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Lightweight Backcountry Winter Gear Shouldn't Skimp on Safety

Video, audio, and photography illustrating snow stability (pit) assessment, avalanche transceiver use, and a winter day hiker's best friend: the bothy shelter.

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by Ryan Jordan, Mike Martin, and Vic Lipsey | 2007-01-27 23:50:06.753655-07


Snow, cold temperatures, wind, and long nights are the normal ingredients of any satisfying winter expedition. They are also the normal ingredients of serious winter accidents and fatalities, with avalanches and hypothermia being highest on the list of concerns for winter travelers.

Backcountry snowshoers and skiers venturing into the high country, especially above treeline, may be taking exceptional risks in areas where the snowfall is unstable and likely to avalanche. Likewise, backcountry travelers only out for a day tour often overestimate their abilities and underestimate their ability to travel efficiently in deep snow, and may find themselves trapped in the backcountry after dark, with no choice but to spend the night.

Any trip into the backcountry during winter's peak season shouldn't sacrifice safety. When going solo, you take your own risks, and are responsible for your own actions. Certainly, the solo winter traveler's most effective tools are not only self-rescue gear, but the ability to make conservative decisions so he doesn't find himself in life threatening situations for himself - or a search and rescue crew - in the first place. The solo hiker's greatest responsibility is to those he leaves behind if he were to be killed, so skip your narcissistic desires for self absorbed winter adrenaline and take it easy out there if you're alone.

If you're hiking with a group, however, you owe it to your partners to take gear that can be used to help them if they get caught in an avalanche. Remember, you are not only taking a transceiver for your benefit (so they can find you if you're buried), but for their benefit, so you can find them if they are buried!

The purpose of this article is to provide a very brief introduction into three key skills that are must-haves in the quiver of any backcountry traveler:

  1. Snow stability assessment.
  2. Avalanche transceiver use.
  3. Surviving a cold winter night.

This article does not, by any means, address any of these skills in great depth. Rather, we hope to provide brief introductions to the skills using multimedia: video, audio, and photography, to make an important point:

The ultralight philosophy has its limits: go light on safety gear, but don't eliminate it.

1. Snow Stability Assessment

Evaluating risk is an essential skill for the ultralight traveler, allowing you to collect data that will help you make informed decisions about your actions in the context of your environment, your skill, and the equipment that you are carrying.

The ability to assess the stability of a snow slope helps you plan safe routes through steep terrain. Digging a snow pit and studying the various layers of the snowpack, and how they are bonded to each other, provides valuable information about snow stability.

Generally, the information you want to gather includes the depth of the snowpack, slope angle, character and size of snow crystals, the character and location of various layer boundaries in the snowpack, and the relative shear force required to cause the snowpack to collapse under weight, or slide along those boundaries.

Digging a snowpit and making this assessment requires less than ten minutes and precious few tools.

For example, Ryan's snow study kit is comprised of the following items:

  • Carbon fiber avalanche probe (6 oz)
  • Aluminum snow shovel (15 oz)
  • Inclinometer / snow crystal reference card (1 oz)

View the following video to see how these tools are used to collect information about the snowpack during a tour of the Brighton, Utah backcountry on January 26, 2007:

Download Video

2. Avalanche Transceiver Use

Even the most experienced avalanche instructors emphasize the need to continuously practice your skills with an avalanche transceiver. Understanding how signals are received and interpreted by your transceiver, practicing various types of search strategies in different scenarios, and just realizing how hard it can be to sort out search signals in a multiple-burial scenario is worth its weight in gold when the rubber meets the road in a real avalanche rescue.

On our tour, one of the authors (we'll call him "The Big Unit") hucked a transceiver high in the air and let it nosedive into the snow about 25 meters from our perch on a 31 degree snow slope. Another author ("Hooch") then switched his transceiver to "receive" and set out to find our tiny buried, and hopefully transmitting, friend.

Listen to the audio of this very simple and short search, which required four minutes of purposeful searching by a single rescuer, and you may understand the wisdom behind going into the backcountry with several buddies.

