If you’re planning a day of backcountry skiing, hiking, or exploring, it is essential to pack several pieces of avalanche survival equipment. Including just a few pieces of equipment will greatly reduce your risk of death or extreme injury. If you spend a lot of your winter exploring backcountry slopes, invest in the following items.


  1. A small shovel. If you’re caught up in an avalanche, you will need to spend some energy creating an air pocket around your body. This is made easier with the use of a shovel. If you’re less than a foot away from the surface, a shovel can be used to escape.


  1. A helmet. This is a no-brainer, especially if you’re skiing or climbing. Many avalanche-related fatalities occur because of the initial impact of snow or objects caught in the path. A helmet is your best protection against losing consciousness and potential head injury.


  1. An avalanche receiver and probe. If you get trapped, an avalanche receiver will put out a signal to identify where you are buried. The avalanche probe provides a more specific location for rescuers to begin the digging process. If you’re heading out with a group, each person should carry both—don’t assume that one of each device will be enough.


  1. Skier air bags. This is the only optional item on the survival kit list. Skier air bags have become popular in recent years, as they keep our body closer to the surface of the snow. Human bodies are denser than snow, meaning you’re likely to be pulled to the bottom as the snow travels downhill; an air bag will work against that. Additionally, this can create an essential air pocket if you get trapped.


If your backcountry experience leans closer to casual participant than frequent enthusiast, you should still be prepared for emergencies. Luckily, most of these items are relatively inexpensive. The more expensive equipment, such as a helmet, is easily rentable from a local ski and snowboard retailer. If you can’t get your hands on equipment to stuff your emergency pack, you shouldn’t be out exploring. When it comes to avalanches, you should always expect the unexpected.

Avalanche season is traditionally defined as being from December to April. In so much that the winter months accumulate larger snow packs and early spring can bring rapidly changing temperatures, there is a “season” for major avalanche events. When you see news reports and dramatic videos of these types of events, it’s almost always during the winter or early spring months.



These major avalanche events can be lethal, but not primarily because of poor trip planning or ignoring the mountain’s warning signs. Instead, these catastrophes can kill people and damage buildings a mile or so from the base of the mountain in a once-in-a-lifetime event.


The Other Side of Avalanche Season

And yet. As part of our borrowed ethos, Mountains Speak, The Wise Shall Listen, we don’t really like to think of there being an avalanche season. While more avalanches do tend to occur between December and April, an avalanche may happen in any calendar month given sufficient elevation, snowpack, and temperature swings to trigger one. Moreover, it’s the smaller avalanches that occur during the summer and fall months that can be unexpected even to more seasoned mountaineers and, ultimately, just as deadly.

Indeed, from snow camping to mountain access that’s limited to the summer months, a lot of people find summer is their favorite season for backpacking, climbing, and mountaineering. As you prepare for this year’s big trip, don’t forget about basic avalanche safety and smart decision-making. Better to have a mild disappointment this year than sacrifice years of enjoyment in a tragic mistake.


Institutional Avalanche Safety is Year-Round

Even in areas where the snowpack completely disappears in the summer, civil authorities continue to train for avalanche safety. Search and rescue teams train for basic maneuvers and more complex ones. Geologists, environmentalists, and public safety officials survey mountains for any remaining snowpack, as well as changing terrain and mountain counters. Avalanche rescue dogs that can sniff out humans buried beneath the snow train year-round to hone their senses. New land-use policies are considered and enacted. New signage is ordered and installed.

Outdoor enthusiasts must also do their individual part in properly preparing for their adventures, whether during the summer or winter months. Part of this may be avalanche safety education. Part of this may be investing in new mountaineering and safety supplies. Part of this may be altering your trip planning destination or dates to minimize the chances that the risk of an avalanche will put a crimp in your ability to explore a mountain.

Everyone that hits the slopes for snowboarding and skiing will no doubt want to go beyond the safety of the bunny slopes and beaten paths. If that sounds like an amazing time for you, you’re not alone. A lot of people love exploring the deeper parts of the world around them, and adventure is found in these amazing areas. However, you should know about avalanche safety, and what you can do to protect yourself and others when you’re hitting back country, and uncharted snowy areas on any mountain. Different organizations mention different things, and here’s a few notes from some of the premier companies that discuss this.


