avalanche safety

Avalanche Safety Basics
The Ultimate Beginners Guide

Are you a passionate freeskier or freerider? Or are you just starting with this amazing sport? In that case, keep on reading! We are going to share some extremely important knowledge to keep you safe in the mountains. 

Freeriding, freeskiing, and touring are becoming increasingly popular and more and more people head to the backcountry to reach the amazing untouched powder fields. And we totally get it! Nothing beats the serenity of the mountains and having fun with your friends on a sunny day hunting for the fresh pow. But, yes you guessed it, there is a but. 

When adventuring off-piste and into the backcountry, there’s always a risk of avalanches and a fun day can go south quickly if you’re not being careful. The risk is present whether you’re in the middle of nowhere hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest village or within a resort outside of marked and patrolled pistes. Therefore in this article, we are going to tell you basics about avalanches, minimizing risks, and how to use your avalanche safety gear. So let’s dive in!

avalanche safety basics

Avalanche Safety Basics -
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Avalanche Theory

Where And Why Avalanches Occur?

Before we properly get started, a quick disclaimer. We by no means want to lecture nor scare you away from this amazing sport, but want you to be aware of the risks, how to stay safe, and keep educating yourself about avalanches. This short guide will not make you an avalanche expert or replace the need to attend an avalanche course, which we will talk about later!

So what are avalanches? Avalanches come in all shapes and sizes, but at their very core, they are big masses of snow moving down the slope at high speed. Avalanche risk is always present when the steepness of the slope is at least 25 degrees or more. It’s worth mentioning that even if a wall or mountain in front of you looks small, the horizontal length of the avalanche can be as long as 3 times the height of the wall/mountain!

Avalanches and avalanche safety should not be taken lightly. On average 100 people are killed in avalanches in Europe every year and studies show that suffocation or asphyxia is the main cause of death. On the other hand, burial victims have a high chance of surviving if they are dug out within the first 15 minutes after the burial. And that’s why owning avalanche safety gear, knowing how to use them and how to act quickly is crucial. Every second counts!

avalanche safety basics

There are mainly 5 types of avalanches: slab avalanches, loose snow avalanches, cornice fall avalanches, glide avalanches and wet avalanches. 

  • Slab avalanches cause nearly 99% of avalanche accidents. A slab avalanche is released when one of the layers underneath the snowpack collapses. It can be either triggered spontaneously (the weight of snow itself during snowfall or warm temperatures) or caused by people. Keep in mind that the speed of a slab avalanche can be staggering 50-200 km/h!
  • Cornices are created by wind and they’re super fun natural kickers but can cause avalanches when collapsing.
  • Glide avalanches occur when the whole snowpack lets go and glide along the ground.
  • Loose snow avalanches start in one place when a small amount of snow collects more and more snow while sliding down.
  • A wet avalanche is released by the water built up inside the snowpack and the powerful slushy snow can even move stones on the way down.

Steepness And Identifying Avalanche Terrain

How do you identify avalanche terrain? The biggest indicator of avalanche terrain is the angle or degree of the slope. As we mentioned before, avalanches occur when the degree of the slope is at least 25.

Typically most of the avalanches are set off when the degree is between 30-45. And avalanches most commonly caused by skiers and snowboarders occur between 36-39 degrees. Avalanche risk reduces when the angle is 55 or steeper, but let’s face it, that is already “not even fun to ride” -steep. The most efficient way to reduce avalanche risk is to stay on slopes less than 25 degrees. But keep in mind that even if you are on more gentle terrain, avalanches may occur above you or you could set one off by standing on a slab that is connected to the steeper part. Keep an eye on the terrain above and around you!

avalanche terrain

After the steepness, orientation (or the direction the slope is facing) is one of the most significant factors affecting avalanches. Orientation affects the temperature of the slope, for example on southern faces temperature can differ throughout the day: sun warms up the snow during the day which freezes overnight, creating icy layers. Steep south-facing slopes are prone to avalanches during sunny afternoons and should be avoided. The direction of the slope helps you to define how winds have affected it, and whether the winds have stacked dangerously much snow on the face during snowfall.

