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Avalanche Awareness 101

Backcountry skiing is becoming more popular every year due to new gear making the sport easier, safer, and more accessible. Yet, anyone planning on heading out to explore the backcountry (either for the first time or for their fifteenth season) should double-check their avalanche awareness and preparation.

Winter is finally shaping up and in full swing. Peaks and valleys are coated in white, and stoked skiers are heading to resorts, sidecountry and even farther into the backcountry in search of their very own powder stashes. Yet, anyone planning on heading out to explore the backcountry (either for the first time or for their fifteenth season) should double-check their avalanche awareness and preparation.

Backcountry skiing is becoming more popular every year due to new gear making the sport easier, safer, and more accessible. However, this means more people are putting themselves in potentially dangerous situations, and avalanche awareness and education about snow safety has never been more important.

The first step a beginning backcountry enthusiast should take is to learn about snow science and safety, and a Level 1 avalanche course is an important part of preparation. Avalanches are a natural phenomenon, but the majority of slide incidents that result in skier injuries or fatalities are human-triggered. Classes teach skiers about avalanche terminology, how to interpret reports on changing weather conditions, and how to measure snowpack stability, among other topics. These classes help people recognize avalanche warning signs, and hopefully how to avoid making potentially life-threatening decisions. 

After a skier attends an avalanche course they should obtain proper gear, and learn how to use it. Necessary gear includes: an avalanche transceiver, shovel, probe and a pack to keep everything in. This equipment should be taken every time a skier is in avalanche terrain. Gear packs that are equipped with airbags are also becoming a staple for many frequent backcountry skiers, but they are not a substitute for snow safety knowledge and smart decisions.

Even those experienced with the backcountry take time each season to practice using their transceivers in case they have to assist in finding a buried person or ski partner. They also study the snowpack in their home region, follow the local avalanche reports, and observe weather activity while out in the backcountry, which are all good habits to follow. While traveling, talk to local avalanche professionals about current conditions, and study the local snow reports to get a better understanding of what the backcountry will look like.

And finally, accidents that happen in the backcountry don’t always involve avalanches. It is important to have some basic first aid knowledge to help with any type of accident, and taking a Wilderness First Responder course is even better. Try to keep an extra layer, water, and snacks in your pack, even if you are on a short tour. Simple gear repair tools for broken gear are also good to have, and it is also always a good idea to bring a cell phone with you in the event something goes wrong. When it comes to heading in to the backcountry, the more knowledge and preparation a skier can have the better!

For more information on where to find a course or other resources, you can contact the American Avalanche Institute.

Here is a partial list of avalanche conditions and forecast centers in the United Sates and Canada.  

Colorado Avalanche Information Center

Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center

Sierra Avalanche Center

Chugach National Forest Avalanche Center

American Avalanche Association

Bridger-Teton Avalanche Forecast Center

Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Forecast Center

Utah Avalanche Center

National Avalanche Center

Canadian Avalanche Association

Teton Snowpack & Avalanche Observations

Wasatch Snowpack & Avalanche Observations