Should You Worry About Avalanches When Hiking?

 In Learn Hiking, Planning, Skills, Survival

A few years ago, I had an icky avalanche safety moment. (No, I didn’t get hit by one. But icky nonetheless.)

On this day, my friend and I were signed up for a Meetup group snowshoe. It had been stormy AF for a week, and the avalanche danger was rated “considerable.” But we decided we’d give it a try. We could always turn around if we didn’t like what we saw, right?

Haha, easier said than done.

Here’s why avalanche safety experts are always warning you to consider human factors.

After a few hours of hiking, we got to a place where we didn’t like the conditions. We turned around and told the group why.

The other participants were kind of grumbly, but they followed us. Which was great.

The not-so-great part was the guy from Florida who spent the next hour mansplainin’ to us two beknighted womenfolk about avalanches.

You see, he hiked into the backcountry all the time for three whole winters (!) and never once triggered an avalanche. So because an avalanche had never hit him personally, they clearly weren’t a problem in Colorado.

Apparently, he was unfamiliar with survivorship bias.

So why am I brining this up?

Halloween may seem a little early to talk about avalanche safety. But this is a great time of year to develop your awareness, brush up on your skills, and even take an avalanche safety course.

In this blog post, we’ll bust a few common avalanche myths, and also talk about how we can all keep safe this winter.

Avalanche Safety Tips for Hikers

A forest service ranger inspects an avalanche crown in Montana

Avalanche Safety Myths Debunked

Avalanche safety starts with awareness. There’s a lot of misinformation and wishful thinking floating around on the subject. So let’s correct some of the statements you often hear from people like Mr. Florida.

Apologies in advance to folks outside the United States, because many of these stats and examples are country-specific (and even Colorado specific). But the principles are universal.

Myth #1: Avalanches aren’t a big problem in the Lower 48

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), an average of 27 people a year die in avalanches in the United States. The vast majority of these are outside Alaska.

Colorado is by far the deadliest avalanche state. Historically, it has almost twice the rate of fatalities as Alaska, which trails at second place.

Avalanche danger also tends to be high across the mountain west (Utah, Wyoming, Montana) and in Washington State.

Avalanche fatalities have occurred in all western U.S. and New England states.

Myth #2: Avalanches aren’t a problem for hikers

Most avalanche victims are skiiers, snowboarders, or snowmobilers. But hikers do get injured and killed by avalanches. Sometimes this happens on popular trails, like the approach to Kelso Ridge (2014 and 2005).

To put things in perspective, here are the U.S. avalanche fatality statistics by activity between 1950 and 2016:

  • 54 hikers
  • 182 climbers (technical or semi-technical mountaineers)
  • 249 snowmobilers
  • 260 ski tourers

Source: CAIC

Myth #3: Avalanche slopes are obvious

When I picture a fatal avalanche, I always picture it happening in a giant bowl of powder. But deadly avalanches happen on surprisingly small slopes.

In 2007, a man was swept away by an avalanche while snowshoeing on Mount Evans Road near Echo Lake. I’ve been to the spot where this accident happened and was surprised. The slope above the road was only about 50 feet tall. Yet it produced an avalanche big enough to carry him 250 feet and bury him up to his neck.

In 2017, an expert Colorado snowboarder was buried by an avalanche while scrambling down a short snow slope to reach his car. (He was with a group of friends who pulled him out.)

Myth #4: Staying off steep slopes will keep me safe.

Partially true. Terrain with a slope angle under 25 degrees rarely slides.

But you can still run into trouble when traversing below steep, snow-covered slopes — even if you’re on flat ground.

This is because dangerous slab avalanches can actually be triggered from below — and often at a surprising distance. This was the cause of the tragic Sheep Creek avalanche of 2013 that killed five ski tourers and injured one.

Assume that all contiguous snowpack is connected, and that the pressure of your weight is propagating for great distances. Travel well back from the base of steep, snow-loaded slopes. Dense forest (meaning you can extend your arms and touch trees on both sides) is a good sign that you’re beyond the runout zone.

Myth #5. Following the boot pack will keep me safe

Never follow boot pack or ski trails blindly into risky terrain. Ski trails were a factor in both the Kelso Mountain and Echo Lake fatalities mentioned above.

Just because other people have passed safely doesn’t mean you’ll be so lucky. Pay attention to your surroundings and keep assessing the risk as you go.

Avalanche Safety Tips for Hikers

Avalanche at a New Zealand ski resort [CC photo courtesy of Ari Bakker via Flickr]

Myth #6: If the avalanche forecast is moderate, I don’t need to worry

A favorable forecast can provide a false sense of security. A significant number of avalanche fatalities occur during moderate forecasts, probably because more people are out in the backcountry. In fact, fatalities can and do occur when the forecasted danger is low.

Myth #7: If I’ve taken an avalanche course, I don’t need to worry

To quote the AIARE 1 course manual, “The avalanche doesn’t know you’ve taken a course.”

You’d think AIARE grads would have a better avalanche safety record, right? But statistically, people who have taken AIARE I are more likely to be caught in avalanches than people who haven’t.

Granted, AIARE alumni are more likely than non-grads travel in avalanche terrain. (That’s why they took the course.)

But overconfidence also probably plays a role.

According to AIARE’s website, developing your avalanche judgment is an experiential, lifelong endeavor. The course is just the beginning of that development. So don’t let basic training convince you you’re an expert just yet.

