Avalanche Safety Skills And Gear For Surviving The Backcountry

avalanche safety

A big part of winter is the ability to enjoy winter sports and explore snowy, mountainous expanses. However, lurking behind the beautiful facade of freshly fallen snow is the deadly risk of getting caught in an avalanche. Anyone who participates in winter sports or mountain expeditions needs to have avalanche preparedness high on their threat assessment list. Even if you don’t engage in activities where the threat of avalanches is high, you never know when you may need avalanche safety skills – especially if your bug-out plan may take you through snowy, mountainous regions or if you live in the backcountry.

Avalanches are some of the most deadly obstacles nature can throw at you and when it comes to preparing for avalanches, prevention is your most important skill. Always ensure you know as much as possible about the area where you will be traveling, including daily conditions, avalanche warnings, avalanche-prone areas, local emergency telephone numbers, and how to identify and avoid high-risk situations.

While prevention is your best defense against avalanches, there are techniques you can use to help you survive should you become caught in an avalanche. In this article, we’re going to discuss what those techniques are as well as introduce important avalanche safety gear that you can use to increase your chances of surviving an avalanche.

Crucial Avalanche Safety Gear

ItemDetails
Backcountry Access Tracker2 Avalanche Beacon
• Digital triple antenna processor uses 3 AAA for 200 hours of transmit or 1 hour of search mode
• Detects and tracks multiple burials for group situations
• Lights indicate direction and display indicates distance in meters to quickly locate victims
• Includes harness
BLACK DIAMOND PIEPS DSP Sport Avalanche Beacon
• Digital triple antenna plus reference antenna with 50 meter search radius
• Mark function allows you to flag signals in multiple burials
• Single button design is easy to operate with gloves on
• Includes harness
Ortovox Zoom+ Avalanche Transceiver
• Digital triple antenna with motion sensor that switches back to transmit to protect rescuers in secondary avalanches
• Uses higher, faster beeps to indicate proximity to the victim so your eyes are free to scan the area
• Also displays distance and direction
Ortovox Avalanche Rescue Set-Zoom+
• Rescue set includes Ortovox Zoom+ transceiver, probe, and shovel
• 240 cm aluminum probe features Kevlar tension system and depth markings
• Shovel is reinforced for rigidity and high side walls provide 2.5 liter volume for efficient digging
AAA 4004 Red Aluminum Sport Utility Shovel
• Lightweight shovel weighs only 1.3 lbs and disassembles into 3 pieces for easy transport
• Telescoping handle adjusts between 25-32 inches for better leverage
• Sturdy aluminum scoop for handling heavy snow and ice
Black Diamond Transfer Shovel
• Hard anodized scoop has a sharp edge for cutting through packed snow and ice
• Removable handle extends for digging in deeper pits
• Compact trapezoidal design fits well in most backcountry packs
Backcountry Access Dozer Hoe Shovel
• Versatile design works as a shovel or converts to a hoe to adapt to the situation
• Large slip-proof grips on handle and blade improve grip even with gloves on
• T6 heat treatment prevents snow from building up on the inside of the shaft
Backcountry Access Stealth Avalanche Probe
• Rapid deployment action for when every second counts
• Collapses to a bundle about 18" long by 2" across to store easily in a backpack
• Laser etched depth markers indicate how deep to dig. Also helpful for reading snow pack layers
Black Diamond Quickdraw Probe Tour
• Aluminum shaft with alloy tip that is wider than the shaft for improved sensitivity
• High visibility markings for determining depth
• Includes rapid deployment stuff sack, which allows the probe to be removed and assembled in one step
BCA Float Airbag
• Airbag trigger can be mounted on the left or right side for optimal access
• Pack features gear integration points for carrying snowboards, skis, radios, water bladder, ice axes and more
• Entire system weighs only 7.1 lbs, including the cylinder (sold separately)
Backcountry Access Float Refillable Cylinder - Empty
• Uses 2700 psi to rapidly inflate the float when triggered
• Can be refilled at a certified refill station after use
• Lightweight at 1.45 lbs and designed to work with the BCA Float Airbag
Ortovox Mens Avalanche Rider 24 ABS Backpack
• Designed to work with M.A.S.S. system, sold separately
• Removable SPS Pro2 back protector to help prevent spinal injuries
• Chest strap features a safety whistle to signal for help
Ortovox M.A.S.S. For Backpack
avalanche safety
• Modular Airbag Safety System (M.A.S.S.) includes dual airbags with independent air chambers for added safety
• Inserts into Ortovox Avalanche Rider backpack in just minutes
• Release grip can be configured on the right-or left-hand side, with the angle and height adjustable to the quickest access location for the wearer
POC Fornix Backcountry MIPS Ski Helmet, Uranium Black, Medium/Large
• Equipped with MIPS (Multidirectional Impact Protection System) for direct and oblique impacts
• Aramid fiber bridge disperses energy due to its high tensile strength
• Adjustable ventilation and straps for a snug and comfortable fit
Smith Vantage Unisex Adult Snow Helmet
• Koroyd lining absorbs 30 percent more energy than styrofoam, offering better protection in both low and high impact crashes
• Boa FS360 fit system uses a halo design for the perfect fit
• Extra thick Snapfit ear pads provide full protection of the ears
Click the images to view current prices on Amazon.

