Off-piste skiing and riding is ever more popular, and understandably so as getting away from the crowds among high mountain scenery and making first tracks in fresh powder snow are magical experiences. It can never be completely safe - you go off-piste completely at your own risk but your chances of survival are greatly increased if you are properly guided and equipped.
Never venture off-piste - even just off the side of the piste - alone. Avalanches are not the only danger - there may also be unmarked obstacles, trees, crevasses and cliffs. If you have an accident alone, no one may know. And normally you should certainly never go far off-piste unless you are with a reliable and qualified local ski instructor or mountain guide, who can assess the conditions, the terrain and your ability.
What equipment do I need for going off piste?
There is a good range of avalanche safety equipment on the market these days. If you do decide to go off-piste (or 'out of bounds' as they say in the States), you should be equipped with, and have been trained how to use, an avalanche transceiver. This contrasts strongly with North American resorts, which have ski area boundaries - usually marked by a rope. Within the boundary, there are marked trails (like European pistes) and many have big open ('bowl') areas - often steeper and hairier than any European pistes. These areas are patrolled, protected from avalanche danger and closed when the risk is considered too great. So long as receiver.
While skiing or riding, everyone in a group has their peeps set on 'transmit'; if there is an avalanche, those not buried by it turn their peeps to 'receive' - they can then receive the signals sent out by their buried companions and by gradually reducing the sensitivity of the receiver track them down under the snow. But you need to be very well trained in transceiver use to do this quickly and effectively. New digital transceivers are on sale which are meant to be easier and quicker to use than old-style ones.
Recco reflectors are a simple cheap precaution as well, though they are not, by any means, a substitute for a proper avalanche transceiver. Most major resorts are now equipped with Recco detectors which emit a directional signal. When the signal hits a Recco reflector, even under 10m of snow, the frequency is doubled and sent back to the receiver in the detector.
Recco reflectors can be stuck on to your boots or sewn into your clothing. But Recco detectors (as opposed to reflectors) are specialized and expensive pieces of equipment carried by the rescue services - so the search doesn't start until the rescue personnel arrive on the scene.
Other essential equipment includes avalanche probes and a collapsible shovel - to locate buried people and dig them out. It is also sensible to take a whistle, flares, a length of rope and a survival bag as well. All of this can be carried in a small day pack or rucksack - many of these come with a some sort of water storage pack as well. Extra clothing (gloves, hat, goggles) and high-energy food should also be kept in your rucksack.
Most specialist ski shops sell most of the above individually or as part of an off-piste pack.
Your off-piste guide should always have a radio and keep his or her colleagues elsewhere on the mountain or in the resort aware of the location of their group. Preferably, other group members should also have radios - and these days digital mobile phones can be useful too if you have to summon help.
How do I know if I'm off piste?
You should also know that a number of resorts, such as St Anton, Lech, Verbier and Zermatt have have removed 'piste' status from some of their best and toughest runs. These 'itinerary' runs have different classifications - ski routes, high touring routes etc - and may or may not be marked.
These runs are not groomed, hazards aren't usually marked either, and you can't count on them being patrolled (although some are). Unfortunately, the different classifications are inconsistent and therefore not particularly clear to their users. It also means that the resorts are washing their hands of any responsibility for some of their best and most popular runs - runs that they could quite easily monitor if they wanted to.
you stay within the boundary, the resort accepts responsibility so you know exactly where you stand. Avalanche deaths within the bounds of American ski resorts are virtually unheard of.