Myth #8: If I have avalanche gear, I don’t have to worry

Even if you’re fully geared, there are many scenarios where technology won’t save you. An avalanche could bury your entire group. Or maybe you’re buried, and your companions are rusty when it comes to search and rescue skills. And what if there’s no time to pull the cord on your airbag system?

Carry avalanche gear in order to disaster-proof yourself. But never use it as a substitute for training, advanced planning, and in-the-moment vigilance.

Myth #9: Avalanches aren’t dangerous in the spring and summer

In the U.S., avalanche deaths have occurred in every month of the year. Historically, January is the deadliest month and September is the safest.

During the spring and summer months, be alert for loose wet avalanches. As the weather warms up, the snowpack surface starts to melt in the sun. Sometimes it deteriorates enough to lose cohesion and slide.

While not usually as dangerous as a slab avalanche, a loose wet avalanche can knock you off your feet, push you off a cliff, or bury you in a gully or tree well (also called a terrain trap). Occasionally, a loose wet avalanche can be large enough to bury a person.

Myth #10: If I’m caught in an avalanche, I’ll outrun it.

Avalanches can race downhill at up to 120 mph. You’d be very lucky to outrun one on skis or a snowmobile, let alone your feet.

If you do make a run (or ski) for it, try to angle your escape route away from the fall line. Get to the side of the path where the debris are flowing slower.

Myth #11: If I’m caught in an avalanche, I’ll dig myself out.

You should try, but you’ll probably only succeed if you’re very lightly buried.

Avalanche debris set like concrete when they come to a stop. In that case, your best hope is for your companions to dig you out within 15 minutes. If they succeed, you have a 90 percent chance of survival. But after 15 minutes, the odds decrease quickly.

Overall, about half of avalanche burials are fatal.

Avalanche Safety Tips for Hikers

Wet slide debris in Whale’s Tail Couloir (Colo.)

Avalanche Safety Tips

Here are some positive steps you can take to minimize your avalanche risk.

Take an avalanche safety course

Many organizations (including regional hiking clubs and REI) offer avalanche awareness courses. These are designed to help casual hikers and snowshoers identify and avoid avalanche terrain.

Skiers, climbers, and others whose hobbies take them into avalanche terrain will benefit from the more intensive training provided by AIARE 1 (and possibly the advanced AIARE courses, too).

Check the weather and avalanche forecasts

Avalanche forecasts by country and region:

Monitor the forecast for several days before your trip. Also watch the weather, including any weather station data available. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What kind of avalanche problems are out there? (e.g., persistant slabs, wet slides)
  • What slope aspects are affected? (e.g., north, southeast)
  • Does the danger change with elevation? (Often it will be greater near or above tree line.)
  • Have there been any recent weather events (precipitation, sustained wind, thawing) that might increase the avalanche danger?

Choose safe terrain

To minimize avalanche risk, travel on slopes with an angle of less than 25 degrees. When passing under steep, loaded slopes, stay well back from the runout zone.

How can you determine slope angle along your route? This video shows how to check from home using a free website. (IMPORTANT: For informational purposes only. Do not use YouTube videos as a substitute from proper training and planning!)

Stay alert as you travel

Constantly observe the changing snow and terrain around you. The following could signal dangerous avalanche conditions:

  • Signs of recent avalanche activity or sloughing
  • Cracking or “whumping”
  • Snowballs rolling spontaneously down the slope (called pinwheels)
  • Slush that’s deeper than the tops of your boots
  • Any dramatic weather change (rainfall, rapid warming)

Also, think about the consequences of a slide. Could flowing debris crush you against trees or rocks or sweep you off a cliff? Features like benches or gulleys can trap avalanche debris, increasing the likelihood of deep burial. Be alert for these terrain traps.

Choose likeminded companions

Travel with people who are avalanche aware and have a similar risk tolerance. Discuss the risks and make a plan before departure. Check in with each other often as you travel.

Refresh your skills

Finally, practice trip planning, group decision-making, and beacon recovery frequently to keep your skills sharp. You don’t want to be standing there in an emergency wondering what to do first!

So that’s my advice on avalanche safety. If you have any more avalanche advice for winter hikers, please comment below to share. Be safe and enjoy the snow!

Avalanche Safety Tips for Hikers

Avalanche safety tips for hikers and snowshoers
Showing 2 comments
  • Nigel William
    Reply

    Hi, Sarah! Yet another great article about the very important topic. Many more experienced hikers can get a false sense of security and knowledge, which you showed that could be fatal. I hope that these literally life- saving tips will be remembered by anyone who`s planning winter adventures in the mountains. I was wondering, what would you advise to those hikers who are too afraid of the risks and that is stopping them from hiking in winter?

    • El Jefe
      Reply

      Thanks Nigel! Appreciate you reading this and your thoughtful questions.

      For people who are avy anxious: first, realize that a little fear is a good thing! The day you aren’t afraid at all is the day you’ll start making poor judgments.

      Second, education can be really powerful. There are plenty of places you can play in the snow (even in the backcountry) without worrying about avalanches at all. So getting confident about recognizing safe terrain will really free you.

      And if you do plan to go into avalanche terrain, get as much field experience as you can with trained people. That can mean taking formal courses and refreshers, and also going out with well-trained people and learning from them. AIARE gives you a decision-making framework that can guide these conversations.

      Hope that helps! Enjoy the snow if you’re out this weekend!

Leave a Comment