Avalanche Safety Basics

Snowshoe technology has improved dramatically over the years, allowing more people to explore deeper into the backcountry during the winter months. The winter landscape can be a peaceful place full of breathtaking scenery, but the snowpack can also hold underlying danger for the unsuspecting traveler. Depending on your location and conditions, avalanches may be a very real danger.

If you spend most of your time snowshoeing at the local Nordic Center, trail center, golf course, or snow-covered park, you are most likely not in avalanche terrain. Even in mountain regions with avalanche terrain, there are typcially safe areas that avoid avalanche terrain. When the line between where you are safe and where you are at risk becomes blurry, having some general awareness and education can keep you safe. The following article provides general tips about avalanche awareness and resources to gain additional knowledge before your next trip into the mountains.

1) Read the Avalanche Forecast and Weather Forecast  
Find your local avalanche forecast at www.avalanche.org and your local weather forecast at www.weather.gov. The local resources available today on the internet are incredible. Staying informed is one of the most important keys to avalanche safety. Make sure to read and understand the avalanche risks and weather forecasts before venturing into the backcountry.

2) Identify Avalanche Terrain  
Many snowshoers don't venture onto avalanche slopes. Since snowshoeing is not a gravity sport, the backcountry slopes that are prone to avalanches rarely see snowshoe tracks. But many snowshoers do travel through avalanche terrain beneath areas where slides can occur. If you see slide paths - which often look like treeless swaths that funnel down from higher elevations - then you need to be aware that avalanches are possible above you and can travel great distances. Here are some important things to consider about your surrounding terrain.

  • Slope Angle - Avalanches need gravity to occur and steeper slopes have a greater pull of gravity. Most avalanches occur between 30 and 45 degrees, with the majority around 37-38 degrees. The steepest downhill ski runs are typically around 30-35 degrees. You are probably thinking, "How do I have any idea how steep the slope is?" Well, you can measure it using tools, but the important thing to remember is if it looks steep enough to slide, it probably is. When in doubt, be conservative.
  • Slope Aspect - Most times, the avalanche report or forecast will indicate which aspects have unsafe avalanche conditions. The slope aspect is the direction the slope points. Sometimes a slope facing north can be safer than a slope facing south. Sometimes the opposite is true. It is important to carry a compass and determine the slope aspect so you can stay away from the unsafe slopes reported in the local avalanche bulletin.
  • There are many other things to consider when identifying avalanche terrain, for more information, please consider taking an avalanche awareness course.

3) Recognize Red Flags
A major part of avalanche safety is staying in tune with the changing snow conditions before and during your trip. By recognizing these red flags, you will increase your safety.

  • Recent Avalanches - Have there been any recent avalanches? If so, it is a good bet that more are possible or even probable.
  • Signs of Unstable Snow - Do you see any cracking or collapsing in the snow? Do you hear any "whumpfing" sounds? Does the snow sound hollow or like a drum when snowshoeing across it? If the answer to any of these questions is "yes", then the snow has some unstable characteristics - this should be considered a red flag.
  • Heavy Snowfall or Rain in the Past 24 Hours - Heavy snowfall or rain can trigger avalanches. While new snow is beautiful, it can often be unstable. Letting new snow settle after a storm is often a much safer bet. Check the weather and see what has happened recently and what is expected during your trip. If it is snowing very heavily or worse yet, raining, and you are in avalanche terrain, it is a good idea to turn around and find safety.
  • Wind-Blown Snow - Snow doesn't just come out of the sky. It can also be blown great distances and build up into unstable pillows or wind "slabs". Deep, wind-blown snow on steep slopes, is a major red flag that should raise your awareness.
  • Significant Warming and/or Rapidly Increasing Temperatures - Big increases in temperature can cause stable snow to become unstable. If there is a big warm-up in the forecast, stay away from avalanche terrain.

4) Carry the Proper Equipment
If your adventure takes you into avalanche terrain, be sure to carry the proper avalanche equipment and gain the knowledge required on how to use it in the field:

5) Get Trained
It's important that you learn proper techniques for using avalanche safety gear. Please visit www.avalanche.org for online tutorials and links to avalanche courses. We like the standard courses provided by AIARE.

Most importantly, check the avalanche forecast (www.avalanche.org) and conditions before you go and stay alert.