There are useful tools to help you evaluate avalanche exposure, severity and plan routes. Check out ATES (Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale), read more and learn how to use it.

Red Flags

We have also collected the most common red flags every freerider should know. These are considerable risks and some of them are nature’s way of telling you about the danger of an avalanche, and sometimes it’s better to turn back or stay home! 

  • Big changes in weather such as rain or heavy snowfall, heavy winds and rapid temperature changes all affect the snowpack and could make it unstable and prone to avalanches. Take these into consideration when planning your freeride day and be extremely cautious!
  • Wind and stacked snow. Heavy winds, especially during snowfall, stack snow to sheltered places and create dangerous slabs, which can be released easily.
  • Recent avalanches are one of the clearest warning signs. If you hear about a recent avalanche on the area you are planning on heading to, change plans. If you are already on your way up the mountain and spot a recent avalanche, the same thing goes, it’s better to turn back or change plans!
  • Terrain traps are spots on the terrain that can turn out to be dangerous when an avalanche hits. For example, a cliff on a normal day would be fun to drop off from, but when an avalanche pushes you off it uncontrollably, things can be different.
  • Whumphing and hollow sounds. While hiking up, remember to observe your surroundings regularly. If you hear whumphing or hollow sounds, it means that the snowpack under you or your crew is collapsing.
  • Cracks are formed (and usually accompanied with the whumphing noises) when the snowpack collapses, and shooting cracks can run as long as hundreds of meters by releasing an avalanche.
  • Crevasses. When you're planning on riding in glaciers be aware of crevasses. Crevasses are deep cracks in ice and the deepest ones are known to be as deep as 30 meters. They might not be visible to the eye due to the light snow layer, but needless to say, you don’t want to fall into one! Observe terrain maps and identify any risky areas such as cliffs and possible crevasses on your route and avoid them.
red flags avalanches

Avalanche Forecast

One of the most important tools for every freerider is the avalanche forecast. Avalanche forecasts can typically be found separately for each region and they are made by the professionals in the area. The forecasts change daily (but not in all areas!) just like weather forecasts. But what will the forecasts tell you? 

  • The danger rating between 1 to 5
  • Avalanche patterns, for example wind slabs or wet avalanches
  • Other characteristics and issues to keep an eye on

The 5 levels will tell you the danger level but also the likelihood of the avalanche and give an indication of its possible size. You’ll also find some guidelines for touring in the backcountry. Let’s take a closer look at the levels:

Avalanche Danger Scale
Photo credit: avalanche.ca

1 – Low: Avalanches are not likely. Small avalanches in specific places and in extreme terrain. Quite stable conditions but note that the risk can be present. 

2 – Moderate: Raised risk of avalanches in certain types of terrain. Keep a close look at the snow and terrain, note the risky areas and avoid them. 

3 – Considerable: Dangerous conditions, observe the snow and terrain closely, be extremely careful when choosing and planning your route. 

4 – High: Extremely dangerous conditions and going to or near avalanche terrain is not suggested. 

5 – Extreme: Extremely big avalanches in large areas. Avoid all avalanche terrain, a.k.a. stay home!

Above from the North American Avalanche Public Danger Scale, you might notice the “No Rating” section which means that there’s no forecast available for the area. In these cases, you need to be your own expert and analyze the risks extremely carefully to have a fun and safe day out there. On top of the avalanche forecast remember to keep an eye on the weather forecast, winds, steepness of the face and the red flags!

How To Minimize Risks

Even though the risks can’t be completely eliminated, there are things you can do to minimize them in order to enjoy your day in the mountains. Here we have collected some useful tips to take into consideration!

How to minimize avalanche risk

The best way to minimize risks is to avoid avalanche terrain and stay in areas and mountain faces less than 25 degrees. A useful and really cool app to help you out with this is Fatmap. You can see the mountains in 3D (which itself is pretty cool!) and it will show you the degrees and help plan your route. 

