Backcountry Avalanche Safety Basics

Venturing into the backcountry is dangerous.

If you’re not properly prepared and equipped, an otherwise perfect day of snowboarding or skiing can turn deadly in an instant.

As backcountry skiing and snowboarding continues to grow, more skiers and snowboarders than ever before are crossing the tape and heading out of ski area boundaries in search of untracked pow and unparalleled adventure. And with this increased rise in backcountry riding comes an increased need for avalanche education and awareness.

The danger of avalanche is ever present in the backcountry. It doesn’t matter what the conditions are like or what the advisories are. It doesn’t matter how close you are to the ski area. When you are in the backcountry, you can’t let your guard down. You have to be ready for the worst at all times.

The backcountry is so dangerous because the snow conditions are unstable and largely unmanaged. There is no ski patrol beyond the tape to immediately come to your aid. Saving your life or your buddy’s life will be largely up to you. Over 150 people are killed by avalanches every year – don’t be one of them.

Fortunately, the vast majority of these deaths are preventable with the proper education, awareness, and safety equipment.

Avalanche Education

Taking an avalanche safety course or clinic is perhaps the single most important thing you can do to deal with the unexpected on the mountain.

Most ski resorts and ski areas regularly host these classes during the season. Many mountain towns and towns near mountains also host similar classes.

The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education lists a number of these courses. Start your search here and expand with a Google search for classes in your area. Make sure that the instructors are certified and experienced.

Avalanche safety courses go over much of the same information discussed here. However, that is no reason not to go. They cover everything in more detail, show real-life examples of rescue techniques, talk about location specific conditions, and answer questions that you might have.

Even if you’ve been to an avalanche safety class before, it is worth attending one again. You’ll probably know most of the information already but a refresher is a hell of a lot better than digging out the body of a dead friend.

First Aid Education

Every skier and snowboarder should have a basic knowledge of first aid. This is especially true if you regularly venture into the backcountry where emergency services are not close at hand.

Whether related to an avalanche or not, injury is common when skiing and snowboarding. Therefore, it pays off to know at least the basics of first aid:

  • CPR

  • Stopping bleeding wounds

  • Treating breaks and fractures

  • Preventing hypothermia

First Aid classes are relatively easy to find with a Google search in nearly any town in the United States and Canada. Wilderness First Aid will also prove to be a valuable research in pointing you in the right direction.

Avalanche Awareness

As mentioned above, it is essential that you are always aware of the danger of avalanche while in the backcountry.

Even when conditions seem absolutely perfect or you think you’re in a safe spot, the unexpected can occur.

A few of the ways you can improve your awareness include:

  • Avalanche Safety Course – Once again, a class will be able to fill you in on how to recognize and read snow conditions.

  • Books, Articles, and Videos – Supplementing what you learned from your class with as much additional information as possible is ideal. Learning more about how and why avalanches occur and what others did wrong in them can help you make the right decisions if worse comes to worse.

  • Experience – Unfortunately, experience is one of the only ways to truly learn to recognize avalanche terrain. Though they generally travel across smooth, exposed slopes, avalanches are significantly affected by slope angles, rocks, cornices, ledges, and vegetation. This is why riding with someone experienced in the backcountry is so important when you’re just starting out. Some avalanche classes also offer courses in the field, where guides show you the actual features to watch out for. Sign up for one of these if at all possible.

  • Homework – Planning a trip? Do your homework beforehand. Never head up the hill before researching the snow conditions in the specific area that you plan to ride. Give your local avalanche warning center a ring and have a good grasp of the weather forecast. Mobile apps like North Face’s The Snow Report (FREE on iOS) let you check current trail conditions, snow measurements, and avalanche advisories on the fly.

  • Human Factor – The human factor means two things. First, unsafe riding can often cause avalanches. Second, some people don’t handful stressful situations (a friend caught in an avalanche) well. Counter some of this by riding with a group of people who have similar attitudes and plans for the trip.

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Avalanche Safety Equipment

You should never step foot in the backcountry without the proper safety equipment.

Your avalanche safety course instructor will hammer this into your head. They will also be able to show you how to use your safety equipment. There is no reason to carry it with you if you won’t know how to use it if needed.

The essential pieces of avalanche safety equipment include:

  • Avalanche Beacon – These tools act as transmitters and transceivers when someone is buried in the snow. The buried person’s beacon sends out a signal which allows the rest of the party to track their exact location. With price tags between $250 and $500, avalanche beacons are pricey but essential. Make sure that everyone in your party has their own.

  • Avalanche Probe – When a friend is buried in the snow, an avalanche probe will help you pinpoint exactly where they are. Though they can be used on their own, they are most effective in conjunction with a beacon. Simply probe the snow until you hit something soft yet firm – that’s your buddy.

  • Avalanche Shovel – Extremely lightweight and often collapsable, avalanche shovels can easily be strapped to your backcountry backpack. Every second counts when you’re digging a friend out of the snow and an avalanche shovel will help you get them out as fast as possible.

  • Emergency Gear – Not everyone does but I always carry a small amount of emergency gear with me on backcountry trips. Extra water, a small first aid kit, and high-energy food are musts. On slightly longer trips, I throw in some extra warm clothing and even some basic camping gear. Better to be safe than sorry if you’re stuck overnight.

Each of these types of avalanche safety equipment will be discussed in greater detail in future posts. We will show you how to use each of them.  We will also give a few recommendations on the best brands and models to look for.

Remember that simply knowing how to use one of these pieces of safety equipment won’t do the trick. You need to have actually practiced with each of them before heading out. Using an avalanche beacon to track a buried friend is a lot more difficult than it might sound. Practice makes perfect so practice, practice, practice.

Smart Riding

Using your head while riding can help prevent avalanches.

Keep your eyes open while riding and don’t overlook clues. Avalanche hazards leave clues (unforested gullies and loose pack snow are a few – this will also be discussed in more detail in later posts). Furthermore, you should never get stuck in the mindset that avalanches only travel in large paths. Basically, anywhere that you can ride on your skis or snowboard, an avalanche can slide through.

It is essential to let snow settle after a big storm. Though the pow might be outrageous, it’s best to wait for at least 24 hours before heading out. On this same note, slopes with tracks from other riders aren’t necessarily safe. Wind, sun, and temperature constantly alter snow stability. What might have been safe to cross an hour ago, might not be now.

Finally, never travel alone in the backcountry. That’s always a recipe for disaster. For one thing, no one is there to help you if you get into trouble. For another, having two or more sets of eyes will pick out dangers and unsafe conditions that you might not have noticed yourself.

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Avalanche Safety While Skiing and Snowboarding

This article wasn’t meant to scare you. Chances are you will never need to rescue a friend from an avalanche. But if you ride in the backcountry at all, whether it’s on a regular basis or its a one time mission, you need to know how to. Better yet, you need to know how to prevent and avoid avalanches in the first place.

I’ll end this with a video on avalanche safety from professional snowboarding madman Jeremy Jones. He knows what he is talking about. View the video by Teton Gravity Research below:


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