Download MP3

Avalanche rescue of a buried victim requires only one additional item not already on our gear list from #1 above: a transceiver. The lightest ones are only about five and a half ounces (such as the Mammut Barryvox with lithium batteries), and offer both digital (best for quick location of a victim at short ranges) and analog (which may be more effective at longer ranges) modes of searching.

3. Hypothermia Management

The final skill we talked about on our Brighton tour was that of surviving the onset of hypothermia, and possibly, spending a night in the mountains if we couldn't make it back to our car, while on a day tour.

The obvious skill that can be put to use here is that of building a snow cave. Snow caves are warm and wind proof, and offer the best chance of getting out of a storm. Unfortunately, they require quite a bit of time, effort, and physical ability to construct, and you get quite wet in the process.

The trend towards soft shell apparel for "done in a day" activities means that you may not be taking waterproof raingear into the backcountry. Digging a snow cave in soft shell clothing almost guarantees that you'll be soaked to the bone by the time you're done.

In addition, snow caves are relatively time-consuming, and thus, impractical, for use as temporary shelter if you simply want to get out of the wind, or spend an hour or so reviving a mildly hypothermic victim.

So, we brought along a bothy shelter (a.k.a., bothy bag), an invention from our friends in the UK, that amounts to nothing little more than a stuff sack for human beings. Our bothy bag was a two-person version from Terra Nova that weighed about 12 ounces, offered a ventilation hole for fresh air, and clear windows for light and stormwatching.

The application of a bothy shelter is simple:

  1. Dig a two foot deep and two-foot diameter hole.
  2. Stand (in our case, the two of us) in the hole.
  3. Pull the bothy over your heads.
  4. Sit on the edges of the bothy and lean back - the structure thus supports itself.

Refer to the images at right for bothy shelter use. When we were testing the Terra Nova Two-Person Bothy, one of the authors (Martin) commented that the climate inside the bothy "was surprisingly warm, especially with some sun." The intimate bothy environment brought chuckles from Lipsey, while Martin warned that you "should choose your bothy partners carefully". Martin and Jordan had little personal space inside the bothy (they were able to thumb wrestle), but that is its greatest strength: the sharing of body heat for comfortable warmth. Jordan has spent many lunch hours and a few nights with partners in bothy bags, and finds them "well worth the weight" relative to mylar bivy sacks. "They give you tremendous refuge in foul conditions, allowing the entire party to warm up at mid-day without going through the rigamarole of pitching a tarp, building a fire, or constructing a snow shelter.

Other skills important for hypothermia management focus on minimizing sweating (by regulating your thermal balance via pace and clothing layers), seeking rest in areas protected from wind, and maintaining adequate hydration and nutrition throughout the day.

In combination with some type of emergency shelter (such as a bothy bag or bivy sack), we always include a few other safety items on winter day treks, including a good navigation system (with a map and compass as the bare minimum, and a GPS can be useful for getting back to the car in a whiteout) and a stout firebuilding kit containing solid fuel tablets and firestarters. Virtually anybody can survive any type of storm below the treeline with the protection of a warm, well-fed fire.


Outdoor Retailer is so focused on gear - its features, colors, and styles, as well as its claims about performance - that we sometimes forget why we buy all this gear in the first place. So, we hope this very brief tutorial inspires you to get outside with your gear and explore the backcountry.

Especially in the winter.

Be safe, and stay warm -

- Ryan, Mike, and Vic

Image Index:

1. Ryan Jordan

2. Mike Martin

3. Vic Lipsey

4. Ryan measuring slope angle using the inclinometer from a Brunton Avalanche compass, aligned with a probe sitting parallel to the snow surface. Slope angle = 31 degrees.

5. Measuring depth of snow pack with an avalanche probe. Probe: Ortovox Carbon.

6. Digging the snow pit. Shovel: Backcountry Access. Holes provided by author.

7. Measuring the size and analyzing the morphology of snow crystals with the G3 inclinometer/crystal analysis reference card.