When planning your day in the backcountry, check the weather forecast, avalanche forecast and identify possible terrain traps in the area. Never hit the off-piste alone and make sure your crew has the necessary knowledge and gear. Safety is a common goal! 

Always choose the mellowest way up even if it’s longer than the steeper option. The reason behind this is that you’re relatively slow with skins or snowshoes on, and moving away from avalanches is not as quick as when skiing down.

When going up and skiing down, remember to go one by one and keep a safe distance between the crew members. This way the risk of multiple burials is lower and the stress on the snowpack smaller. Keep an eye on each other and stop only in safe places.

If conditions change or turn unfavourable all of a sudden, you hear whumping, see cracks or avalanches, it’s a clear sign to turn back. It’s better to stay safe to ride another day!

Remember, it’s always okay to say, “hey guys, I don’t feel comfortable with this” and re-address the situation. At the end of the day, at the core of every adventure, it’s about teamwork and putting absolute faith in those you choose to ride with. So trust your gut, trust your knowledge and if something feels wrong, turn back, head to apres, and try again another time. 

Avalanche Safety Gear

Alright, let’s talk gear! For a gear nerd like myself, this is the most fun but also the most vital part, since with these tools you can save someone’s life or your life can be saved. If you are planning on going off-piste, you and your friends need to have the correct gear. The main things are a transceiver (or beacon), a sturdy shovel, a probe, a first aid kit and of course a helmet. One optional but highly recommended addition to the mix is an avalanche backpack. But remember that only having the gear is not enough, you need to know how to use it most efficiently. Now let’s go through what you need to know and what to take into consideration when buying!

Avalanche Safety Gear

The very basics for a day in the backcountry are a beacon, shovel, probe and avalanche backpack which we are going to go through in detail below. But on top of that, there are a couple of additional things to add to the mix.

First of them is a first aid kit. There are plenty of different kits available on the market but make sure your kit contains at least elastic bandages, heat-reflecting emergency rescue blanket, band-aids, antiseptic wipes, scissors and tape.

Also, the RECCO-system is a nice addition to have on your gear. A small reflector is usually attached to your helmet, clothes or boots/shoes. This small reflector gives a signal (only!) when the ski patrols and mountain rescuers are trying to find you with RECCO, but keep in mind that it won’t replace the beacon! 

When preparing for a day in the backcountry, other useful things to have in your backpack are a cell phone, map, compass, warm clothes, enough water, and of course snacks!

Transceiver

An avalanche transceiver (or beacon) is used to transmit and receive signals. With this small and handy device, you can find the buried person or you can be found. When buying a beacon, choose one with three antennas and the capability to find multiple signals coming from multiple beacons. Beacons having three antennas are more accurate in search mode. The beacon should be placed under the outer layer of your clothes and attached with the dedicated harness to keep it in place. Phones can distract transceivers, therefore make sure to place your phone at least 50cm away from your beacon!

Avalanche Transceiver

Probe

The probe is a lightweight, metallic and collapsible pole, which is used after the transceiver to find the exact location of the buried person. It should be at least 2 meters long and have a steel wire inside. The ones with a rope inside are not as durable and might give up while using it. Make sure it fits into your backpack!

Shovel

This item needs no fancy introductions and pretty much all of us have used one in our lives. But when it comes to avalanche shovels, there are a couple of specific things to it. A good avalanche shovel is sturdy, metallic and collapsible to make sure that it easily fits into your backpack.

Snow Shovel

Avalanche Backpack

In addition to the basic avalanche safety gear, the avalanche backpack will significantly improve your chances of surviving an avalanche. But how does it work? Now you might be thinking about some James Bond style padded bubbles, but it’s not quite as extensive. In case you’re caught in an avalanche, pull the handle, and a large airbag filled with air is released to keep you afloat. Nowadays, there’s plenty of options to choose from the airbag sizes to the tech used. Formerly the only option available was a backpack with one-use cartridges but now cool new technologies are being introduced. The newest backpacks operate with rechargeable batteries and they can be used up to 4 times with one charge! The new technology ditching cartridges make flying hassle-free. Bear in mind that an avalanche backpack won’t replace the other gear above!

avalanche backpack

How To Use My Avalanche Safety Equipment

Let’s go through two scenarios where your avalanche safety equipment is needed, and what to do if you or someone else gets caught in an avalanche.

