How to perform a sled safety equipment trailhead check

November 1, yyyy

BCA sled ambassador Mike Duffy discusses how to prevent becoming another statistic by making a thorough trailhead check a regular habit. 

If you’ve invested cold, hard cash into new safety gear, then make sure it’s actually operating when you take it into the field. We learned the hard way last spring when two well-known snowmobiling and skiing athletes perished in avalanches because their transceivers were off. There have been other incidents where an avalanche victim pulled his or her trigger, but the cylinder wasn’t filled or it wasn’t even hooked up to the trigger. To prevent becoming another statistic, make a thorough trailhead check a regular habit. And take an avalanche, of course. If you’re a BCA customer, then you’ve already done that. Right?

The Good News:

  • A record number of motorized users are taking on-snow avalanche courses. We’re talking 8-hour rescue classes and multi-day Level 1 (US) or AST 1 (Canada) courses. Once you take these classes, you realize why they’re so valuable--and why you should have done it a long time ago.

A group of people standing on top of a snow covered slope

Description automatically generated Level I class in MT.

That’s good because the highest risk group are those riders who have not taken an on-snow avalanche class. Those riders account for the most motorized avalanche fatalities in the last five years.

  • The majority of mountain riders are better prepared and trained.
  • Many riders are implementing best practices learned from avalanche classes.
  • Snowmobile avalanche fatalities are down over the past five years.

The Bad News:

  • Basic mistakes are leading to fatalities.
  • There are still too many close calls, bad decisions, injuries, and fatalities.
  • One of the most consequential mistakes leading to fatalities is not checking avalanche gear before heading out—mainly transceivers and airbags.
  • Many uneducated riders feel an airbag is all they need to survive any avalanche. The thinking is they just pull the trigger handle, the airbag inflates and they survive. They are not taking into consideration: terrain traps, the size of the avalanche, location of other riders or understand what type of avalanche(s) they are dealing with. Remember, for an airbag to be effective, it must be used in conjunction with advanced avalanche training, good decisions, rescue practice, and trained riding partners.
  • The number of nondeployments of airbags by uneducated riders in avalanches proves that the education component is crucial.

The Solution:

Get advanced on-snow training and implement what you learn. More knowledge = better decisions. Educated riders know the avalanche problems that are most likely to cause a fatality. We still ride but pick the right terrain for the day. It’s sad to see so many fatalities in conditions conducive to large deadly avalanches. Go to a school that gets you in real avalanche terrain with experienced instructors
  • Do correct transceiver, radio, and airbag checks before heading out. This prevents so many unnecessary deaths.

Here’s how to do a correct daily transceiver check.

Watch this video:

This is the preferred method I use for doing a trailhead test. Check your transceiver manual for recommendations for your specific transceiver.

  • Everyone switches their transceiver on and communicates the battery strength.
    • This way you can switch out low batteries proactively.
  • Everyone switches their transceiver to search.
    • This way you know that everyone can do it. The time of rescue isn’t the time to learn who isn’t proficient.
    • Become knowledgeable of the basic functionality of all transceivers in your riding group in case you have to turn them off or help them use it in a rescue.
  • Have one person (leader) switch to transmit while the others stay in search mode.
  • Those in search mode walk away from the person transmitting.
  • Walk until you no longer get a signal, then do a 180-degree turn and walk toward the person transmitting.
  • Stop when you get a few readout signals in a row.
    • You now know the approximate effective range of your transceiver and if you are getting electrical noise (interference) from devices on you that may reduce the effective search range of your transceiver. This will be obvious if you are getting significantly less receive range than others in the group. Consider turning off any unnecessary electronic devices.
  • Continue walking toward and past the leader.
    • This allows you to get familiar with how your transceiver reacts when searching. This practice helps develop familiarity, speed, and skills with your transceiver.
  • Everyone now goes back to transmit mode.
  • Next, send the leader down the trail about 100-200 yards/meters. He or she should then shut off their sled and put their transceiver into search mode.
  • Riders spread out about 30 yards (or 30 meters) and slow down to approximately 15 mph while they pass the leader. The leader acts as the “transceiver checker”.
    • You now know everyone is riding in transmit mode.
    • This is also a good time to tap the push-to-talk button if using BC Link radios, to make sure each person is transmitting on the same radio channel.
  • The “thumbs up” is given to each rider who is properly transmitting.
  • The leader needs to switch back to transmit before joining the group.

Major benefits of this transceiver test:

  • Each transceiver has been checked in both search and transmit modes.
  • Battery strength and the effective search range of each transceiver has been determined.
  • Each rider has practiced with their transceiver and knows that other riders know how to switch to search.
  • Riders are familiar with each other’s transceivers.
  • Riders using radios will all have them turned on and operating on the proper channel.

Here’s how and when I check an airbag.

  • Full cylinder (or fully charged battery): the night before.
  • Cables connected: the night before.
  • Leg strap in use: Day of ride, during the group check.
  • Trigger handle out: Day of ride, during the group check.

Don’t forget to discuss avalanche conditions/problems and what terrain is appropriate on the riding day.