Why Wearing a Vest Instead of a Backpack in Avalanche Terrain Can Be Dangerous:

Miles Clark | | AvalancheAvalancheFeatured ArticleFeatured Article
Backcountry vest with open carry system.  Dangerous.
Backcountry vest with open carry system. Dangerous.

I’ve been seeing a strong emergence of people wearing vests in the backcountry instead of backpacks.

Wearing a vest where you wear your avalanche gear on the outside in avalanche terrain in dangerous.  Period.

Why is it dangerous?  Simple:  Your gear is not enclosed.  Your shovel blade, your shovel handle, and your probe are on the outside of your vest.

Backcountry vest with open carry system.  Dangerous.
Backcountry vest with open carry system. Dangerous.

One of the first rules of packing avalanche equipment is to have everything inside your pack.  You want it inside so that it doesn’t become detached and lost.

People who have been in avalanches are known to have had their pants removed by the avalanche.  If you are in an avalanche with a vest on where your gear is on the outside of the vest, there is a good chance it’s going to be removed and lost.

Here is why it’s the above situation is so dangerous:  Imagine if you and your friend are in an avalanche together.  You’re wearing a vest with your gear on the outside.  After the avalanche stops, you’re on top and your buddy is buried 2 meters down.

Backcountry vest with open carry system.  Dangerous.
Backcountry vest with open carry system. Dangerous.
Backcountry vest with open carry system.  Dangerous.
Backcountry vest with open carry system. Dangerous.

You go to grab your shovel – gone.  You go to grab your probe – gone, as well.  Now, your buddy dies for sure because you didn’t have the tools to dig him out of the avalanche debris.

This is very simple.  Do not wear a vest where your gear is on the outside, ever.  Don’t wear your gear on the outside of your backpack either, for that matter.

I often call people out on this and they say “yeah, but this pack has a spot for my probe with a buckle.”  Do you think an avalanche cares about that buckle and holster?  Would you trust someone’s life with that buckle and holster?  An avalanche can rip that shovel handle, shovel blade, and probe right off there.

Backcountry vest with closed carry system.  These are safe.
Backcountry vest with closed carry system. These are safe.

There are some vests on the market that offer enclosures for your gear.  These are swell.  Get one of those.

Your best chance for keeping your avalanche gear is putting it inside a backpack or inside a vest that has enclosures for your gear.  


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18 thoughts on “Why Wearing a Vest Instead of a Backpack in Avalanche Terrain Can Be Dangerous:

  1. As an AIARE Avy instructor I agree with this post 100%!!
    Great job on this post. Education is the best defense. Now go have fun out there!!

  2. I get your point, but that seems like a HUGELY unlikely scenario, assuming you’re following fairly standard ‘one person on the slope at a time’ protocols.’ Probably still a point worth making though.

    Perhaps more pertinently, if you’re in a slide and you get stripped of gear that’s then left in the debris trail behind you, your buddies will probably take longer to get to you as they’ll probably want to check you’re not still attached to whatever bits of kit are visible in the avi path.

    1. Hey Matt, I hadn’t thought of your pertinent point. Also a potential scenario with backcountry travelers. Good point. thanks.

  3. it’s the beacon you must worry about not getting ripped from you having your probe outside is not a problem. as a matter of fact i believe your supposed to ditch your gear and swim if in avalanche. this article is pointless. – 13 year class a pro-

    1. Rick, you certainly don’t want to ditch your avalanche gear, ever. If you can, you want to ditch your skis, poles, snowboard. The idea is that skis, poles, and boards could assist in pulling you down deeper into the avalanche debris.

  4. Give Miles a break he is a ski bum. Skiing and grammar do not mix. The more hard core the skier, the worse the grammar. Be careful though as some intentional have poor grammar to be more gnarly.

  5. Howdy Miles,
    Just curious: could you provide any data, published or online, or any links to any data documenting the loss rates of externally carried avy gear? I am honestly curious — I’ve been looking for such a study for quite a while and have not been able to find anything other than “it’s stupid, duh”.

    1. Hey Graham,

      Great question. Never seen a study. This is just what they teach in basic Avy 1 courses. Study wise, I’d be surprised if there were any. I think most people do carry their gear enclosed. thanks.

  6. Hey Miles,

    Thanks. Honestly, the NF vest looks like a disaster waiting on the first invert but anyway. I ended up emailing Bruce in Utah, Bill in Idaho and Doug in Montana to ask if they know of any studies…if they don’t know, nobody in the USA will.

  7. Everything is strapped in pretty well with that North Face vest. The straps holding the gear in are just as likely to fail as the straps that hold a pack to your body. I think it would be easier to have your whole pack ripped off in an avalanche than to have a piece of gear pulled out of it’s pocket.

    1. agreed. pants, packs, vests, it makes no difference. they all can and have been ripped off in slides.
      this article is just personal opinion with nothing whatsoever to back it up other than even more people’s personal opinions.

      i will agree that if you can get into a normal crash while skiing, and all your avy gear yardsales out of your vest (or pack, for the people that like to strap their gear to the outside of their undersized ski packs) then common sense dictates you might simply fall over and lose your gear before it’s ever needed.

      but enclosed or not, if its secured by nylon straps and plastic buckles it’s not that much of a difference.

      @rick, you’d wanna keep your pack due to the physics of inverse granulation, which say that a bigger object (you with a pack) are more likely to settle to the top of a bunch of little smaller objects (snowflakes). thats why the crumbs are always at the bottom of the cereal box. and why airbags are useful in avys.

      last but not least the amount of people getting simultaneously getting caught in a powerful enough avalanche to rip their secured gear off and then still need to dig out their buried buddies are pretty frikn low. instead of arguing about vests vs packs maybe the time could be spent teaching these guys the importance of choosing terrain that can be ridden 1 at a time safely, and riding avy terrain one at a time.

  8. Old article, but the ideas are still relevant. Nonetheless, I disagree that these vests are always dangerous and should never be used. For resort and very-near side-country riding where most people aren’t going to wear a pack at all because they are a bulky pain, these vests are great. The more people carrying gear the better. I was almost caught in a small inbounds slide at Squaw last season and it made me realize that at many of our favorite resorts we should always be carrying avy gear. These vests make that more likely.

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