The Ultimate Guide to Avalanche Safety
Before heading out in the backcountry or sidecountry this season, be sure to check out these tips from Ski Expert Hunter R. on avalanche safety!
Avalanches are one of the largest risks skiers and snowboarders face when we click into our skis. This is especially true for backcountry skiers who do what they love in areas that are not part of a ski resort. The same holds true for skiers who enjoy taking sidecountry runs, which is skiing outside of the ski resort gates.
Though it’s not impossible for an avalanche to occur within the ski resort area, the incredible mitigation work by ski patrollers makes them much less frequent. When you step foot on a ski track or outside of the ski resort gates, it's a whole different story. Instead of relying on the work of patrollers, you only have your knowledge, skills, and decision-making to keep you and your ski partners safe.
Avalanches can occur anywhere, though they are more common under particular conditions and in certain types of terrain. In this article, we will touch on a few ways to reduce the risk of being caught in an avalanche when out skiing. This is not a replacement for a bona fide avalanche course with a certified instructor, but a great start to being a safer and more informed backcountry skier!
Don't Go in Blind
Before skiing out-of-bounds areas or in the backcountry, you have to do some research. Learn the area in question. Get informed. Be prepared. Make a plan.
Know the Area
When backcountry skiing, it’s easy to see a line that looks exceptional while riding the chairs at a resort or during a hike up to a different zone. You decide to ski that line with no prior knowledge simply because it looks good. Though this can be tempting, it’s also dangerous.
Unless you are familiar with the area and the line you want to ski is something you have studied and/or skied before, don’t do it. Without ample research, you could miss a vital red flag such as an unexpected cliff zone or another terrain trap.
There is one outside the gates of Park City Mountain Resort in Utah that has seen four fatalities over the past several years. On a powder day, it looks like an appealing and low consequence run to get some mad turns in, but it’s actually an incredibly high avalanche danger area that cliffs out unexpectedly.
It’s always sad to see news about someone caught in an avalanche in this area, specifically because the story is always the same. The victim is someone from out of town who is not familiar with the area and thought it just looked like a fun, challenging run.
Had they done a quick area search on the Utah Avalanche Centers avalanche map or even Googled the name of the run, I’m sure most of them wouldn’t have risked it. Do your research before you ski an area that's considered backcountry or sidecountry terrain. Period.
Avalanches typically occur in very specific terrain conditions. In short, avalanches are more common on north and east-facing slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. There are other factors such as aspect of the wind and sun, and terrain types that are more or less avalanche-prone to a higher rate of occurrence.
It’s hard to gauge this information on the spot; it usually requires a bit of research. Look at the area detail on a mapping app like CalTopo. Even if you are skiing with someone who knows the area, it's a good idea to understand the terrain first. You need to be informed of avalanche zones and high-risk areas because of the terrain. For an in-depth guide on avalanche terrain, check out this article.
Recognizing conditions is the last thing you should learn before heading out the door. Your local avalanche forecast center publishes a daily updated forecast with a map like the one. It points out where avalanche danger is the highest and lowest, and what specific issues to watch out for.
Without this info, it's hard to make an informed decision about where you should and should not ski. It’s also a great idea to dig a snow pit. The pit shows the current snowpack and provides valuable information about potentially dangerous conditions. This is especially important to do in an area you plan to ski as they may not mention it in the avalanche report.
Rely on Your Gear
Keep Your Backcountry Safety Gear on You
When skiing in areas with a risk for avalanches, you should have your backcountry avalanche safety gear with you, on, and easily accessible. Avalanche safety gear refers to your avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe.
If buried in an avalanche, your beacon emits a signal detectable by other beacons so your ski partners can find you and dig you out of the snow. If a ski partner is buried, your beacon helps you find them. A probe helps to pinpoint their exact location, and your shovel will help dig them out.
Every season, there’s a tragic story about someone being buried in a fatal avalanche with their beacon in the off position. I even carry one with me on some resort skiing days where acute danger exists, just to be extra safe.
