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- It might be spring where you are but for some, it’s still a winter wonderland with fresh snow, which also means potential increased risk of avalanches.
- To enjoy winter sports like backcountry skiing, hiking, and mountaineering, everyone should be aware of the risk of avalanches and have the right gear.
- Taking training courses to familiarize yourself with potential dangers, situations, and gear are key to being able to safely enjoy the snow.
The weather across the US is so different, but sometimes, it’s hard to imagine that it could be freezing or snowing somewhere while you’re looking for cherry blossoms somewhere else. Case in point – while some people were enjoying the first weeks of spring in April, skiers at the Red Bull Raid in Squaw, Valley California enjoyed fresh backcountry powder and incredible skiing conditions.
If you love to ski yourself or know someone who does, you’ll know that this year has seen incredible amounts of powder on the mountains in western America. This might be great for powder hounds and ski towns, but it’s not good news for people who like to access the backcountry without boards and skis attached to their boots.
The increased snowpack might also mean a higher risk of avalanches and other snow-related complications for hikers, mountaineers, and anyone who normally spends their summers in the high country. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go outside at all, but it does mean that there are things that you should know before you head out.
That’s why I spoke to Doug Workman, a Mammut Snow and Avalanche Technical Representative, about how to best avoid avalanche risks and what safety gear to take with you. His first piece of advice was to read the terrain: “If you have a question about the stability, terrain is the answer.”
Secondly, you’ll need to look at the weather. “Hazard is oftentimes generated by change in the weather more than simply from any additional snow,” he says. “Meaning, if it snows every day all winter, you may actually enjoy a relatively stable snowpack. However, a snowstorm after a drought is likely dangerous.”
Of course, the terrain and weather are by no means easy to read. That’s why the most important thing you can do is take an actual course on the topic. The American Avalanche Institute offers a series of thorough online courses for a small fee and the Utah Avalanche Center offers a free course.
Once you’ve taken your course, you’ll need to get the right gear. Workman told us that “[even] in the spring and summer in [places like] Grand Teton National Park, slips on snow are the cause of a large percentage of accidents. Be sure to use proper boots that can kick steps in snow, and if in doubt, carry crampons and an ice axe.” He specifies that “backcountry skiers should always carry a beacon, shovel, and probe.”
Unfortunately, no one can guarantee your safety and you should always do research on the area you’re hiking or skiing in, but at least you’ll be in a better position with safety gear and some educational classes.
Below, you’ll find our picks for avalanche and snow safety gear:
A durable backpack
The Evoc Line R.A.S. 20L isn’t just a great backpack for carrying your snacks and spare clothes, it’s also designed with snow safety in mind.
An easily-accessible compartment can hold your avalanche probe and transceiver, and even has instructions for avalanche safety and rescue printed on the inside. There’s also a specially-designed pocket for Mammut’s removable airbag (sold separately, currently $779.95 at Mammut), which acts to create space and prevent injury in the event of an avalanche; one pull of the handle will deploy the airbag in three seconds if the worst should happen.
The backpack offers a body-hugging fit, is lightweight, and has straps that can secure helmets, ice axes, and ski skins. The pack also opens from the back and not the top, meaning that your gear stays organized as you search around for a pair of gloves or granola bar.
The clips and zips are all easy to use with thick gloves, and even when loaded down with climbing gear, the bag evenly distributed weight and didn’t cut into our shoulders. This would be a great choice for backcountry skiing or day hikes in the snow.
A good pair of boots
The Sportiva Trango Cube GTX is the boot Goldilocks would go to the mountains with.
It’s not too flimsy to kick steps or use with crampons, but it isn’t too stiff to hike in either. It isn’t too hot and clammy to wear in warmer weather, or too light for below-freezing days. The heel welt allows you to use hybrid crampons, but this boot is far lighter than many mountaineering-specific boots. It has a seamless construction, waterproof fabric, and Gore-Tex coating so that your feet will stay dry in wet snow too.
I found the sole itself to be grippy on rock and ice, and flexible enough for days of mixed condition hiking. In short, if you want to travel by foot in the winter, this is a great boot.
A pair of crampons that fits your boot type
When looking for crampons, you should start with your boot type. There are three basic types of crampon – step-in, hybrid, and strap – with each one fitting a specific type of boot.
Step-in crampons require a booth with a toe bail and heel tab that allows them to lock onto a specially-designed boot. Hybrid crampons use a toe loop made out of plastic and a locking heel tab. Strap crampons don’t require special boot attachments and instead, use straps to attach to any boot as the name suggests.
You’ll also run up against 10- and 12-point models – 10-point models are fine for general snow travel and 12-point designs are really only required for technical ice climbing and mountaineering. Likewise, with vertical front points, you won’t really need unless you plan on getting into some technical ice climbing.
We love the Black Diamond Contact crampons because they come in step-in, strap, and hybrid models. The anti-balling plates do a good job of keeping snow from sticking to the spikes and the adjustable straps works with a huge range of boots and shoes. The horizontal front points will help you stay upright in steep snow, but note that this isn’t an ice climbing crampon.
The steel points should last a long time compared to more lightweight and aggressive aluminum models. These are relatively flexible too, making them suitable for use with a normal boot or shoe. Stiffer crampons will work better with mountaineering specific boots, but these make a great all-around starter crampon for footwear you’re already hiking in.
An ice axe
Petzl Glacier is a great ice axe for low angle (read, not vertical) mountaineering and travel on, you guessed it, glaciers. The pointy base, light weight, and high-quality steel pick make this a great option for self-arresting and support when traveling in the snow.
Shorter shafts are better for ice climbing and shorter people whereas longer shafts are better suited for taller people and those who will mostly be traveling on their feet. The back side of the pick, called the adze, is used for cutting steps into steep snow, which is useful when ascending snow-covered passes.
Again, it’s important to practice self-arresting before you set out on a trip, so we’d recommend taking a course to master the use of ice axes, crampons, and other tools that make mountaineering safer. REI has some courses you can take.
Rescue and safety gear
Mammut made its name in high mountain adventuring and it offers several bundles for snow safety. But as with all technical gear, none of these things will help if you don’t know how to use them so definitely take educational courses, practice regularly with your gear, and always stay abreast of conditions.
The Alugator Light Shovel weights just a pound, has a huge blade, and telescopes down to just 14.5 inches. Despite the milled aluminum head, this shovel moves wet snow as well as any that we’ve tested and fits in the smallest pack.
The brand’s fast-lock probes also assemble quickly, weigh less than a pound, and come in a sheath with rescue instructions. When fully extended, the 320 model is 320 cm or more than 10 feet, so it’s long enough to find someone buried deep down under the snow; it collapses down to 45 cm or just under a foot and a half.
A rescue beacon, like the Barryvox, could save your life if the worst happens by sending radio signals to rescuers should you ever get stuck under snow; it can also save lives if you’re part of a rescue effort if you switch to “receiving” mode. There’s a full how-to guide and video tutorial here.
With 70 meters of range and intuitive controls, the Barryvox is strong enough for the scariest situations but simple enough for beginners to use. There are advanced features too, such as marking multiple people who might be caught under snow for more streamlined rescue efforts.