New Zealand Mountan Safety Council


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Indispensable Gear 

Indispensable gear is the equivalent of a PFD on a boat or a seat belt in a car - the basic stuff that everyone needs. A transceiver, shovel, and probe are really one piece of rescue gear, you need to have all three pieces, not just one or two.

In the event of an avalanche the difference between the life and death of a buried victim is minutes. You cannot afford to waste anytime trying to figure out your gear! You need to be well practiced and efficient with the functions of your gear and your search and rescue system. Take a course and PRACTISE, PRACTISE, PRACTISE!! 




Avalanche transceivers should be worn by every person entering the backcountry. Transceivers are small electronic devices that transmit a radio signal, thus in the event of an avalanche the people who were not buried can switch their transceiver to the search mode and follow the signal towards a buried person(s). Transceivers have changed dramatically over just the past few years and innovative developments continue to appear.

Each type has its own way of working. Some require you to make volume adjustments, while others do it for you. Some change the sound they make depending on how close you are, while others have lights or arrows pointing in the direction of the buried person. Some can give you instructions on what to so next and some return to transmit mode after a set amount of time.

Digital transceivers convert the signal from the buried set into visual and audible signals that aid the searcher. Analogue transceivers do not apply any enhancement to the signal; the beep you hear is the actual unprocessed signal from the transmitting set. There is a change in volume when the searching analogue set receives a stronger signal.

It is important to know how to use these features on your transceiver. It is also important to know how to use the generic search techniques described in this pamphlet that will work with all 457 kHz models.

Older transceivers with a frequency other than 457 kHz, or that feature more than one frequency, are either incompatible or they are technically insufficient and should be destroyed. If you are uncertain whether your transceiver complies with the EN* standards, contact the NZ agent of the manufacturer.

Remember avalanche transceivers require lots and lots of practice to acquire and maintain proficiency.
*European Norm





Shoveling is an extremely important aspect of avalanche rescue. A proficient and strategic shoveling technique can save you minutes, which is critical for the buried person. Please check out the V-Conveyor Strategy. It is extremely important that you select a good shovel and practice as often as possible.

What makes a good shovel? Needless to say we all would like a light shovel, but you need to make sure that that strength isn't compromised. Bigger is better, but it does need to fit into or on you pack. Plastic is not good!!! When exposed to cold temperatures and hard avalanche debris plastic breaks! Another important aspect is an extendable shaft. A shovel blade with a flat top is helpful for stepping on when chopping blocks and in hard avalanche debris.




Avalanche transceivers will bring you close to the buried victim, but a probe is what will actually find the person. Probes are like sectional tent poles that snap together. Systematic probing allows you to exactly pinpoint the location of the buried person, which indicates the direction you need to start digging towards.

Probes vary in length, stiffness, and materials, which translate into differences in weight, durability, and cost. Generally, the smaller diameter the more they'll bend and deflect. Carbon is light and strong (with a sufficient diameter) but more expensive. The locking mechanism and line are quite important: you want a reliable and durable mechanism and a cable that doesn't stretch (slack means wear, tear, and breaking).

240 cm is the shortest standard length which works fine in drier climates and for rescue; if you're in deeper snowpack areas or using it for snowpack observations consider a 320 cm version.

Some probes have centimeter markings, which is a great tool that allows a probe to serve as a ruler when you're probing the snow making observations or digging for your partner.
A new innovation for 2010 is an electronic probe that works with your beacon.


Highly Recommended Gear 

The gear listed in the ‘Indispensible Equipment' section are the safety items that you must always carry (and know how to use) if you are traveling in uncontrolled avalanche terrain, i.e. outside the ski area boundary. Highly Recommended Equipment is further navigational and safety gear that should be carried any time that you are in the backcountry. 




An inclinometer is an instrument used to measure slope angles. The incline or angle of the slope that you are planning to climb up (or ski down) is critical to the triggering of avalanches and important information when deciding if you are in avalanche terrain. Most slab avalanches start on slopes between 30°- 45°, although they can occur on slopes as low as 15°. An intermediate (Blue) run at a ski area is about 30°. 





Compasses are critical tools for geographic orientation and along with a map essential for backcountry travel. When it comes to making decisions about avalanche conditions the elevation and the aspect (the direction a slope faces) are further key pieces of information. A compass allows you to know what aspect the slope you are about to access is and how that relates to the information in the Backcountry Avalanche Advisory. Is the slope loaded with snow from being lee to the wind? Is it mostly shaded or sometimes sun baked? Where am I and how do I get home?




