How to Stay Safe in Avalanche Country

  1. Take an avalanche safety training course. Knowledge is your best defense against the danger of avalanches, and there's no better way to gain firsthand knowledge than by taking an avalanche safety course.
  2. Pay attention to forecasts and heed warnings. In many mountainous areas, these forecasts are regularly updated throughout the avalanche season. You may be able to find this information on the internet, on local radio and TV, or by calling hot lines. Be flexible in your plans. If an avalanche advisory is in effect, postpone or reroute your trip.
  3. Travel in a group. If you're alone and get buried or seriously injured in an avalanche, your odds of survival are slim to none. It's wise to always travel with at least one other person, and make sure your companions are trained in avalanche safety and rescue. Cross dangerous slopes one-person-at-a-time. While there's safety in numbers, an avalanche can sweep the whole group away in an instant. If you must cross an avalanche-prone slope, only one person should be in danger at any given time, and the rest should watch him or her carefully.
  4. Be prepared. When traveling into avalanche country, carrying some simple equipment can save your life.
  • Slope meter: This is the single most important took you can have to avoid avalanche danger. The large majority of avalanches (90%) occur on slopes of 30-45 degrees, so use your slope meter to determine the angle of a slope before attempting to cross or climb the slope. If the angle is in the danger range, avoid the slope.
  • Rescue beacon: Wear a rescue beacon on your top layer of clothing beneath your coat. Switch in on and test it before you set out.
  • Avalanche cord: Attach one end of the cord (usually about 30 feet long) and drag the cord behind you. If you get buried in an avalanche, at least part of the cord should stay above the surface.
  • Collapsible avalanche probes. Every member of a group should carry probes to search for buried victims in the event of an avalanche.
  • Shovels: Everyone should also carry a shovel to dig out people that have been buried.
  • Possible substitutes: In a pinch, ski poles can substitute for probes, and skis or snowboards can be used as shovels. But remember, these substitutes are not nearly as effective as the real things, however, so carry probes and shovels to be safe.
  • Recognize nature's warning signs. The surest sign of avalanche danger is evidence of recent avalanches; they demonstrate that local conditions are right for more. Also keep in mind that 95% of avalanches occur during or within 24 hours of heavy rain or snowfall, and high winds also contribute to avalanche formation, so try to avoid heading off packed trails in these conditions. Particularly warm days, with thawing or temperatures that approach or surpass freezing, are also high-risk. Another warning is if snow cracks, collapses, or makes a "whumph" sound beneath you; that's a sure sign that the snow is stressed and can't bear your weight.
  • Visualize your escape route. Before you even step foot on a potentially dangerous slope, scope it out to determine where you can go if an avalanche happens. Sometimes there may be isolated areas of safety, such as rock outcroppings or a stand of trees, on the slope. Seek the quickest safe way across avalanche slopes, and have a plan before you attempt to cross them.
  • Cross slopes at the top or bottom, not in the middle. If an avalanche starts when you're in the middle of a slope, you'll likely have to go too far to reach safety in time. If, however, you're near the bottom or at the very top, you may be able to quickly move out of the way or avoid danger altogether. If you must go up or down a potentially dangerous slope, stick close to the edge and go straight up or down. Don't crisscross the slope or travel up the middle.
  • Study the weather. Learn how to recognize conditions that generate hoar frost and other avalanche promoting conditions. For example, if you know that the area received freezing rain before the last snowfall, the odds of an unstable slab are much higher.
  • Sources:

    Avalanche Center
    Mountain Zone
    National Snow and Ice Data Center