The first thing that you should think about with off piste skiing is the most important subject of all – Safety. Every season people are killed when they ski off piste and in the majority of these accidents you find that it could have been prevented either by the right safety equipment being used or by having a qualified guide present and by taking the correct precautions. So what safety equipment do you need ?
A transceiver is essential and you should never go off piste without one. This is a device that is constantly sending out a signal that will allow you to be found when you are buried under the snow when set to send and will search for people buried under the snow when set to receive. There are many transceivers on the market and you should buy the best one that you can afford.
An ABS Airbag is also a great bit of kit. Whilst many people consider it to be expensive it comes down to how you value your life! Essentially it is a rucksack that has two large inflatable bags inside it. In the event of an avalanche you pull a handle, which inflates these bags. This then helps you to stay on the top or very near to the surface of the snow in the event of an avalanche. There is enough statistical evidence now to show that they will save your life 99% of the time.
An AvaLung consists of a zippered mesh vest with pockets and a breathing tube attached to a snow filter on the side. The idea being that if you are buried by an avalanche, the tube and one way valve allows you to vent your hot, CO2-rich breath out of the back of the vest. This prevents CO2 narcosis and the icing up that normally forms a fatal ice-mask sealing the porous snow, preventing you from breathing air that does exist in even the densest packed snow. This product has been tested and allowed volunteers to be buried for an hour under three feet of hard packed snow.
A metal shovel. You should always carry a shovel (make sure that you get a metal one and not a plastic one), as you will need this to dig out anybody who has been buried by the avalanche and you should also make sure that all of your ski buddies have a full set of safety equipment – remember if you have a problem it is them who will be looking for you and digging you out!
A Probe. This is a collapsible length of tubing that you use to push down into the snow and literally probe for anyone that has been buried by the avalanche. Again this will fit easily into your rucksack or ABS bag. It is a great idea to practise using your rescue equipment. You could bury a ski and a rucksack and then use the probe to see how they feel – note the difference between the two – you do not want to waste time digging out a ski thinking it is your mate.
First Aid Kit
You should carry as comprehensive a first aid kit as room permits. Also it is a good idea to have a small foldaway toolkit & knife, a heat retaining blanket, spare equipment like gloves & goggles. Also carry a plastic bottle of water and a compass. Check with your ski buddies to make sure that you all have a comprehensive first aid pack.
Finally there are a couple of things that you should understand. Even if you have all of this equipment it will do you no good whatsoever if you do not know how to use it ! Make sure that everybody that you ski off piste with has the correct safety equipment and that everybody has undergone thorough training in how to use it. Secondly I would also say that I think it is much better to take every conceivable precaution and NOT end up in an avalanche in the first place. How can you do this?
You should learn how to ski in off piste areas, i.e. one person at a time and from safe area to safe area. You should learn what to do as a TEAM in the event of an avalanche. You should always take a local guide if you are not totally familiar with the area that you are going into. You should NEVER ignore warning signs that say areas are closed.