It is a good idea to carry a map of the terrain in which you are traveling. At a base level they provide elevation and location information but in the hands of a practiced outdoor traveler they are an essential tool. There are many different types of maps; topographic maps (1:50,000) are the most useful for mountain travel. Maps can be useful for determining your location in case of an incident, which is critical information to convey to incoming rescue parties. Be aware that if you have copied a map of the internet it may not have the coordinates down the side or across the bottom.




A range of small, light and very powerful head torches are available from any outdoors shop. These are "must have" to carry in your backpack because you just never know when you will need it.




Avalanche airbags are a deflated air bag that is tucked into the top or straps of a standard backcountry backpack. If you are caught in an avalanche, then pulling a rip cord initiates as small gas canister to inflate the bag, similar to the life jackets on an airplane. The effect is to increase your volume and help you to float or stay near the surface of the avalanche. This in turn reduces the severity of the effects of being in an avalanche by reducing burial depth or even preventing burial. They also help to decrease the time it takes to locate and rescue you by providing a large visual clue and may provide some degree of trauma protection.

Statistics show that over 90% of people caught in avalanches, who deployed an airbag survived. But just because you strap an airbag to your back does not make you any less likely to get caught in an avalanche. You must continue to make safe and proper decisions. Be cautions to not become overly confident and make risky choices just because you are wearing an airbag.
There are three airbags manufacturers being imported into New Zealand; Backcountry Access (BCA), ABS and Snowpulse.






Helmets reduce your vulnerability to trauma. Helmets should be part of standard equipment to potentially minimize injuries to your head. Full face helmets protect your face and mouth and could potentially increase the chances of having an air pocket if you are buried in an avalanche. There are many different makes and models of helmets, so find the one that is right for you and wear it.





Avalungs are a ventilation device that could potentially limit the chances of asphyxiation if caught in an avalanche. Avalungs consist of a mouthpiece, a flap valve, an exhaust pipe, and an air collector, which aid in the collection of air to avoid hazardous CO2 levels. While exposed to avalanche hazard you breath through the mouthpiece that way if an avalanche does occur you already have the Avalung system step up and operating.



Other Recommended Gear  




A GPS ( global positioning system) relies on satellite feedback in order to function, GPS units require unobstructed line of sight. Be aware that signals are often weak in thick forest cover, so you may have to move to a safe open location to obtain a proper signal. They also require movement for the satellite to triangulate and fix your position. In an alpine environment this can be restrictive and may lead to variability in the readings.
GPS units are becoming more popular to carry into the outdoors nowadays but it is not a substitute for a paper map and although they can be very useful you should always carry a map and compass as well.





Although there is variable cellular coverage in the mountains of New Zealand, it is still worth while carrying a cell phone and, in the case of an accident, trying to use it to call for help. There are recent cases were a mobile phone call has saved people's lives. In an avalanche accident, minutes count and the faster that you can get help the better.




Satellite phones are very good in the hills but still have their drawbacks. They require a clear view of the sky, so avoid gorges or heavy foliage and it may still take some time for a satellite to be in a position to receive your call.

They are very useful for long trips when the opportunity to make regular contact is limited or for professional operations. The weight and cost of the units can be limiting factors for individuals traveling in the backcountry.




PLB's are small, emergency distress beacons that emit a UHF radio signal when activated. Once activated, the signal is picked up by satellite and/or aircraft and Search and Rescue operations use the signal to ‘find' the beacons, as detailed below.

Carry or purchase only a 406MHz beacon. 406 MHz beacons must be registered with Rescue Coordination Centre of New Zealand (RCCNZ) and it is highly recommended that you use a GPS equipped one.

Note that personal locator beacons must only be used in life threatening situations. If it is a false alarm, get a message to RCCNZ (0508-4RCCNZ, or 0508-472-269) or Police as soon as possible. Once it has been activated, people will be starting to search for you and this may divert SAR resources from genuine emergencies and in doing so may endanger lives.

Like any device that requires a satellite, the Beacons operate best with a clear view of the sky; avoid gorges or heavy foliage. Do not turn the beacon off once you have activated it and stay put.
To hire a PLB or gain more info go to:




As always when venturing into the outdoors remember to bring enough warm clothing, food, and water.



Avalanche Forecast Regions:
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