 

When equipping your crew with survival gear, remember that each and every member needs to be equipped with these items – a shovel will be of no use if it is buried with the victim and the same goes for probes. As for the avalanche beacon, each member of your crew needs to have one harnessed to their chest, not in a pocket or backpack as these items can easily become separated from the person in a violent tumble.

avalanche safety
Every member of your party needs to be equipped with avalanche safety gear and survival techniques before heading into the backcountry.

Avalanche Beacon: The One Piece Of Gear You Should Never Be Without

What it is: An avalanche beacon is a type of transceiver that can be used to locate its wearer in the event of an emergency.

How it works: The avalanche beacon sends out a radio signal, transmitting at 457 KHz (a universal and international radio frequency). Avalanche safety beacons are also able to switch to receive signals from other beacons – one of the many reasons why everyone in your party should be wearing one.

When a signal is received, the beacon will beep with increasing volume as it gets closer to the source of the signal. This allows you to pinpoint the location of someone buried beneath the snow.

avalanche safety
Diagram of how the Black Diamond PIEPS DSP Sport Avalanche Beacon detects and displays multiple burials. Click the image to learn more on Amazon.

There are two types of beacons: analog and digital. The analog systems use a single antenna and have a broad range, able to receive signals from further distances. A beep is typically used to indicate the location of a signal. The digital systems use multiple antennas and have a much narrower range of signal reception. Digital systems use both beeps and a visual display to accurately narrow in on a signal and some even have light signals to indicate direction and display the distance to the signal.

Before setting out on any excursion, your beacon should be fully charged, turned on, and set to transmit at 457 KHz. In times of emergency, it can be very difficult to move, much less access your device, if you are buried under snow – or worse, you may be unconscious.

Additionally, when you or someone in your crew becomes buried in an avalanche, the window of time you have to be found or to find someone else is very narrow – 15 minutes at most. Everyone in your crew should practice with their beacons ahead of time so that they are proficient in sending and receiving signals, as well as following signals to find the source.

avalanche safety
The lights indicate direction and the number tells the distance in meters to the transmitted signal from another avalanche beacon. Click the image to view the BCA Access Tracker2 on Amazon.

A harness is an extremely important piece of avalanche safety equipment that will keep your beacon close to your body and protected underneath your clothes. By having your beacon harnessed to your body you reduce the risk of it becoming separated from you.

While some avalanche beacons will come with a harness, others require you to purchase it separately. Before purchasing your beacon, check to see if a harness is included and if not, make sure you purchase one.

