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Backcountry Necessities

By: Cassi Clark - Updated: 10 Dec 2010 | comments*Discuss
Backpack Backcountry Ski Snowboard

The perfect gear makes backcountry trekking easier and alpine descents breathtaking. But no skier, snowboarder, backpacker or snowmobiler should venture into the backcountry without lifesaving knowledge, and at least water, a shovel, probe, beacon and first aid kit.

What to Carry

Many companies from Dakine to Burton make winter specific backpacks of all sizes, with straps for skis or a snowboard, quick access shovel and probe pockets and pouches for water bottles and bladders. Smaller size packs adequately hold an extra layer, food, water, shovel, probe pole and first aid kit. Larger packs hold more layers, emergency shelters, crampons, skins, ice axe, extra parts for bindings and poles, camping equipment, and anything else you deem necessary for your outdoor adventure. Keep in mind that the more you pack, the more energy you will exert when climbing that will need to be replaced—lighter is better.

CamelBak, MSR and Platypus make water reservoirs with long flexible tubes and leak resistant nipples for hands free access. The pliability of the bags make for easier packing, and large bladders hold more water and are lighter than plastic water bottles. Winter kits insulate the hose, and cover the nipple to prevent freezing.

Shovels are handy for digging shelters and kickers as well as digging out avalanche victims. Winter sport specific shovels come with releasable handles that adjust in length for easier packing and use. Metal shovels are stronger and more effective when digging in solidified avalanche deposit, than plastic shovels, but plastic shovels are lighter.

Probing for victims can be done with probe poles or some trekking poles that extend at least three meters. Avalanche specific poles have depth-indicating marks, and are made of light carbon fiber material. Additionally, auto-locking mechanisms decrease assembly time.

Firts Aid

First aid kits are important for every outdoor adventurer. Whether you create your own kit or buy a pre-packaged one, at a minimum a kit should include, scissors, medical and/or duct tape, Band-Aids, gauze, sterile dressing, antiseptic towelettes, CPR Barrier MicroShield, SAM splint, non-latex exam gloves, waterproof matches or other fire starter and ibuprofen.

Additional items could include extra wound dressings, moleskin, an ace bandage, survival blanket, hand or body warmers, rubber bands, safety pins and sunscreen. The more experience you have, the more fine tuned your kit will become.

On the Body

Some backcountry necessities are worn on the body, incase you become separated from your pack. Until recently, buried victims could only dig and wait for rescue. But, advances in survival technology, based on the knowledge that even dense avalanche debris is made of nearly 50% air, has saved lives. The resulting product is an avalung filtration device, which allows buried avalanche victims to draw air directly from the snow pack. Assuming the victim was not knocked unconscious during the slide, or fatally injured, avalungs give rescuers more time to track and dig out the victim.

Rescuers use transceiver beacons, hand held devices that emit and receive a signal, to search and rescue avalanche victims. Operating on a standardized frequency, they are available in analogue and digital. The most common types of transceiver, Tracker, Ortovox, Barryvox, ARVA and Pieps, use up to three antennae and other sensors to impart range and direction via audio beeping and flashing lights or arrows.

Despite advanced technology, beacons most often locate dead bodies; therefore, if the avalanche danger is considerable or high, don’t go. If a buried person is buried for more than 15 minutes chances of survival are minimal; no amount of beacon practice guarantees rescue and no amount of untouched powder is worth death.

Now that you are warned, practicing with your beacon before you venture into the backcountry is very important. Put one beacon, set to transmit, in a plastic bag. Have one person bury the bag, preferably in a large snow covered park, or safe slope. Switch your beacon to receive and time your retrieval.

Take turns and practice with your probe pole and shovel in your pack so you can get used to putting them together under pressure. As you become better at using your transceiver, take your gear out to a safe slope where you have more space and depth to practice. Remember to check your alkaline batteries (never use rechargeable batteries) every time you go out.

Be Prepared

In case of an unplanned overnight backcountry stay, a well-equipped pack with food, extra layers and emergency shelter will help you avoid deadly panic. Having a beacon, shovel, probe, avalung and first aid kit may also come in handy for building a shelter, or rescuing an avalanche victim. Even if you never use them, it is best to be prepared.

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