Avalanche Awareness Week: The one piece of avalanche equipment that hardly anyone talks about

Trent Ernst, Editor

You’ve got your beacon, your probe, your shovel. You may even have your avalanche airbag. But do you have a inclinometer?

No? You’re not alone. Many people don’t consider this an important piece of equipment. It’s not even listed on the gear page at avalanche.ca. But Bruce Tremper, author of Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, believes “…an inclinometer is one of the most important tools to carry in avalanche terrain.”

So, how can it be one of the most important tools to carry for one, but not even mentioned by another?

It is all in the adage: “The best way to survive an avalanche is to avoid being in an avalanche in the first place.”

Most avalanche gear is targeted towards surviving the avalanche: a beacon to locate a buried party member, a probe to find them, a shovel to dig them out.

The inclinometer, on the other hand, plays no role in rescuing a trapped person. It should be, however, a key tool in deciding whether a slope is dangerous or not.

There are many different types of avalanches. The most dangerous kind are slab avalanches. These generally happen on slopes between 25 and 45 degrees steep. On a slope that is less than 25 degrees, gravity tends to hold the snow in place, rather than having it start to move. Above 45 degrees, the snow will usually sluff before it can form into a bigger slab.

While most people will simply eyeball the slope, research has shown that most people are typically out by up to ten degrees this way, which can put people into more dangerous terrain than they thought.

The other problem is these are the perfect slopes for playing on, whether you be a sledder or a backcountry skier.

There are several ways to use an inclinometer. You can also use an old fashioned analog inclinometer, or buy a fancy digital one. Some of the most popular inclinometers are built into compasses, something else that you should be carrying when travelling in the backcountry.

One of the most popular is the Pieps 30 (pictured), which has the added bonus of having a built in temperature gauge. Skiers can simply strap one of these to their ski poles, then sight along the pole much like a gun at the top of the slope to get a reading.

There are even smartphone apps that will tell you the angle of a slope, but these should be used sparingly. A smartphone has many excellent uses in the backcountry, especially during an emergency, and firing it up just to measure the incline of a slope can severely impact the battery life of the phone.

The trick is having one and knowing how to use it. It’s not hard. You can use it from below the slope, beside the slope, or from the top. You can even measure the angle of the slope you’re on, though that might be a little late in the game.

You can use it to measure the angle of the slope, and, from there determine what your next course of action is, which sometimes is to avoid the area, and sometimes is to dig a test pit to see what the avalanche danger is for an area.

An inclinometer is just another tool in your arsenal. You need to know how to use it, and more importantly, know how to interpret the data it gives you. If a slope is wind loaded, with a weak layer, you should probably avoid it, even if the inclinometer says it is not in the danger zone.

As stated at the top of the article, the best way to survive an avalanche is to not be in one. Conditions change from day to day, even from hour to hour, so backcountry travelers need to be aware. That means making smart decisions, understanding the conditions, understanding how avalanches work and knowing how to bring it all together. Having an inclinometer won’t help if you make bad decisions, but it can help you make good ones.