How To Stay Safe In An Avalanche: The Complete Guide

January 16, 2022

Man walking in snow with snow gear

Whether you're skiing, snowshoeing, or riding a snowmobile, avalanches are always a threat on snowy mountains. Every year, an average of 28 people die from getting caught and buried in an avalanche. Take note that not everyone who dies in an avalanche is inexperienced. Even the most experienced skiers and snowboarders have died from avalanches.

If you're planning to go on a skiing trip or a backcountry tour, you need to be prepared for anything that might happen. Especially avalanche danger. The best way to stay safe in an avalanche is to acknowledge the possibility that it might happen to you. From there, you can learn how to avoid getting caught in it.

Today, we will be discussing how you can avoid avalanches and the various avalanche safety gear you'll need. While we're going to share a complete guide with you, we highly suggest that you take an avalanche course as well.

Going through an avalanche course will prepare you for the worst and increase your chances of survival if you ever do get caught in an avalanche. This blog post is primarily for awareness and to give beginners and new backcountry travelers an idea of the dangers of avalanches.

Let's dive right in!

Why Do Avalanches Occur?

Avalanches occur when soil, rocks, or snow slide off the side of steep slopes. They can be triggered by storms, earthquakes, or temperature changes. But, they are usually triggered by human activities. A skier who shreds down the mountain or a hiker who walks on an unstable snowpack can easily trigger an avalanche. This causes the unstable surface layer of snow to slip off from the underlying layer.

Snow is heavier than you think. In an avalanche, snow can wipe out everything in its path. They also say that once the snow settles, the snow at the bottom is almost like concrete, leaving anyone buried underneath completely immobile. 

If you ever get caught and buried under an avalanche, you can suffocate if you aren't found in the first 15 minutes. At 35 minutes, the survival rate of a person buried in an avalanche goes down to 27%, and if a person still isn't found at the 90-minute mark, they are probably dead.

We say this not to scare you, but rather to make you aware of the danger you face when you head out onto the mountain. With proper care and preparation, you will not have to worry about avalanche danger! Obviously, a huge part of that starts with learning how to avoid avalanches.

How To Avoid Avalanches

The saddest thing about avalanche fatalities is that they can easily be avoided. Educating yourself is the best way to avoid avalanches and increase your odds of survival. Here are some things we recommend you keep in mind on your next excursion.

Do not hike or ski after a storm

Avalanches are more likely to happen if you hike or ski during or within 24 hours after a snowstorm. The accumulation of new snow on steep slopes combined with human behavior presents a risk for a catastrophic avalanche.

Avoid skiing or venturing on ultra-steep slopes

Avoid sliding on slopes steeper than 30-degrees. These slopes have a higher risk of experiencing an avalanche. Using an inclinometer can help you determine whether a slope is too steep to ski or climb on.

You should also be aware of possible terrain traps such as large trees, rocks, creeks, and gullies. These are parts of the terrain that make getting caught in an avalanche much more dangerous. You could become lodged against them rather than sliding all the way down.

Stay on the windward side of gently sloping ridges

Windward is the direction where the wind is coming from. Slopes that are on the windward side of the mountain usually have a thinner layer of snow. Staying on the windward side of gently sloping ridges decreases your risk of avalanche danger.

Be wary of treeless slopes

Yes, we just told you that trees, especially large ones, are considered terrain traps. But, you should also avoid treeless slopes.

Slopes that have no trees may be a sign that an avalanche has occurred here before. And as we all know, history tends to repeat itself. If there was an avalanche there in the past it is likely because the ideal conditions for an avalanche exist.

Watch for cracks and listen

If you see any cracks or slabs of snow that have sheared off, avoid them. Also, keep an ear out for any hollow thumping noises as you walk on the snow. These are signs that the layer of snow is unstable which may lead to an avalanche. If you hear that thumping, you should head back down the mountain carefully.

Stick to skiing resorts

To avoid all chances of getting caught in an avalanche, stick to a skiing resort. Skiing resorts will always make sure that their skiing slopes are free from any hazards, especially avalanche risks. If you're venturing into an unknown area, you're on your own.

How To Stay Safe In Avalanche Terrain

Avalanche terrain are areas of the mountain where avalanches can occur under the right circumstances.

Gentle sloping ridges are also sometimes considered avalanche terrain. That's because they still have a possibility of experiencing avalanches if the snowpack happens to be unstable. To stay safe in avalanche terrain here's what you should do:

Know the forecast

Before you hit the slopes you need to know the forecast to make predictions on avalanche risk. Forecasters will rate avalanche conditions from low to extreme. Here's what each rating means:

Green or low risk:

  • Generally safe avalanche conditions.
  • Watch for unstable snow on isolated terrain features.
  • Natural and human-triggered avalanches are unlikely.
  • Small avalanches in isolated areas or extreme terrain.

 Yellow or moderate risk:

  • Heightened avalanche conditions on specific terrain features. Evaluate snow and terrain carefully; identify features of concern.
  • Natural avalanches are unlikely; human-triggered avalanches are possible.
  • Small avalanches in specific areas; or large avalanches in isolated areas.

