Safety is pretty simple. It only becomes an issue when things go wrong. Fortunately, you are mostly in control by making the right choices. You are responsible for your actions in the backcountry. Or as the French say: ‘en quittant le domaine skiable vous gagnez votre responsabilité’. That's pretty clear, right? In order to prevent stuff going wrong there are some very simple rules to ride more responsible:
Of course, sometimes things go wrong. A miscalculation of the snow, rising fog, a wrong line or a friend who's skills weren't as good as he told you. Fortunately, it doesn't end with an (fatal) accident most of the time, but still. On average 100 people die in the backcountry in the Alps every year. Rescue operations to rescue skiers, touring skiers, hikers, climbers and other people are performed every year. Freeriding therefore is a risk sport. You make your own choices and you have to take responsibilty. Riding powder itself is not dangerous, it is the circumstances and ourselves that make it dangerous.
But what if things go wrong? You have done everything correctly, but accidents happen and you are still caught in an avalanche. At moments like this your life depends on your gear and how well you use it. Mountain rescue is too far away and you only have 15 minutes to dig your friend out of an avalanche to give him a reasonable chance of survival.
An avalanche transceiver, a shovel and a probe are the absolute basic gear for freeriders. If you do not own these or do you not know how they work, do not go off-piste. No exceptions. You must realise that this kind of gear are your last chance for survival if there is an accident.
An avalanche transceiver is simply a radio transmitter and transceiver which is used to locate people who are buried under an avalanche. It is also called an avalanche beacon. An avalanche transceiver can transmit and receive. When you wear your transceiver (when leaving your hotel or apartment) you also need to turn it on. The avalanche transceiver automatically transmits. When someone in your group is buried under an avalanche you will switch to 'receive' mode. Always carry the avalanche transceiver as close to your body as possible (in other words, not in your backpack) and keep your cell phone away from the avalanche transceiver, because that can interfere with the signal the transceiver is transmitting. We advise you to purchase a three-antenna avalanche transceiver. Although you need to practice with any kind of avalanche transceiver (you have limited time to locate and dig out the victim, so every second matters) the three antenna transceivers are the fastest and easiest to use. This price is higher than a transceiver with less antennas, but what is a hundred Euros compared to your friend's life?
A probe is (very simply put) a pricker. Using this you can locate the freerider who is buried by the avalanche. The probe belongs, together with the avalanche transceiver and the shovel, to the absolute basic gear of a freerider. It needs to be at least 2,40 meters long. And yes, we keep repeating ourselves, but it is extremely important to be always carrying this gear when riding off-piste.
An avalanche shovel is used to dig out people who are buried underneath an avalanche. Everyone in your group must carry a shovel. An avalanche shovel needs to be sturdy, because the chunks in an avalanche often have a high density and are often as hard as a rock. A metal scoop is always better than a plastic one. In addition to this a good avalanche shovel has a telescoping handle. The top of the shovel blade (not the part going into the snow) should be straight, because when you want to apply more pressure with your foot to push the shovel into the avalanche debris, your ski or snowboard boots will not slip off.
If you venture deeper into the backcountry (and rescue is far away) than you need to carry a first aid kit and a phone as well. And of course your shovel, beacon and probe!
Aside from the necessary avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe, other gear can help you avoid getting hurt during an accident or improve your chances if you are buried under an avalanche. Examples are the avalanche airbag, a helmet, cell phone and a first aid kit. These are examples of ‘good to have’ gear that are actually being promoted to ‘need to have’ nowadays—but only after you have an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe.
Let's talk about the airbag. The main difference between a backpack with an airbag compared to the standard gear of a freerider (avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe) is the preventative function. You use the avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe when a member of your group is caught by an avalanche and buried under the snow. You have around fifteen minutes to find him and dig him out. A backpack with an airbag will help you avoid being buried under the snow, improving your odds for survival when caught by an avalanche. On paper your chance of survival improves, but knowledge and proper decision-making are more important to riding off-piste than an avalanche airbag. Look at this like driving a car. Here, too, an airbag increases your chance of survival, but it is better to not get into an accident in the first place.
Other useful stuff:
The latter may sound a bit redundant, but a headlight may come in very handy. It is dark early in winter and an accident can cause delay. You can see better yourself and ski patrol can spot you better as well!