8. Analyzing the resistance of various layers in the snow pack to penetration by fingers and hands. Here, Ryan inserts his hand into a layer of sugary, poorly-bonded snow underneath an ice lens, about 15 cm from the surface.

9. Using a ski to cut a column away from the snow pack, in preparation for a column failure test.

10. Using a snow shovel and light force exerted in a downward direction to induce snow pack collapse. Here, the snow pack collapsed approximately 2 cm at the ice layer buried 15 cm below the surface, and approximately 15 cm (with an audible "whoomp") at the ice layer buried 60 cm below the surface.

11. Failure of the column at the 60 cm ice layer. Here, Ryan is inspecting the poorly consolidated snow that runs from this failure point, all the way to the ground surface.

12. Preparing a site for the bothy shelter, stomping a flat surface for sitting.

13. Digging a pit for our legs, in preparation for sitting in the bothy shelter.

14. "Hunkered down" in a totally fake mountain storm, Ryan and Mike share the intimacy borne of a desire for authentic gear testing. What exactly are they doing in there? (Answer: thumb wrestling)

15. Vic Lipsey and Mike Martin enjoy untracked Brighton backcountry on snowshoes and skis.

Photos 14, 13, 1 by Ryan Jordan (Olympus E-400). Other photos by Vic Lipsey (Nikon D200).


"Lightweight Backcountry Winter Gear Shouldn't Skimp on Safety," by Ryan Jordan, Mike Martin, and Vic Lipsey. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2007-01-27 23:50:06.753655-07.


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Lightweight Backcountry Winter Gear Shouldn't Skimp on Safety
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Forum Admin
(ForumMP) - BPL Staff - F
Lightweight Backcountry Winter Gear Shouldn't Skimp on Safety on 01/27/2007 23:50:06 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Lightweight Backcountry Winter Gear Shouldn't Skimp on Safety

Linda Voll
(Mataharihiker) - F

Locale: NW Wisconsin
huh? on 01/28/2007 06:55:11 MST Print View

Pictures not as described...I did want to see the bothy

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: huh? on 01/28/2007 17:34:16 MST Print View

Yep, we have a bug. Sorry about that. We'll try to figure it out!

[Captions now correct but pictures in reverse sequence of happening - sorry about that. Roger Caffin]

Edited by rcaffin on 01/28/2007 20:02:43 MST.

Pamela Wyant
(RiverRunner) - F - M
Bothy picture on 01/28/2007 19:17:57 MST Print View

On my screen the Bothy is picture number 2. It looks like they are exactly backwards from what's listed.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
Use only regular alkaline batteries in avalanche beacons! on 01/28/2007 21:22:12 MST Print View

"The lightest ones are only about five and a half ounces (such as the Mammut Barryvox [Opto 3000] with lithium batteries)..."
Whoah, careful there!
Now granted I have not personally tested the specifically cited combination of the Barryvox Opto 3000 with lithium batteries, but all avalanche beacons are designed to be used only with regular (NOT rechargeable) alkaline batteries, and there are numerous documented instances of beacons malfunctioning when used with other types of batteries.

James Pitts
(jjpitts) - F

Locale: Midwest US
Re: Use only regular alkaline batteries in avalanche beacons! on 01/29/2007 08:22:28 MST Print View

Lithium batteries aren't necessarily rechargeable batteries. The AA, AAA sizes from Energizer/etc are not rechargeable but rather disposable. They have an impressive shelf life and based on my experience solid performance in cold weather. I would think they would excel at this application but I have never tried it.

Perhaps I missed something.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
My fault - I wasn't sufficiently clear... on 01/29/2007 20:24:52 MST Print View

All avalanche beacons should ALWAYS be used ONLY with non-rechargeable alkaline batteries -- i.e., not rechargeable batteries, not lithium batteries, not those new "powerpix" batteries, etc.
So anything other than a regular non-rechargeable alkaline battery is risking malfunction, and there are lots of documented instances of novices popping other types of batteries and then reporting malfunctions.
(Plus any beacon will transmit for at least a couple hundred hours on a single set of batteries, and the alkaline batteries that power that Mammut Barryvox Opto 3000 weigh only 1.2 oz total, so even if lithium batteries did work reliably they'd offer only trivial advantages.)

