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Backcountry Snowboarding Essentials

Published in Whitelines Magazine Issue 92, November 2010

Off-piste riding takes place in a potentially dangerous high mountain environment. Whilst with experience and good judgement we can learn to balance the odds in our favour, at the end of the day we must also be prepared – and equipped – for situations that may be out of our control. Avalanches pose by far the biggest risk when riding in the backcountry, and it is a simple fact that 90% of victims trigger the avalanche themselves! In the event of a burial, the first 15 minutes are crucial. If found within the first 15 minutes, the victim’s chances of survival are rated at around 90%; after this period the percentages fall dramatically (and for multiple burials, that’s 15 minutes for all, not 15 each).With official search and rescue team call out times at well over 30 minutes, it is obvious that your best chance of survival will come from your well equipped, and well trained, companions.

Backcountry Gear


1. Always carry a transceiver, shovel and probe! These three items are essential when it comes to avalanche search and rescue.‑

2. Know how to use the three essential items of kit. Your equipment is only as good as you are at using it.

3. Make sure everyone else in the group knows how to use their equipment – you may need them!


1. Avalanche Transceiver

As the name suggests, this is a transmitter and receiver that is used for avalanche search and rescue. All transceivers work on the same frequency. When worn and operated effectively, the transceiver is the avalanche victim’s best (and often only) chance of survival. There are many models on the market, and new advances in technology have made them easier and more effective to use, but a transceiver is only ever as good as its operator.

a) Analogue Transceivers – The older or less expensive analogue models are non-directional and work on a simple ‘getting nearer’ (the signal gets stronger) or ‘getting further’(signal gets weaker) approach. Analogue models are very reliable and simple to use, but a very specific search pattern is needed – especially when it comes to multiple searches – so a lot of practice is necessary in order to be efficient with one.

b) Digital Transceivers – The new breed of avy devices have distance and directional search functions, which definitely speeds up the single search process. For multiple searches, the advanced models can now indicate how many victims are buried, how far apart they are and even where they are all located. Even with these highly advanced transceivers, it is necessary to be thoroughly familiar with all the functions in case things start to get confusing in a time of crisis.

2. Shovel

Avalanche shovels are light and collapsible for easy storage. Metal bladed shovels work the best. Keep the blade and handle inside your pack even if you have special design features for them on the outside, as they can get ripped off in a tumble. You dig towards the victim’s position from the slope below.

3. Probe

A probe is a lightweight, extendable pole that is used to pinpoint the exact position of the buried victim once the transceiver has narrowed down the search to an area of snow. The probe is plunged into the snow in a grid-like pattern. Once you have found the victim, leave the probe in place as a marker. The shovel and probe are often overlooked as of secondary importance. However, statistics show that for a metre-deep burial of a single victim, all three items are essential if you are to uncover them within the magic 15 minutes:

A. Only a transceiver – 60+ mins

B. Transceiver and probe – 50 mins

C. Transceiver and shovel – 26 mins

D. Transceiver, shovel and probe – 16 mins

Having the kit is only half the battle; knowing how to use it effectively is the key. Many resorts now have dedicated transceiver training parks with permanently buried devices for single and multiple search training. Practice thoroughly, practice often, and be responsible for your actions.

Neil McNab

Neil McNab is one of Britain’s most experienced freeriders. As a UIAGM High Mountain Guide, and an ISIA International Ski and Snowboard Teacher, he is also one of the only snowboarders in the world fully qualified to teach and guide in the backcountry. Neil lives in Chamonix, France, where he runs McNab Snowboarding – an independent company specialising in ‘The Fine Art of Riding Mountains’ since 1995.


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