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How to Choose an Avalanche Probe

As the last member of the holy trinity of backcountry gear, (beacon, shovel, probe) the avalanche probe is often the most overlooked. Everyone loves a good gizmo, and the shovel can serve non-emergency duty building sweet kickers, but what does the probe do for you? Avalanche probes help you pinpoint the exact location of an avalanche victim and measure the burial depth. Use of a probe in a burial situation has been show to cut up to fifteen minutes off rescue times, making it an essential part of a successful recovery. All three pieces of avalanche safety gear are mandatory: transciever, shovel, and probe, so making sure you get the right avalanche probe to suit your needs and learning how to use it is key to becoming a competent backcountry traveller. 

Choosing the Right Avalanche Probe Length

A major consideration when choosing your probe should be the average depth of your local snowpack. As a general rule, you want an avalanche probe that is no shorter than two meters, and longer than that is better if you have space in your pack for it. 

Longer probes provide more space between your hands, which minimizes the chance of breaking the probe. They are also easier on your back when working a probe line for long periods of time and tend to be made of heavier gauge and more durable material. The downside of a longer probe is a slightly heavier weight and more cumbersome packability. Somewhere between 240 and 300 centimeters is typically a happy medium.

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Avalanche Probe Materials?

Generally speaking, avalanche probes come in either aluminum or carbon construction. While both are quality materials, each come with their own pros and cons, meaning there's no best way to make an avalache probe. Some people have more than one probe for different conditions.

Carbon Fiber Avalanche Probes

Carbon is lighter in weight than aluminum, but also tends to be more expensive. Ski tourists in the fast-and-light camp who cover big distances and rack up a lot of vertical favor lighter, shorter carbon avalanche probes to conserve pack weight and volume.

Aluminum Avalance Probes

While slightly heavier, aluminum avy probes penetrate tough and dense snow more effectively. Remember that avalanche debris sets up and becomes difficult to probe very quickly. In addition, they are more durable and often come in longer lengths. Avalanche professionals and patrollers tend to choose longer, heavier aluminum probes.

Functionality & Deployment

The probe you choose should be fast and easy to deploy, and you should be familiar with how to use it. Practice at home with gloves on before taking it into the backcountry. Most modern probes can be deployed in seconds by “whipping” them out and pulling on the string or cable that holds the sections together. If you have difficulty removing your probe from its bag, consider leaving the bag at home. There are some hybrid products on the market that function as both ski poles and a probe. These are not a replacement for a traditional, dedicated avalanche probe. When a partner is buried you don’t want to spend an extra minute or two removing baskets and screwing pole sections together.

We recommend that backcountry travelers take an AIARE Level One class or equivalent and practice the skills they learn there regularly with their partners. Here are some great resources for avalanche safety education:

— American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education
— American Avalanche Association
— Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center
— Avalanche Canada

You should carry an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe when travelling in avalanche terrain and know how to use them. Backcountry travel requires an acceptance of the risks involved (avalanches are not the only danger) and implies a willingness to take responsibility for educating oneself about these dangers and ways to mitigate them.