Probe

What it is: A probe is a lightweight, collapsible stick typically six to seven feet long once assembled.

avalanche safety
The ripcord action of the Black Diamond Quickdraw Probe makes for fast deployment when it counts. Click the image to view this probe on Amazon.

How it works: A probe is used for probing into the snow in order to locate someone buried beneath the surface. Your probe will provide you with a good idea of where to start digging should one of your crew members be buried by an avalanche. Look for quick-deployment designs that snap into place, ready for use immediately. Probes are also used to assess the current snow pack to determine avalanche risk.

Shovel

avalanche safety
Backcountry shovels are designed to be compact, lightweight, and ultra sturdy for quick set up and vigorous digging. Click the image to view the AAA Sport Utility Shovel on Amazon.

While fairly self-explanatory, a shovel is an essential tool to have on-hand for avalanche safety, especially for rescuing those caught in an avalanche. In order to perform an effective rescue, you will need to dig quickly, a task that is much more easily performed with a shovel. Look for a collapsible, high-volume shovel and remember – carrying a shovel with you will be more than worth it when you need it as your window of opportunity is so slim.

Helmet

avalanche safety

Head injury is a serious concern especially when it comes to outdoor sports. Surviving an avalanche is no different than surviving an extreme skiing accident. Wearing a helmet will help provide protection from head trauma in the event of impact – whether during a fall or in an avalanche. In fact, it is quite common for avalanche victims to die prior to burial due to sustained injuries, so any added level of protection is prudent. For more information, please review this resource from BackCountry.com.

Avalanche Airbags

Avalanche airbags have been gaining popularity among outdoor enthusiasts but have also met with some skepticism.

What it is: An avalanche airbag is a backpack-style flotation device that can be deployed should you become caught in an avalanche.

How it works: The principle behind the airbag is that it makes your body larger without increasing your mass, thereby decreasing your density and heightening your chances of staying closer to the surface. While an avalanche airbag by no means guarantees survival, it can help your efforts by protecting your head, neck, and shoulders from impact.

The aforementioned skepticism stems from a fear that avalanche airbags encourage reckless risk-taking by providing a false sense of security. For more information, check out this resource from OutdoorGearLab.com and see how they work in the video below:

When traveling with an avalanche safety airbag system, be sure to check with the airline regulations. The cylinder will need to be emptied and you may need paperwork with it. For more information on traveling with survival gear, CLICK HERE.

What You Need To Know About Avalanche Safety

avalanche safety
Signs are one way of warning visitors about avalanches. Image via Rexness on flickr.

Avalanche Rating System

Whenever you are heading out in mountainous or snowy territory, always pay attention to the local warning system. Typically, the system will consist of a rating between 1 and 5, where:

1 – Low chance of avalanche

2 – Moderate chance of avalanche

3 – Considerable chance of avalanche

4 – High chance of avalanche

5 – Extreme chance of avalanche

Geological Conditions for Avalanches

The layering of different types of snow can make an area more susceptible to avalanches. Powdery snow is an especially unstable base layer for heavier snow as the wet snow compacts into a slab that can easily slip off the sugary base on an incline.

Avalanches typically form on slopes between 30-45 degrees, however, avalanches can form on slopes of anywhere between 25-60 degrees. In terms of ground slope shape, a convex shape will have a higher tendency to avalanche than a concave shape.

avalanche safety
The pattern of snow collection results from sun and wind exposure.

Slopes that lack trees and thick brush will have no anchor points and are therefore more susceptible to avalanches. Additionally, the direction that the slope faces and the time of year also play a role in how likely an avalanche is to occur. In mid-winter, a north facing slope is the most dangerous while those that are south-facing become dangerous in the spring.

A slope that faces into the wind will not only accumulate less snow, but also experience compaction from the wind. Conversely, a slope sheltered from the wind will collect a large volume of drifts and be less compacted, creating prime conditions for an avalanche to form. As such, avoid trekking out on days with steady winds of 15 mph or more due to the dangerous drifts created.