 Orange or considerable risk:

  • Dangerous avalanche conditions. Careful snowpack evaluation, cautious route-finding, and conservative decision-making are essential.
  • Natural avalanches possible; human-triggered avalanches likely.
  • Small avalanches in many areas; or large avalanches in specific areas; or very large avalanches in isolated areas.

 Red or high risk:

  • Very dangerous avalanche conditions. Travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended.
  • Natural avalanches are likely; human-triggered avalanches are very likely.
  • Large avalanches in many areas; or large avalanches in specific areas

 Black or extreme risk:

  • Avoid all avalanche terrain.
  • Natural and human-triggered avalanches are certain.
  • Large to very large avalanches in many areas.

Get avalanche training

Taking an avalanche course is one of the best decisions you can make if you're planning to go on a trip to the snowy mountains. It is essential even if you don’t plan to ski, climb, or snowmobile very often. This is especially true for beginners. Knowing the fundamentals can make your trip much safer and increase your survival rate if ever you find yourself in the worst-case scenario.

Gear up

Having the proper gear when you're hiking or skiing on snow-covered mountains is a must. We're not talking about just your clothes or other accessories, we mean essential safety gear that will come in handy if you ever find yourself in an avalanche—or if you ever need to help rescue others who are buried in an avalanche.

The Most Important Avalanche Safety Gear To Keep In Your Arsenal

People tend to overlook avalanche safety gear, especially when they're first starting out. But you can never be too sure of what may happen during your backcountry travel. Mother nature is not a force that is easily dealt with. You'll be glad to have your safety gear with you if anything does happen on your ski trip or hike. Here is the different avalanche safety gear you should always carry with you on your adventures that might not only save your life but other people's lives as well:

Avalanche Backpacks

Avalanche backpacks act like any other backpack and can be used to store all your essential items. But the key feature of avalanche backpacks is that they come with built-in airbags. God forbid that you get caught in an avalanche. But if you do, these airbags will help you stay above the debris and lower the risk of you getting buried underneath all the snow.

The airbags in the backpack do little to protect you from terrain traps such as trees or rocks that you might hit down the slope. So, you'll still have to be wary of these. But, the backpack will keep you from being buried and also makes it easier for rescuers to find you.

Avalanche Transceiver

An avalanche transceiver acts as a beacon for people who end up buried under the snow. The transceiver emits a pulsed radio signal that can be received by other transceivers. This means that the transceiver not only allows you to be found by a rescuer. But, it also allows you to find people buried in the snow. 

Avalanche Rescue Probe

The probe stick is used by rescuers together with the avalanche transceiver, but it also comes in handy if the person doesn't have a transceiver on them. Once the rescuers have found the general area of the body, the rescuer uses the probe stick to identify the exact location and depth of the body. You simply stick the probe into the snow repeatedly until you have felt the body.

Probe sticks usually have depth markings on them that allow rescuers to compare the distance readings on the avalanche transceiver and confirm whether they've found a "positive strike". A positive strike means they've found exactly where the body is buried.

Snow Shovel

Once the body is found using the avalanche transceiver and probe stick, rescuers need to use a snow shovel to dig out the body. Digging out the body is one of the most tiring parts of rescuing someone from an avalanche.

This is why an avalanche airbag backpack and transceiver are all important to carry. This makes finding a body much easier. It helps to reduce the time rescuers might waste digging in the wrong spot. Thus, increasing a person's likelihood of surviving. Remember - the first 15 minutes are the most important.

Keep Yourself Safe and Prepared From Avalanches with Outdoorplay Safety Gear

The outdoors is beautiful but it is not without its dangers. A fun day in the wilderness can instantly turn into a nightmare if you aren't equipped with the right knowledge and tools to handle the situation—especially on snowy mountains where avalanches may occur.

Going through an avalanche training course and buying the proper safety gear can make the biggest difference in your backcountry experience. If you want to avoid the worst-case scenario educate yourself and always have avalanche safety gear on hand.

Whether you're buying gear for yourself or are training to rescue others, keep in mind that someone's life is on the line. That means you need a brand that you can trust. Outdoor Play is the #1 online store for reliable and high-quality snow essentials. We have everything from apparel to snow accessories and of course, avalanche safety gear.

You can find different kinds and sizes of avalanche backpacks in our catalogs, as well as avalanche transceivers, probe sticks, and snow shovels that are also sold together in sets. Your gear can save your life and the life of your companions so make sure that you're choosing the best brand and don't skimp out on quality.

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Jason SchroederOperations/Sales LeaderJason has lived in four national parks, stoking a lifelong spark for adventure and sharing his knowledge and love for the outdoors. He has been a dedicated member of the team at Outdoorplay for over 20 years in many roles, including outreach and group sales for community paddling clubs and government organizations. Jason enjoys watersports of all kinds: kayaking, paddle boarding, rafting - and if you've never tried, he'll be the first to tell you there's no time like the present.