Editor’s note:  This post originally ran January 11, 2008 but we find the information to still be valid and we aren’t finding any newer greater developments out there. Rather than technological improvements, a big development would simply be getting everyone to consider a probe a mandatory piece of equipment for backcountry skiing and snowshoeing as well as getting people not to cut corners on getting a probe that will be long enough and durable enough should an hour of need arise.

In our review of the book Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering, we asserted that virtually every page contained new knowledge and new ideas than even old hands could learn from. This excerpted discussion of avalanche probes, for example, covered a number of points we didn’t know or hadn’t considered.

Dedicated probe vs. Ski Poles

Why not simply carry ski poles that turn into a probe? The answer: time. It can take upward of a few minutes to turn ski poles into a probe, whereas a modern probe requires around ten seconds to construct. The mean rescue time for U.S. avalanches between 2000 and 2006 was eighteen minutes. If it takes three minutes to put your probe together, you’ve wasted 16 percent of your total rescue time fiddling with your probe.

Another reason is the potential for losing one of your ski poles. When caught in an avalanche, and unable to ski out, letting go of equipment is standard procedure. It’s conceivable that both you and your partner could get caught in the slide and that you are not buried. Now you are your partner’s only chance of survival, but you no longer have your probe poles.

That said, it’s a good idea to carry both a dedicated probe and probe poles. You have to carry poles anyway, and probe poles provide backup in case of a broken probe during a rescue.

Probe Material

Probes come in three materials: steel, aluminum, and carbon. Where you’re frantically probing in avalanche debris, the best probe is a steel probe. That is what most search and rescue probes are made of. Steel probes are extremely durable and penetrate the snow very well. The problem is weight. These probes can weigh upward of several pounds—not very practical for backcountry travel.

Aluminum probes have been the standard for the backcountry traveler. Both weight and cost are reasonable. An average 2.4 meter probe made of aluminum weighs in around 250 grams (8.8 ounces). Carbon, on the other hand weights a little less, but will cost you more money.

A weigh on weight: Is light always right? Not always. Consider what you’ll be using a probe for: saving you partner’s life. This is a rescue tool, and if you ever need it, you’ll want the longest, strongest probe made. When standing in the ski shop, explore all the options. The weight difference between the lightest and heaviest backcountry probe is 170 grams (6 ounces). It’s not uncommon for a backcountry ski pack to weigh in at 1800 grams (4 pounds). More modern, lightweight packs can weigh around 1100 grams (2.5 pounds). Before shaving grams from lifesaving equipment, consider saving the weight elsewhere; a lighter pack, lighter food, or less stuff overall are all better options than a broken probe.

Probe Length

The minimum length of an effective probe is 2 meters (6 feet). This provides enough length to probe below the typical burial depth. That said, we recommend a longer probe of between 2.4 and 3 meters. The reasons are twofold:

  • Increased durability. As probe length increases, so does the gauge (thickness) of the probe. If you’re frantically probing for your partner, this added durability helps reduce breakage.
  • More efficient probing. Maybe you don’t probe down the full length of your probe. But if you only have 1.8-meter probe, you just might. A longer probe allows more space between your hands while gripping the probe. A wider space minimizes the chance of breaking the probe and it’s easier on your back.

Other Probe Features

Markings. Some probes come with incremental markings on them (in centimeters, because the snow science standard is metric). This adds a few dollars in cost, but it’s worth it. These markings are used for two purposes: to replace a standard rule when creating a snow profile and to measure the depth of a buried skier, which is very important (see “Avalanche Companion Rescue).

Locking mechanism.  One key difference you’ll notice between different probe brands and models are the locking mechanisms. All probes come in sections joined by some sort of cord or metal cable. When the probe gets tossed out to extend, the slack in the cord is taken up by the locking mechanism to produce a rigid probe. In the store, try out different styles and see which one you prefer, although the main criterion is the time a probe takes to construct. Can the mechanism ice up or get stuck? You may also want to try the probes out while wearing gloves. A probe with an adjustable locking mechanism can take up the slack in the cable as it stretches with use. Slack can develop over time if the probe is used frequently for snow profiles or to probe around glaciers looking for a crevasse-free campsite (another great use for your probe).

Probe  Recommendations (by WenatcheeOutdoors.org)

The discussion of probes above was excerpted from Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering by Volken, Schell, and Wheeler. It’s typical of the book’s handling of equipment – excellent information but leaving you wanting to know specific makes and models of probe these guides have used and recommend. Consequently, we called Martin Volken (a Swiss mountain guide and the owner of Pro Ski Service, a ski shop in North Bend) and asked him for his recommendations. He carries a probe that’s on the longer end of the recommended range for the same reasons the book recommends (in an emergency you’re going to want the best tool, not the one that is an ounce or two lighter). Of the many probes he’s used and tested, he recommends either Black Diamond’s Guide Probe 300 (3 meters long, 11.8 ounces, $60) or the Ortovox Aluminum 320 pfa (3.2 meters long, 13 oz, $80). Neither of these products have made too many functional sacrifices in the goal to be lightweight. Both companies also make shorter probes in the 2.4- to 2.6-meter range.

This post was originally published on 12/23/10.

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