avalanche safety kit

Fresh powder and untracked runs are a big part of the appeal of snow sports. To find these ideals, enthusiasts are increasingly exploring the uncontrolled backcountry.

To help manage the backcountry’s inherent risks, you need the right gear, thorough training, an understanding of weather and mountain environments, and experienced partners.

This article summarizes the key pieces of avalanche safety gear. This gear will not prevent you from becoming involved in an avalanche. However, it does provide the highest chance for survival should an accident occur. Be aware that this gear is only as good as your knowledge and skill in using it.

For more information on recognizing avalanche conditions, see the 4-part series of REI Expert Advice articles starting with Avalanches, Part 1: The Basics.

Many REI stores also offer avalanche safety classes. Check the event page of your local store for class information.

Essential Safety Gear

Avalanche transceiver

To improve your safety in avalanche territory, these 3 items—and the knowledge and skill to use them effectively—are absolutely essential. Each item must be carried by everyone in the group.

Avalanche transceiver: The victim's buried beacon sends electronic signals that are picked up by searching beacons, leading them to the victim to be dug out.

Caution: Transceiver usage is NOT intuitive. Effective use requires considerable practice before you ever travel in the snowy backcountry.

For shopping help, see the REI Expert Advice article, Avalanche Transceivers: How to Choose.

Snow shovel: This is essential for testing snow conditions and quickly digging out victims. A snow shovel is also a critical tool for making snow shelters. Most have detachable or telescoping handles for easy packing. Aluminum blades are light yet strong.

Probe: This collapsible aluminum pole—similar to a tent pole—can be used to probe for buried avalance victims by itself or during the pinpoint search with an avalanche transceiver. They are usually made of aluminum or carbon fiber for low weight and above-average strength.

Frequent practice with these items, especially the avalanche transceiver, is critical to using them effectively to find a buried companion. When minutes count and stress levels are high, you do not want to be wasting time trying to remember how to use them.

Note: REI offers avalanche-safety kits containing a transceiver, shovel and probe, or you can purchase each item a la carte.

Shop REI's selection of avalanche safety gear.

Avalanche Airbags

Avalanche airbag

Until recently, getting caught in avalanche debris meant almost certain burial. An avalanche airbag is an innovative device designed to help victims keep themselves afloat near the surface of the slide. These airbags—used for years in Europe—are now gaining popularity in the U.S.

An airbag pack contains CO2 or compressed-air cartridges that inflate a large airbag (some models use 2 airbags). Typically deployed by the user via a manual ripcord, the airbag’s large volume helps you rise to the top of an avalanche debris field, minimizing rescue time. It remains inflated for several minutes for maximum visibility. The modular components—pack, airbag, trigger mechanism—are sold as a unit by REI; some manufacturers let you purchase pieces separately.

Airbags may be shaped like an upside-down “U” to help protect your head and neck; others release a large pillow from the top of the bag. Dual-airbag packs are called “angel wings” for their long bags on each side of the pack.

Airbags can usually be reused (follow manufacturers’ instructions carefully) and compressed-air cartridges refilled at paintball shops or, with an adaptor, at dive shops and fire stations. Gas-cartridge models must be refilled by the manufacturer or at one of their designated locations.

Above: Several types of airbag design. Darkest areas are ripcord handles.

Additional Safety Gear

Avalung breathing tube

Avalung Pack: The breathing apparatus (the tube of which is shown at right) in this series of packs designed by Black Diamond can allow an avalanche victim to pull available oxygen from the surrounding snowpack and continue to breathe much longer than someone without this device. It helps prevent the "ice mask" that can quickly form around the face when attempting to breathe under snow.

RECCO detectors: These passive transponders are embedded by some manufacturers into ski products such as jackets, pants, boots or helmets. They complement but do NOT replace the use of avalanche transceivers. They reflect and enhance radio signals sent by RECCO detector units, which are used by many ski patrols and search-and-rescue organizations.

Snow saw: This is used for snow stability tests and comes in handy for making snow shelters.

Snow crystal card: This plastic-coated card shows the various forms of snow crystals and their characteristics, including how well (or poorly) they bond together.

Slope meter: This small device is used to determine the angle of a slope for avalanche probability; it can be attached to a ski pole.

Shop REI's selection of avalanche safety gear.