the most important thing is to practice and become proficient with whatever beacon you choose. Advanced features look great on paper, but if they're confusing and difficult to use in high stress situations they can easily do more harm than good.

Probe

Once you have located a burial with your beacon, you’ll need a probe to pinpoint the exact position and depth. Probes typically range from 240cm to 320cm in length, and are made from carbon, aluminum or steel. In deciding what to get, you'll need to consider the weight, durability and ease of use. Shorter probes are naturally lighter and easier to pack, but may not help with deep burials. Similarly, carbon construction offers significant weight savings, but is more prone to breakage and can be challenging to use in refrozen avalanche debris. While they are heavier to carry, aluminum and steel probes penetrate tough, dense snow more quickly, potentially locating your victim sooner and increasing their chances of survival. Consider your own priorities in the backcountry and choose accordingly. Whatever you opt for should be easy and fast to deploy, and you should be familiar with how to use it. Practice makes perfect!

Shovel

You’ve located your burial and successfully probed, now comes the tiring part; shovelling. Avalanche debris is typically dense, chunky and very hard. In the aftermath of an avalanche, the debris can ‘set up’ and become as tough as concrete. Your shovel should therefore be as burly as you are willing to carry, and come with a large aluminum blade. You may come across shovels with a plastic blade; while these are lighter to carry, they have a tendency to deflect while digging, are prone to breakage in extreme cold, and are thus not recommended. Smaller blades are easier to handle but less efficient at quickly chopping and moving large amounts of snow, so try and get the largest blade that will comfortably fit in your backpack. There are a variety of handle styles to consider, the most common being T, L and D shaped grips. Some handles offer the ability to reconfigure the shovel as a hoe, which can be an efficient method of snow removal in certain circumstances. There is no right or wrong answer here, look for a grip that feels good in your hands and is comfortable during prolonged periods of use.

Backpack

With all this gear in tow you’re going to need somewhere to put it! At the most basic level, your backpack should comfortably fit all of your avalanche safety gear, preferably with space for an extra layer plus snacks and water. Your objectives in the backcountry will have a big impact on what size pack to go for. For quick-strike missions in the sidecountry to longer day trips, 10L - 35L will suffice, while overnight hut tours will push you into the 35L - 55L range. Most packs offer a separate compartment for safety gear, along with at least one carry system for your ski or snowboard. Whatever you get should fit comfortably when fully loaded and offer quick access to your avalanche gear in an emergency. Avalanche airbags have become relatively common, and offer some worthwhile safety advantages at the expense of weight and bulk. These bags are capable of deploying a large airbag at the pull of a handle, decreasing the chances of full burial and providing blunt trauma protection to the head and neck. There are a variety of factors to consider when purchasing an Avalanche airbag, check out our guide below to see if this is the right option for you.

Having the gear is only half of the equation. Knowing how to use it, how to analyze terrain and snowpack, and which resources to check prior to departure is the other half. For starters, we'd recommend taking an avalanche awareness class (offered for free throughout the winter at evo Seattle, evo Portland, and evo Denver locations). Follow that up with an AIARE Level 1 course, and regularly practice using your avalanche rescue tools with the people you'll be touring with. And finally, get out there and explore!

To help you "know before you go," we've rounded up a number of useful resources including upcoming clinics, evoTrips, and free avalanche awareness classes for riders of all levels.
 
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Looking for more educational resources? Check out evo's extensive list of Backcountry Guides below and bookmark these handy avalanche centers and resources -- both the evoCollective and evoCrew visit them on a regular basis:


General: Washington:  Oregon: Colorado: Canada: