If you go into Avalanche terrain, you should always bring an avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe with you, and know how to use them so that you can rescue your friends quickly if they’re caught in an avalanche. Learning and practicing companion rescue is essential because a buried victim’s best chance of survival comes from the actions of the people they travel with, i.e. the survivors, left on the surface after an avalanche has occurred. Accident analysis reveals that the survival rate of fully buried avalanche victims drops sharply after 18 minutes, well before professional searchers can arrive at an accident scene.
An Avalanche Beacon is a multifunction device for finding companions buried in avalanche debris as well as a signaling device that can help lead rescuers to you if you are buried. Beacons have two modes: a tracking mode that people can use to find you if you’re buried, and a search mode, which you turn on when you need to locate and rescue an avalanche victim.
But searching with an avalanche beacon will only help you locate a victim to within 2 or 3 meters. After that, you need to use an avalanche probe to pinpoint their location and depth in consolidated avalanche debris.
Avalanche beacons should be worn whenever you are on a backcountry trip in avalanche terrain. You should put it on and put it into tracking mode at the trail head, keeping it on until you return to your car. It’s best to wear your beacon under your outermost layer of clothing, so that it’s not stripped off if you get caught in a slide, and so that you can switch it to search mode quickly if one of your companions needs to be rescued.
The following video is provided by Backcountry Access, a leading manufacturer of avalanche beacons, probes, and shovels. While this video demonstrates the basics of beacon searching, please understand that this isn’t an intuitive activity to learn without instruction and it is recommended that you practice it periodically with the people you plan on traveling with. Working out communication and roles, in advance, can save precious time and help expedite a search and rescue effort.
How to Use an Avalanche Probe
An Avalanche Probe is a collapsible metal or carbon fiber pole that is used to pinpoint the location of an avalanche victim. It has markings etched along its length that show depth in centimeters so you know how deep you have to dig. This is important to understand because you may need to excavate tons of snow to reach a victim and there are different digging strategies that can expedite a recovery based on how deep you need to dig and on how many diggers you have.
If there are multiple people in your party, but only one has been buried, it can get confusing if more than one person is probing, and you can miss spots where the victim might be located. In this circumstance, it’s often better to have one locate the victim while the rest of the team gets out there shovels and prepares to dig. If you are dealing with multiple burials, it’s recommended that you excavate the person who’s closest to the surface first, before beginning to dig another victim out.
How to Shovel for an Avalanche Victim
When a person is buried by an avalanche, the debris and run out from the slide can be very difficult to dig through and will quickly set up like concrete. To dig through it effectively, you really need to have a metal avalanche shovel to cut through dense snow covering them, the bigger the blade the better.
If you have multiple diggers, it’s best to rotate them rapidly through the digging process so that they don’t get tired and you can keep digging at a rapid pace. For example, diggers can switch off every minute and just hand the shovel they were using to the next guy in line. If your victim is buried deeply, you need to make sure that your hole is big enough to dig them out easily and can hold several shovelers.
Beacon, Shovel, Probe. These three tools are essential for companion rescue in avalanche terrain. If you own them, but have never been trained to use them, make sure that you take a companion rescue class. Going into avalanche terrain with the gear, but without the know-how to use them can really compromise the safety of your traveling companions. Be safe. Be responsible. Be trained.
For more information about avalanche education and certified instructors, see:
Written 2013. Updated 2018.Editor's note: Help support this site by making your next gear purchase through one of the links above. Click a link, buy what you need, and the seller will contribute a portion of the purchase price to support SectionHiker's unsponsored gear reviews, articles, and hiking guides.