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Li Batteries in a Transceiver on 01/30/2007 01:11:27 MST Print View

Hey Jonathan -

There is risk to using Li's in a beacon but it really doesn't have a whole lot to do with "malfunction", but rather, the power drain curve of Li batteries.

Li's maintain steady power over the life of the battery, then they catastrophically die, suddenly, at the end of their battery life.

You don't want this sudden death to occur the moment before you or your partner gets buried in an avalanche, so you do the prudent thing: replace your batteries periodically, and because the beacon's battery life meter may not reliably predict the impending failure of Li batteries, then be safer than sorrier and replace them sooner rather than later.

If one is not going to pay attention to this, then by all means one should use alkalines, they would be a more responsible option.

Maybe somebody out there can test two identical beacons, one with alkalines, one with lithiums, toss them in the freezer, and see how they fare over time in receive mode. Might be nice to have those results in hand before tossing more claims and hypotheses (hey, I'm guilty) back and forth.

Edited by ryan on 01/30/2007 01:13:32 MST.

James Pitts
(jjpitts) - F

Locale: Midwest US
Re: Li Batteries in a Transceiver on 01/30/2007 07:08:42 MST Print View

I would offer to test this out but we don't get a lot of avalanches in Wisconsin.

I could be a control subject in someone elses test... ;)

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
Prudence on 01/30/2007 07:42:56 MST Print View

The prudent course of action for me in the context of "Lightweight Backcountry Winter Gear Shouldn't Skimp on Safety" is to burden myself with an extra half ounce of weight (i.e., 3 regular alkaline AAA batteries vs. Li) in exchange for knowing that the battery % life indicator on the beacon is reasonably accurate.

Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
Now hang on cow, er, snowpokes on 01/30/2007 10:45:23 MST Print View

Presuming for the moment that avalanche transceivers function correctly with the reduced total voltage from NiMH cells (and if they work with very cold alkalines this is an easy assumption) would it not be better to begin each trip with a freshly charged set?

NiMH cold performance is better than alkalines, which would seem to give them a two-edged advantage. Now that 1000 mAh AAAs are available, they should provide long and steady performance.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
non-alkaline batteries offer no useful advantages yet have potential problems on 01/30/2007 16:16:47 MST Print View

The particular avalanche beacon cited in the article (Mammut Barryvox Opto 3000) is rated for TWO HUNDRED HOURS minimum transmit time, with "usually more than THREE HUNDRED HOURS" [emphasis added].
So I don't see any advantages in using batteries that the beacon was never designed to have compatability with, especially since extending the transmit life is essentially worthless, as even if you have go on a trip where you plan to keep the beacon on for more than 200 hours, you'll have no idea how much battery life is remaining if you're using batteries that the beacon's remaining life indicator can't interpret correctly.

Douglas Frick
(Otter) - MLife

Locale: Wyoming
Re: Li Batteries in a Transceiver on 01/30/2007 23:11:14 MST Print View

This was mentioned in my avy class tonight: some manufacturer's beacon actually did malfunction because the batteries were not exactly those specified for the device. I'll try to find out more on Thursday.

Edited by Otter on 01/31/2007 12:00:26 MST.

Douglas Frick
(Otter) - MLife

Locale: Wyoming
Re: Re: Li Batteries in a Transceiver on 01/31/2007 12:00:57 MST Print View

>This was mentioned in my avy class tonight...

The batteries were Duracell Powerpix, in a BCA beacon (evidently a Tracker). "BCA suggests using alkaline batteries for the Tracker."

Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
Re: Li Batteries in a Transceiver on 01/31/2007 15:20:25 MST Print View

I downloaded some owners manuals (2 Ortovox, 1 Pieps) and sure enough, they all advise only alkaline and proscribe rechargeables. Hard to say why they're the chosen variety other than their ubiquity (far better to have poor batteries than no batteries). The poor cold-weather response and steady voltage drop would imply better solutions are available.

