Beacons and Shovels and Probes, Oh My! | Backcountry Safety for Beginners
Safety is a top concern for backcountry newbies, and with good reason. While the epic views and heavenly turns of backcountry skiing are catnip for the resort-weary snowsports enthusiast, backcountry access comes with inherent risks.
If you’re new to the sport, the amount of safety gear and ever-changing avalanche forecasts thrown your way can be overwhelming. Questions abound: is a beacon the same thing as an avalanche transceiver? Why are there two names?! And do I really need a shovel? Here’s a breakdown of essential safety gear and a few tips to keep in mind as you prepare for your first ski tour or Backcountry 1 class.
An avalanche beacon, also commonly known as an avalanche transceiver, is an emergency locator device. It’s important to carry a beacon with you at all times when backcountry skiing so other skiers can find you under debris (or find someone else) in the event of an avalanche. If you’re skiing with a group of people, everyone needs to carry their own beacon.
Keep your beacon turned on at all times when backcountry skiing. If someone in your group gets caught in an avalanche, you can turn your beacon to search mode to pick up their beacon’s signal and find them under the snow.
Most beacons are battery-operated, although there are some rechargeable options. It’s a good idea to keep a few extra batteries in your backpack or car in case your battery runs out at an inopportune moment. If your battery level is below 60% capacity, it’s best to change batteries.
Eco-Tip: Don’t waste the rest of your battery! Use half-used batteries from your beacon in household items or headlamps.
A probe is essentially a big metal stick. Probes range in size based on an area’s snowpack, but they are usually no shorter than two meters. Most probes are collapsible, meaning you’ll be able to easily fit one in your backpack. While a beacon will help you find a buried skier or rider, a probe will identify their exact location in the snow.
Perhaps the most self-explanatory item on this list: shovels are for digging! If a skier is buried beneath an avalanche, you use a shovel to get them out after identifying their location with a beacon and probe.
Not any shovel will work for backcountry safety. Make sure your shovel is UIAA certified and designed for avalanche purposes.
Bluebird requires guests to carry a beacon, probe, and shovel with them on Bear Mountain. At a minimum, it’s best to have those three items on you at all times wherever you’re backcountry skiing.
As you gain experience in the backcountry, you’ll want to add more safety gear to your pack. Backpacks with an avalanche airbag are highly recommended when traveling in the backcountry, but are not required at Bluebird. And if you plan to be in the backcountry overnight for a hut trip, don’t forget your headlamp! If you’re one to nerd out on snow science, put a snow kit on your Christmas list. For a full list of gear to bring to Bluebird and beyond, check out our gear article here.
Do I need to carry a probe if I have my ski poles?
Yes. Ski poles can’t get down into the snow like a probe can. A collapsible avalanche probe is a quicker, more effective use of rescue time.
I didn’t realize beacons were this expensive?! What’s up with that?
Don’t have a beacon, probe, or shovel? Bluebird is working to make backcountry skiing more accessible without making you pay for expensive gear before you’ve given touring your first go. While Bluebird requires you to ski with the proper safety equipment (we like to build safe habits!), we offer beacons, probes, and shovels for rent online in advance or at our base area the day of your visit.
Tip #1: Skiing Alone Increases Risks
A partner is perhaps the most important piece of safety gear you’ll bring into the backcountry. If you get hurt, a partner can radio or call for help and provide support until help arrives. On the flip side, without a partner to take the perfect shot of your sunrise skin, did you even backcountry ski? Without a partner, who’ll be there to laugh at you as you struggle to click into your pin bindings? Skiing with a partner will maximize good vibes and minimize your chances of being stranded in the backcountry alone.
With professional, on-site ski patrol and avalanche-managed terrain, you can ski solo at Bluebird without worry. But we can’t lie – having a friend to converse with as you make your way up the skin track makes backcountry skiing more fun! In need of a backcountry partner? Check out our Partner Finder on Bluebird Backcountry Community – it’s free!
Tip #2: Follow Avalanche Reports
Avalanche conditions are changing constantly and it’s important to stay up to speed on avalanche reports in your area. Check out the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) or Avalanche.org for regularly updated information on avalanche conditions in Colorado and beyond.
If conditions are conducive to sliding, it might be a day to head to Bluebird! When you’re feeling unsure about the avalanche conditions in your area, let Bluebird’s ski patrolled, avalanche-mitigated terrain give you peace of mind.
Tip #3: Tell Someone Where You’re Going
Just like before a hike or a camping trip, it’s never a bad idea to tell someone where you’re going when you head out on a ski tour. This can be as simple as leaving a note on the fridge for a family member or sending a friend a text. Gone skiing!
Last but not least…common sense.
You can carry a beacon and you can check avalanche conditions, but if you don’t understand how to use safety equipment and interpret avalanche reports, you might as well be heading out into the backcountry blindfolded.
Bluebird encourages education and preparation before backcountry skiing. To learn how to backcountry ski and ride in an avalanche-controlled, ski-patrolled environment, check out Bluebird’s backcountry 1, 2, and 3 courses! We think it’s the most fun (and safe!) way to learn how to backcountry ski.
Don’t forget to have fun!
We ski out into the backcountry because it’s awesome – the solitude and sweet turns experienced outside the standard resort setting are incomparable. Carrying safety gear, understanding how to use it, and monitoring avalanche conditions elevates the backcountry experience by providing peace of mind and the knowledge that you’re doing all you can to keep you and your friends safe.