Skiing inbounds mitigates a lot of the risk, but not all of it. There are several instances of people being buried in avalanches at ski resorts. If you aren’t sure if avalanche conditions exist or not, it's better to have a beacon with you and on, just to be on the safe side.
Know How to Use It
Carrying your gear with you is not enough! You should be confident and fast in your ability to use it if an emergency arises. Stay on top of this by doing regular beacon drills, or taking Avalanche Rescue courses or refreshers yearly. For an overview on how to use your avalanche safety gear, check out this guide.
Use Good Judgment
Take a Class
You can’t make good decisions on avalanche safety without being properly informed. The best way to do this is to take an avalanche course. They are available in most places where skiing is possible. You can find a full list of locations, course dates, and more on the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) website or the American Avalanche Institution website.
There truly is no better way to learn safe backcountry skiing skills than learning from a certified guide and practicing your skills in the field under their observation. This is also a great way to make new ski touring friends who are as equally concerned with avalanche safety as you are.
Ski with People You Trust
A few years ago, I was talking with Friend A regarding Friend B. I asked if Friend A had seen Friend B recently. He replied no. This surprised me because I knew they went backcountry skiing together often and they were close. Another friend I was with admitted that the last two times they had gone skiing with Friend B, they had gotten into dangerous situations and triggered avalanches.
Skiing with the person made them nervous. It’s good to come to terms with the fact that someone can be a great friend but a terrible ski partner. Later that year, Friend B was caught in a high-stakes avalanche. Luckily, he made it out with only a badly broken leg, but it could have been much worse.
It really got me thinking about how important a choice of ski partners is. Don’t pick them just because you enjoy spending time with them. You must be able to trust their decision-making and know they have up-to-date avalanche training.
Backcountry skiing and snowboarding are high-risk activities and you are placing your life in the hands of the people you ski with. So, if there’s someone you love spending time with, but you don’t feel comfortable entrusting them with your life, find something else to do together.
Turn Around if You See Red Flags
This can be hard when you are out in the backcountry. A lot of time and effort has gone into coordinating and planning your route, group, and day. Turning around before you get to ski is a huge bummer, but it can save lives.
If you see evidence of recent avalanches, gullies not on the map, unstable snow, or other unexpected hazards on the way up, reassess. Even with a ton of planning and effort, unforeseen circumstances can put your life and the life of your partners at risk.
The mountains will always be there. It’s not worth the risk of skiing on a sketchy day no matter how much planning went into it. Here, it’s usually possible to find somewhere nearby with a lower slope angle (below 30 degrees) and take a lap or two. Be smart, don’t put your life on the line.
Even if everyone else in your group is fine with the red flags, alert your group to what’s making you uncomfortable and tell them you want to turn around. This is hard to do, but you may save their lives. Most touring partners will understand and thank you for sticking to your safety boundaries.
Tell Someone Where You’re Going
Finally, even if you are skiing in a low danger area, tell someone at home or who isn’t part of your ski party where you are going and when you plan to return. When my housemate goes skiing, he sends me a detailed text first that includes a detailed breakdown of his time schedule, where and how much he plans to ski, and the absolute latest time he could be back in contact with me.
If I don’t hear from him by then, I have the info that a search and rescue party would need to improve their chances of finding him. Sometimes it feels like over-communicating, but if something goes wrong, it vastly improves the possibility of a safe recovery.
Below is a table regularly shared among the backcountry community in the last few years. It has all the info you should share with your person at home before you go.
Backcountry skiing is dangerous and you are never totally safe. But said, it’s also one of the most rewarding outdoor activities and there are a lot of ways to diminish the risk of an avalanche with proper planning and knowledge.
This guide cannot replace taking a formal avalanche class, but hopefully, it gives you some insight about staying safe when backcountry skiing. If you have questions on avalanche safety, avalanche safety gear, ski gear, or any other ski-related topic, check in with a friendly and knowledgeable Curated Ski Expert. They are happy to help get you outside and enjoy those powder turns in the safest way possible!