I'll guess that they could recalibrate the battery meters to accommodate different cells if they so chose, but these are low-volume electronics so there's probably no compelling reason to do so. Interestingly, two of the units I looked at have a scant 1-hour search time, the other gives 10 hours with fresh batteries, 1 with worn.

FWIW there's no mention of lithium cells in any of the manuals.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
Please, just use regular alkaline batteries! on 01/31/2007 16:32:16 MST Print View

That 1-hr search time is just an absolute guaranteed minimum. For example, the BCA DTS Tracker specifies 50 hrs search time for fresh batteries. (Having tested every avalanche beacon on the market this year for an upcoming comparison table, I know firsthand that search time is way longer than one hour with fresh batteries.) But the max search time is somewhat moot, since a burial longer than 30 minutes is almost impossible to survive (except with an Avalung), and given how long probing and shoveling takes (google Strategic Shoveling if you're interested in more details), if you need more than 5, maybe 10 minutes of beacon searching, you're probably too late.
Alternatives to alkalines have their uses, but NOT in avalanche beacons! And as an avalanche safety instructor, I am very concerned about all this "what-if" speculation about alternative batteries -- avalanche safety has very few hard & fast rules, but alkaline batteries is one of them.

paul johnson
(pj) - F

Locale: LazyBoy in my Den - miss the forest
Re: Please, just use regular alkaline batteries! on 02/01/2007 03:46:17 MST Print View

I'm fr/New England. No experience with avvies, or beacons. So please take the following as legitimate ques. (which they are) & not objections.

What about the poor cold weather performance of alkalines? Does the fact that even a fresh, fully charged alkalines can have as little as 30% of it's available energy at temps sometimes encountered in winter activities, whereas Li would still have 70% of their energy available? Is a beacon worn next to the body & under insulating layers, making OAT somewhat of a moot point?

Many thanks for taking the time to educate me.

Jonathan Shefftz
(jshefftz1) - MLife

Locale: Western Mass.
Beacons perform perfectly fine in cold temps w/ alkaline batteries... on 02/01/2007 08:22:43 MST Print View

A beacon should *always* be worn under at least one layer. A typical tour might start out with the beacon being worn over a shirt yet under a windshirt or soft shell. Then at higher elevations with more wind exposure etc additional insulating layers might go over it.
Either way, avy beacons are designed so that with regular alkaline batteries you can continuously transmit for at least 200 hours even in cold weather and then still be able to perform a search.
There are no documented instances of transmit life being seriously compromised because of cold weather.
There are, by contrast, numerous documented instances of some aspect of the beacon functionality being compromised by using something other than regular non-rechargeable alkaline batteries.

Jim Jones
(fsb4e) - F
High Vivisibility Insulated Clothing on 02/06/2010 11:22:50 MST Print View

Hi guys. I copied and paste this article i found from a company that distributes Insulated /clothing. Its mainly geared towards industrial use (search and rescue, fire dept, cold storage freezer, meat packers, etc) but thought it would be interesting to share. Perhaps its something we can use in our backpacking winter gear.

American Safety Associates, LLC announced immediate availability High Visibility Insulated Clothing for cold working environments. ASA, LLC also announced that just two months after availability, the Hi Vis Insulated Clothing line was the number one product lined searched for in their website. The availability of high visibility clothing has given many users the option of not only having the added benefits of thermal protection from cold outdoor working environments but also increased safety with its bright and highly visible Lime and Orange clothing shell as well as its 3M reflective tape sewn in each protective garment. These insulated work wear offer a comfort rating of -50 degrees.
For more information on American Safety Associates, LLC:

Hi Jim

This is your first posting here, and it comes across as an indirect advertisement for ASA. We have a lot of problems with spam postings, and we have a very hard rule that you MUST disclose any vested interest you may have in what you are talking about.

Industrial clothing is not really what BPL is about: it is always made very robustly which makes it heavy.

Now, it may be that you have no connection with ASA at all, in which case I have over-reacted. Please let me know.

Roger Caffin
Online Community Monitor
Backpacking Light

Edited by rcaffin on 02/06/2010 14:34:42 MST.