Warning Signs an Avalanche is About to Occur

avalanche safety
Pay close attention to local warning signs and avoid restricted areas. Image via Cory Doctorow on flickr.

A key warning sign to look for in anticipation of an avalanche is a deep layer of newly fallen snow as it has not had a chance to compact. When assessing an area, look carefully at the trees and rocks as this is where compaction comes from. Inserting a probe into the layers of snow can help assess what is happening with the layering underneath.

Another avalanche safety indicator is the shape of the snowfall. A layer of small needle or pellet-shaped crystals can mean danger as this type of snow can suddenly give way, much like a house of cards. Conversely, large snowflakes compact more easily and are ‘sticky,’ although a heavy rate of snowfall (> one inch per hour) of any kind makes for bad conditions.

avalanche safetyA dry slab is another warning sign, this occurs when old snow layers break off as a unit and slide down the mountain in one big slab. The sheer mass of the slab causes it to pick up speed as well as additional snow, resulting in the entire side of the mountain coming down with it. Dry slabs cause the most deadly types of avalanches due to their large scale, size, volume, and the speed with which they occur.

Temperature is another avalanche gauge to be aware of. The lower the temperature, the less stable the snow will be. Temperature / sun exposure that allows for some melting and settling is safer than a shadowy area that remains below freezing. However, if the temperature is too high, such as in the spring, wet snow slides can form.

When reviewing an area for warning signs of an avalanche, look for the following:

  • Evidence that a particular path has avalanched before, indicating that area is prone to avalanches
  • Whether or not avalanches have occurred on nearby slopes
  • Current snow conditions are unsafe
  • Hollow-sounding snow
  • Cracks in the surface of the snow (an indication a dry slab is forming)

Avalanche Safety And Survival Tips

While avoiding an avalanche entirely is the best way to ensure survival, if you are out backcountry skiing, boarding, or climbing and an avalanche comes pouring down after you there are steps you can take during the initial commotion that will help increase your chances of getting out alive.

Steps to Take When an Avalanche Begins

avalanche safety

As soon as you notice signs of an avalanche, begin to move away from the center as quickly as possible. The center flows at peak velocity and volume, which makes it much more difficult to fight against. Your first goal should be to get yourself toward the closest side as quickly as possible. If you’re really lucky, you may be able to get completely out of the way and avoid being swept up in the avalanche.

Often times, the cause of an avalanche is activity and it will form right under your feet. If you react quickly and jump uphill, you may be able to get yourself to safety and avoid being swept away. If you’re unable to get out of the way fast enough, the next step is to prevent yourself from being buried. It may sound simple enough but when confronted with a massive force of snow and ice, it becomes extremely challenging.

avalanche-safety-8

As your body is more dense than the snow, you will naturally sink. Rescuers recommend using a swimming or thrashing motion uphill in the opposite direction of the flow to help keep you up near the surface. The closer you can stay to the surface, the less digging you will need to do once the snow settles, giving you a huge advantage in terms of avalanche survival.

If you can find a tree or a rock, this can provide an anchor point for you to hold onto and maintain your position in a less powerful avalanche. Delaying your descent for even a few seconds can improve your chances of not being buried as deeply, or even at all.

avalanche safety
Airbags, like this one by Backcountry Access, help increase your chances of staying “afloat” in an avalanche. Click the image to view details on Amazon.

Another prudent move is to hold your hand over your head as this will give you a better chance of being seen by rescuers as well as provide a sense of which direction to start digging after the snow settles.

In terms of lightening your load, there are mixed schools of thought. On the one hand, the lighter you can make your body, the easier it will be to stay afloat or pull yourself out of the snow; however, on the other hand, you never want to willingly separate yourself from your survival equipment.

