Every year there are more and more incidents of people getting into trouble by venturing off piste without the necessary knowledge or equipment. With modern skis and snowboards making it easier than ever to ski in deep powder, that untouched but deadly slope not far from the marked ski area increasingly looks more and more tempting.
With all aspects of avalanche and mountain safety, knowledge is king. It isn't all about carrying fancy expensive rescue kit. If you find yourself in a position where you need to rescue someone from a slide, then something has gone badly wrong in your planning.
So the first stage of being prepared for skiing/boarding safely off piste is become educated. You can get useful books and DVD's covering the basics (see below) but nothing is better than going on a mountain safety or avalanche awareness course with a mountain guide. These can range from single day outings to multiday courses.
We recommend Mountain Tracks who offer an excellent range of avalanche awareness courses. You can also try the International School of Mountaineering. However, you don't necessarily need to book onto a specific course. When you are out in resort, see about hiring a mountain guide for the day. As long as they speak good English, you can get an excellent day's skiing, and he can spend the day teaching you a little bit about what to look at for.
Another good site to visit is Henry's Avalanche Talk.
So, now you have a bit of knowledge, now it is time for the kit! The essential gear for all off piste skiers and boarders is a transceiver, probe and shovel. You also need to know how to use them (hopefully this will have been covered by your course instructor). A common mistake to make is to think "I don't need any specialist gear because I am not going far off piste". There is no such thing as a little bit off piste. You are either on piste or off piste, and if you are off piste you could be in avalanche danger.
Get the kit and always carry it with you when you are off piste. Make sure you know how to use it, and make sure you ski/board with people who also carry a transceiver, shovel and probe and who also know how to use it.
Snowsafe is a good place to get all your mountain safety equipment.
Finally, after getting some knowledge and some kit, you need to check to see what the snow/weather conditions are like. Before venturing off piste, check the avalanche bulletin for your ski area. If you don't have internet access while away on holiday, ask a ski patroller. They will be able to tell you what the conditions are like.
Ski safe and have fun!