October 18, 2018
Last season, a skier on the Bugaboos to Roger Pass traverse took a ride in an avalanche. He pulled his airbag and was fortunately not buried, and he suffered only a minor knee injury. The skier was quite shaken up though and early the next morning he realized that his avalanche transceiver was missing. He had been carrying it in the side pocket of his ski pants–and the avalanche had ripped the pocket and the transceiver was never located. They called for a helicopter and abandoned the rest of the traverse.
It has become fairly common for backcountry skiers and boarders to carry their transceiver in a pants pocket with the new outerwear styles and bib pants.
However, carrying your avalanche transceiver in your pants pocket should only be done if the pocket is designed accordingly: welded or stitched to the inside of the pants, with a solid, anchored clip for attaching the lanyard. If your pants pocket is sewn or welded to the outside of your pants and is clearly not designed for a transceiver, then we recommend that you carry it in the chest harness provided with your transceiver.
Several outerwear companies are addressing a more convenient and safe way to carry avalanche transceivers without a traditional harness, by providing a secure welded pocket in the pant leg. An example is OR’s beacon-friendly Skyward Pants (shown below).
Backcountry Access encourages you to be extremely critical of the pant leg pocket function before leaving your avalanche transceiver harness at home. If the pocket is not sewn or welded to the inside of the pant, does not have a secure zipper, and a secure ring to clip your beacon to, you should not trust it to withstand the forces of an avalanche.
WHERE TO WEAR YOUR AVALANCHE TRANSCEIVER
While some outerwear companies are meeting and setting safety standards for carrying a beacon, a harness is still the best method for carrying an avalanche transceiver. Here’s why:
- Locating the avalanche transceiver high on your chest puts the transmitting antenna closer to your airway. If you’re buried in an avalanche and searchers are locating your transceiver, you want the probe strike and subsequent shoveling to bring them to the vicinity of your airway as quickly as possible.
- If you’re ever in an avalanche, you will be quite focused on protecting your head, neck, and chest. If your transceiver is on your chest, you will therefore also end up protecting your transceiver as you fend off trees and rocks.
- If your transceiver is on your chest, it will be kept warmer and will be less prone to getting knocked around as you move through the mountains. A transceiver in your pants or jacket pocket is more likely to hit things as you ski/board.
- The manufacturer’s harness is more robust than a clothing pocket. Clothes can be ripped off in an avalanche.
- You can still access the transceiver quickly when it is in a chest harness. The plan is to never pull out your transceiver for a real search, by using good terrain selection and paying attention to the local avalanche bulletin. However, if you do need to pull out your transceiver, most harnesses are made to easily access it in the event of an avalanche or for doing a group transceiver check at the trailhead.
Interference from electronics (GPS, radios, cell phone, headlamp, heated gloves, and socks, etc.) can sometimes affect the performance of a searching avalanche transceiver. Symptoms include random distance and direction readings and/or loss of receive range. Keep all sources of interference at least 50cm (20 inches) away when you’re in search mode. When searching, do not have any bluetooth, wifi or wireless functions enabled on your phone or any other electronic devices. For safekeeping, if you need to make an emergency call during a search, make sure you’re at least 25m away from the search area when you’re calling on your cell phone. While most cell phones don’t create harmful interference from this far away, there can be lots of variation between units, especially if a unit has been damaged.
In transmit mode, the effects of nearby electronics are minimal. However, many of these devices are metallic and metal objects can sometimes influence a transmitting beacon signal. While this will never ruin a search, nearby metal can slightly affect a transceiver’s transmit range and it can sometimes cause the transmit unit to use more power to send out its signal. Most manufacturers (including BCA) recommend keeping all electronics and metal objects 20cm (8 inches) away from your transceiver when in transmit mode.
Many shell jackets have a radio pocket on both the right and left side of the chest, and most harnesses put your transceiver on the left side of your chest. I wear my transceiver high on the left side of my chest to gain the recommended 20cm separation from my radio, and I put my cell phone in a pants pocket or in a right jacket pocket. Analog VHF radios seem to interfere less with avalanche transceivers than other electronics, but there should still be at least 20cm separation. Digital radios are becoming more common; be very careful to test the transmit and search functions of your transceiver and look for any signs of interference if you’re using a digital radio for communications. To date, BCA has not seen effects on any brand of transceiver in close proximity to the BC Link radio.
Watch out for slippage in your transceiver harness, and ensure it is located high on your chest. This will decrease the chances of injury to your hips, stomach, and ribs if you’re bent forward while skiing/boarding or in an avalanche. If you’re snowmobiler, consider the Float MtnPro Vest, which has a dedicated, insulated transceiver pocket located above your vital organs.
Jordy Shepherd is an ACMG/IFMGA mountain guide and BCA ambassador/instructor, living with his family in Canmore, Alberta. Jordy has lived, worked and played in the mountains his whole life. His work experience includes: Canadian Avalanche Association Course Leader for Avalanche Search and Rescue Advanced Skills, Provincial Park Ranger, National Park Warden, wildlife-human conflict specialist, wildland firefighter, structural firefighter, mountain and industrial rescue specialist, heli-skiing operations manager and lead guide, and licensed real estate agent: www.PeakAlpine.com www.CanmoreRealEstate.ca
Jordy enjoys guiding and instructing clients to achieve their personal best, with a focus on safety and enjoyment of the mountains.