Keep in mind that if you are encased in an avalanche, your immediate situation is that you are trapped in a cold environment and may have to wait a long time before anyone locates you. Getting rid of anything that will help keep you warm, nourished, provide first aid, and most importantly, help others locate you, would be a counterproductive move to your survival.

A key tip if you become trapped in an avalanche is that as the snow begins to slow down, fill your lungs with air and hold it in to give your chest room to expand after the snow settles. Snow is very heavy and its weight causes it to compact quickly. Without performing this maneuver, you may not be able to expand your chest to take in air after it settles.

cold weather survival gear

Steps To Take When Trapped In An Avalanche

Once you have stopped moving, time is of the essence. Your first priority should be to get to the surface as quickly as possible to avoid running out of air or becoming trapped. In the first 15 minutes you have the highest rate of survival (about 93%), but your chances decrease significantly after that.

If after the avalanche has settled, any part of your body is above the surface – and you’re sure of it – begin to dig in that direction. However, being tossed around and buried can be very disorienting and finding yourself in a situation where you’re not sure which way is up is not uncommon.

If you are unsure of which direction you should dig, gravity can be a good tester. Visible rising breath is a good indicator but there is a more reliable test – the spit test. Clear a space near your face and spit – the liquid will go straight down compliments of gravity, telling you to dig in the direct opposite direction to reach the surface.

Unlike drowning, when you are trapped in an avalanche, there is air trapped in the snow with you. To create a larger pocket for breathing, continually push the snow away from your face. Additionally, your body movement will compact the snow around you creating more air space.

avalanche safety
With this much snow, a probe and a shovel are essential avalanche safety equipment. Image credit Clayoquot.

If you are close enough to the surface, continue to to dig upwards, poking anything you can above the surface, such as a ski or brightly colored clothing, as this will make it easier for your rescue party to spot you. If you’re not close to the surface, it might be best to conserve your energy and focus on breathing.

Definitely make an attempt to call out for help but do keep in mind that when you are trapped beneath the surface, you may be able to hear others calling for you but they are unlikely to be able to hear you. If you can hear your rescue party but it’s obvious they can’t hear you, remain calm and give them a few minutes before calling out again. Otherwise, you may waste your air supply and voice by continually shouting to people who can’t hear you.

A rather unconventional but potentially life-saving tactic when buried in an avalanche is to urinate. For one thing, the pressure of being buried may be very uncomfortable on your bladder, but more importantly, the odor acts as a beacon for rescue dogs sniffing around the surface.

avalanche safety
Avalanche rescue dogs are trained to sniff out buried victims. The stronger your scent, the more likely they will be to find you. Image via Paul Morris on flickr.

The mere thought of being caught in an avalanche is terrifying and should you have the misfortune to ever be buried by one, no doubt your natural instinct will be to panic. Fight this urge. By remaining calm, you will slow your breathing and preserve the available air beneath the snow, which will afford you more time to get out. This is where preparedness presents a major advantage. If you know what to do it will be easier to remain calm and you can focus on the survival tasks at hand.

If you want to experience the terrors of surviving an avalanche without leaving the safety and comfort of your home, check out this video from the helmet cam of a backcountry skier who was buried in an avalanche. Luckily, he finds his way with a lot of help from his friends. Notice how they had to dig for him using their skis and hands – a shovel would have been very helpful!

Conclusion

When it comes to avalanche preparedness, awareness and knowledge are your best tools. Always be aware of the daily and regional conditions in your area, make sure you and your crew are packed with the proper equipment, and attend training courses to learn more about avalanche survival. Remember, when it comes to avalanche safety, avoidance offers your best chance for survival, always err on the side of caution when out enjoying the backcountry.

Your Thoughts

How do avalanches rank in your threat assessment? Are they something you are expecting and prepared for, or a rare occurrence you don’t expect to encounter? Have you ever been in an avalanche or used avalanche safety gear? What was your experience like? Tell us your thoughts and leave your questions in the Comments section below, thanks!

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