How To Choose A Transceiver, Probe And Shovel

A man on snow using a tranceiver

Backcountry skiing or snowboarding is probably one of the most rewarding experiences you'll ever have on a mountain. However, with most things in life, there is a trade-off. These peaceful powder runs come with the inherent risk of avalanches.

If you're caught in an avalanche and are buried but survive the initial slide, you have about 20 minutes before you will most likely die from carbon dioxide poisoning. That may sound like a long time but in a search across a large mountain face that time soon disappears.

There are lots of ways to mitigate the risk of avalanches (terrain management, weather conditions, snow profile, snow loading, face direction, etc.) but however diligent you are there, is always the chance of being caught in a slide.

This ever-looming danger is why it is so important to have the necessary equipment and training to carry out an effective rescue. The three essential pieces of gear every member of your group needs to have (and know how to use) are a transceiver, shovel and probe. You should carry much more than these three bits of kit ( see our backcountry kit list) but this holy trinity will give you the chance to save your friends.


A man and woman using avalanche transceivers

A transceiver or avalanche beacon broadcasts a radio signal that other transceivers can track when in search mode. Every beacon transmits this radio signal at 457 kHz irrespective of make or model for full compatibility.

The signal or flux line emanates from the transmitting beacon in concentric circles, similar to the pattern seen with metal filings and a magnet. A searching beacon then registers the signal and guides the user along the curved path to the location of the buried skier.

Digital or Analogue Transceivers?

Almost all transceivers are now digital rather than analogue. The digital aspect allows the transmitting signal to be analysed and converted into directions and distance on a display screen (simplifying the search process). An analogue output is a series of beeps that intensifies the closer you get to the victim.

Another change that has occurred in beacon technology is the number of antennas. Most now have 2 or 3, that each transmit a signal on different planes. This means that whatever angle the victim gets buried, at least one signal is easily available to the rescuers (dramatically speeding up the search).

Most transceivers perform the transmit and search function to a high standard, improving the chance of rescue. Where they differ is in multiple burial scenarios, screen display, audio assistance and signal range.

Each manufacturer has their take on the best method for multiple burial searches with the ability to mark (flag) and ignore signals if instructed. This technology needs to work in tandem with advanced training and search (micro search and three circles) methods to work effectively.

Ortovox 3+ Transceiver

The Ortovox 3+ is a digital 3-antenna transceiver that is super simple to use and processes information fast

Some transceivers supplement the display with an audio system found in the old style analogue beacons. This is an extra that some people prefer while some find it distracting, it's personal taste.

One attribute of transceivers that is often misinterpreted is signal range. If you have a longer range you will be able to find someone who is further away. Correct, but most training courses recommend performing a 40m search path (well below the range of some of the high-end transceivers) to protect against parties in your group who may only have a 40m range beacon (the minimum transceiver range).

When considering which transceiver to buy, your experience and intended backcountry should guide which beacon you opt for. Some models with advanced options and detailed screen analysis may complicate the search process if you're a novice. On the other hand, these extra features may speed up the search in skilled hands. It's all about finding the model that is right for you.

How to use a transceiver

All members of the group need to switch their beacon to serach mode before adressing if the avlanche area id safe to serach. If safe follow the path (in the below diagram) until you reach the buried skier.

beacon search path diagram

Whichever beacon you decide is right for you it is vital that you know how to use it quickly and efficiently. Regular practice and where possible beacon drills with the group you intend to go off-piste with should keep you prepared for an emergency.

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Avalanche Probes

A man using an avalanche probe

A probe is essentially a long pole that allows you to locate the exact position of a buried person and the depth at which they are at. This information allows you to set up for the correct depth of dig - saving valuable minutes.

Probes are generally either made of aluminium or carbon fibre. Aluminium keeps the probe light in your pack while it remains rigid enough to penetrate hard snow. Carbon fibre is lighter than aluminium, but it is more expensive and can sometimes require more force to penetrate compacted snowpack.

Length - For a probe to be functional it needs to be at least 2m long. Most skiers tend to go for a 240cm probe that strikes a balance between portability and depth.

Erection System – Almost all probes use a cable system for deployment. The probe is thrown out across the snow and a steel or Kevlar cable, that runs through all the sections of the probes, is pulled taught locking the probe into place.

Ortovox Carbon 240 Superlight Probe

Ortovox's lightest 240 cm probe, is made from carbon for the optimal combination of low weight and high rigidity

A recent development in probe design is Patented Flash Assembly (PFA). This system allows you to open the probe from its cover in one fast and smooth motion, saving a few more vital seconds.

How to use an avalanche probe

Once you have used your transceiver to narrow down the fine position of the victim, mark that spot, erect the probe and thrust it into the snow in concentric circles 25cm between each probe till you hit the buried skier.

It's important to practice erecting your probe so that you know how it works and that this process is second nature to you.

probe spiral search diagram

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Avalanche Shovels

A man and woman using avalanche transceivers

A shovel may sound pretty self-explanatory but it is imperative that it is solid and dependable, in case you ever have to perform a rescue. Shovelling is the most time-consuming phase of the rescue process and needs just as much practice as the other two.

A high-quality shovel blade should be made from aluminium (strong and lightweight) or another type of tough metal alloy. This is preferable to toughened plastic which can bend with a load and retains the possibility of snapping.

The blade may have a straight or serrated edge but either way you want to look for one that has a sharp cutting edge. This will help you penetrate compacted snow and ice, improving your efficiency and recovery time.

Other design features of a blade to take note of are high sidewalls that stop snow slipping, centre and side ridgelines that add rigidity and strength, and a medium to large volume for an optimal and manageable movement of snow.

Ortovox Kodiak Shovelr

Ortovox optimised the Kodiak shovel to clear snow as quick and easy as possible

There is a range of handles avalanche shovels come with each with their own benefits:

  • D Handle: the most efficient and effective handle it gives you maximum leverage and grip
  • Hybrid, T Bar handle: slightly lighter and smaller than the D handle it can adapt to a left and right-hand preference
  • T bar handle: the most compact and lightweight handle

Almost all avalanche shovels come with telescopic (aluminium) shafts that click into place, extending the length and leverage of the shovel. When not in use you can dismantle the blade from the shaft to fit the shovel in your pack.

How to use an avalanche shovel

If the buried person is less than one metre below the surface, dig straight down directly downhill of the probe (preserving the victim's current air supply), throwing the snow to the side till you reach them. If they are further than a metre you want to start shovelling downhill of the probe at about 1.5 times of the burial depth i.e a 2m burial depth requires you to start digging 3m downhill of the probe.

Avalanche shovel technique diagram

If you have multiple diggers create a triangle shape with two diggers at the front and a third clearing excess snow. Switch positions when tired and remember to throw the snow to the side.

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For more information on avalanche safety and courses on how to improve your knowledge and technique have a look at Henry's Avalanche or Glenmore Lodge.

If you want any further information or advice please feel free to drop into one of our stores for a chat with our backcountry experts or speak to our online customer service team.