In case you are caught in an avalanche, try to ride to the side, launch the airbag, let go of all equipment (for example poles), and try to swim to the top or grab trees, rocks or something stable. When the avalanche stops, try to cover your face with your hands by creating an air pouch, this will give you more air to breathe while waiting for the rescuers. 

If you see someone else getting caught in an avalanche, stay calm, try to follow the victim with your eyes, and see the spot where the victim disappears under the snow. Call the local emergency number and start the rescue measures. First make sure everyone switches beacons to the search mode, then divide evenly and start moving simultaneously but be aware of the possible secondary avalanches! When the beacon leads you near the victim, try to find the smallest digit and start probing. When you’ve located the buried person with the probe, it’s time to start shovelling. Take turns, this way shovelling stays efficient and try to clear the victim’s mouth and face-first to ease breathing. Once you’ve found the person, assess the need for resuscitation and other care. 

how to use my avalanche safety gear

We can’t stress this enough: practice, practice and practice! In these situations every second counts, so make sure you and your friends practice the use of avalanche gear and how to act in these situations the most efficient way!

Take An Avalanche Safety Course!

Taking an avalanche safety class is one of the best things to do as a freerider to improve your safety. Nearly every country has their own avalanche safety course system. For example, Switzerland has Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, the US has AIARE (The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education), Sweden has SVELAV and so forth. 

The avalanche safety course system can be roughly divided into six different courses but Level 1 and Level 2 are mostly targeted at leisure riders. Level 1 course will give the knowledge to recognize and avoid avalanche terrain, plan safe routes, to read avalanche forecasts, minimize risks and you’ll learn how to act in a rescue situation and how to use your avalanche gear. Level 2 will give you even more tools for staying safe and more hands on knowledge during the days in the mountains. Be prepared though, avalanche courses can cost several hundreds of euros, but if you are an enthusiastic freerider they are well worth the money!

Practice with your friends

If you have someone in your group who is a little more experienced, it’s always fun to practice as friends. Take a backpack, bury it in a car park, split into teams and try to navigate, search and track the burried backpack and transceiver. It not only helps you feel comfortable with the search and rescue but also builds team work and strong bonds. 

Common Myths

Common Avalanche Myths

Last but definitely not least, let’s take down some common myths and mistakes which you might have heard many times before. 

  • There’s someone’s tracks, that must be safe!

Nope! Following someone’s tracks has proven to be one of the most common reasons for avalanche accidents. Just because someone has gone there, doesn’t make it safe!

  • Avalanches don’t occur in forests.

Many seem to think that forests are safe places, but in order to be completely safe, it should be so dense that skiing there wouldn’t be possible. Keep in mind that even if an avalanche wouldn’t start in a forest, the forest could be hit by an avalanche that started further above it. 

  • I’ve skied here before, it’s safe.

Avalanche conditions change on a daily basis and a run that was safe yesterday could be dangerous today!

  • That doesn’t even look steep enough for an avalanche.

A sentence I’ve heard waaay too many times! As we mentioned before, avalanches can occur on mountain faces and runs steeper than 25 degrees, which might not even look steep.

  • Avalanche danger rating is at level 1, there’s no risk.

Oh but yes there is! Even though the danger level is low, you still need to analyze risks and keep in mind that avalanches can still occur.

Wrapping Up

Avalanche Safety Courses

Aaand that’s a wrap guys! Hopefully you got useful info, awareness and tools to stay safe in the mountains. Educate yourself, get the gear, take an avalanche safety class and enjoy the amazing backcountry with your friends! Stay safe and see you out there!

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