If you hike, sled, snowshoe, tube, ski, snowboard, snowmobile, bike, drive or even just live in the mountains, you need to know about avalanche safety. In the U.S., 40-80 people a year die in avalanches, and 90% of those were triggered by members of their own party. Many people are even unaware of the risk they face recreating outdoors in the winter. You can reduce the risk by becoming aware of avalanches.
5 things to know about avalanche safety
Know Before You Go, a free educational avalanche awareness website, suggests five steps for staying safe in avalanche country.
- Get the gear. Carry a shovel, a probe, avalanche transceivers for every member of the party, and medical and rescue gear. More important than having the gear is knowing how to use it. Train enough to be able to use it under great stress.
- Get the training. There is no substitute for formal avalanche training. Classes go into detail on terrain, snowpack analysis and provide hands-on practice using avalanche transceivers and probes.
- Get the forecast. Professionals who study the weather and snowpack daily predict the safest, and most dangerous, places to be on any given day. The North American Public Avalanche Danger Scale is a 5-category estimate of avalanche danger, ranging from low to extreme.
- Get the picture. Pay attention to your surroundings. Avalanches occur on slopes of 30 degrees or greater, so be aware of how steep the slopes are both around you and above you. Look for recent avalanche activity. Look for cracking in the snowpack, listen for “whomping” sounds as you cross the snow and notice areas of recent storm snow or wind-loaded snow.
- Get out of harm’s way. Don’t go into dangerous zones. Don’t stop in the middle of an avalanche path or the bottom of an avalanche chute with your group. Stay off to one side. Follow all posted signs and warnings.
And most importantly … if a particular slope or trail makes you feel uneasy or unsure, don’t go. Use your own judgement and listen to your instincts.
Helpful online resources
The Know Before You Go website is a great first step to making your time in the mountains safer for your family. It provides an excellent all-audience video on the five steps, avalanche information, links to avalanche forecasts and more.
Avalanche.org (Avalanche.ca in Canada) is another great website. Locate your area’s avalanche forecast, find a detailed description of the Avalanche Danger Scale and locate a safety course.
Backcountry offers detailed information on avalanche safety and includes a map of classes offered in avalanche-prone locations in the U.S.
You can also visit REI to learn more about the basics of avalanches as well as how to test snow for potential danger.
Do you enjoy hiking in winter? Share your avalanche safety tips (or general hiking safety tips) in the comments below.
Picture by Jessica Human.