Back Country Access 

This organization discusses everything you need to know about avalanche safety in the form of writing, articles, and videos. There’s even a podcast that is dedicated to avalanche information, rescue, and what to do. You can also read success stories from people that have made it out of avalanches. They recommend you review avoidance guidelines, stick to the beaten path, carry emergency elements with you, and keep clear communication to someone that’s not with you to help with getting rescued if need be.



REI is one of the biggest retailers in outdoors equipment. They are a multi-million dollar company that also provides education to their customers. On their official website the company has outlined safety tips for facing off against avalanches. They mention avoidance being the first thing, but they also talk about types of avalanches, how to note snowpack, temperature changes, wind, and more. The site gives you a full education on what to look for in regard to conditions before hitting any back country, so that you don’t have to face off against a powerful drop.


National Geographic

The famed magazine has sent explorers, photographers, and extreme athletes around the world to cover natural splendor for many years. They have set up a full website that discusses a tremendous amount of information on safety, including avalanche safety that you should know. The site cuts things up into bullet points and discusses avalanche awareness, as well as what to do if caught up. They suggest trying to off the slab or grab hold of a tree or something nearby, and also attempt to swim to the surface. They also recommend having a probe and small shovel with you to dig yourself out of issues, and evaluate conditions before even heading to the slopes.

These are just 3 major sites that discuss avalanche safety. Some sites go into extreme details as to what to know and what to do, while others give you bullet points and general information. Either way, it’s imperative that you focus on information before you hit the slopes, so that you’re not panicked and caught off guard.

We all know that avalanches are dangerous. Some of us may have even experienced one. However, even backcountry enthusiasts may not fully understand how avalanches form. Understanding the ways in which avalanches may occur is essential for taking steps toward their prevention.

Technically speaking, an avalanche is any amount of snow sliding down a mountainside—similar to a landslide, but with snow rather than earth. There are two types of avalanches.


  • A Surface Avalanche happens when a layer of snow with different properties slides over another layer of snow. Think: when dry, powdery snow slides over a dense, wet, or icy layer.
  • A Full-Depth Avalanche happens when the entire snow cover, regardless of the properties of individual layers, slides over the ground.


Both types of avalanches are extremely dangerous. Though large, full-deptch avalanches are, quite obviously, the most dangerous, small, surface avalanches can also cause severe injury and death. Though you may not be buried, you could be pushed off a cliff, into a depression, or into rocks and trees. It is essential to understand how avalanches work, as well as the danger scale, in order to practice safe and informed backcountry exploration.

Avalanches occur when a layer of snow cannot support its own weight. The snow can be loosened by a person’s step, a loud sound, or a gust of wind, causing the snow to loosen. Most avalanches begin with a weakened layer within or on top of the snowpack, which collapses under the weight of higher/surface layers or of itself.


The United States and Canada utilize the same five-category avalanche danger estimation scale. The tool is used by avalanche forecasters to broadcast the daily potential for avalanches in a given area. If you enter avalanche terrain, your safety depends on your ability to understand and assess conditions on the slopes you plan to climb or descend. Learning to read the avalanche danger scale is an excellent step toward backcountry preparation.

Avalanche terrain is often defined as a snow-covered slope steeper than thirty degrees, but it extends to any terrain beneath the slopes. Therefore, if a ravine toward the peak of a mountain is more than thirty degrees in steepness, the entire area below this drop is considered to be avalanche terrain.


North American Avalanche Scale

The North American Avalanche Scale consists of five ascending danger levels which provide travel advice and a means of planning your day—whether it should eliminate certain areas of a range, change mountains altogether, or stay inside. The assigned avalanche danger applies only to avalanche terrain, but designations can apply to large areas. It is therefore your job to make slope-specific assessments.

Low avalanche danger, characterized by a green check-mark, does not mean an absence of danger. Rather, it is meant to communicate that there may be loose snow on isolated features of a particular area. Moderate danger signifies the need to carefully evaluate snow and terrain with heightened caution; you should avoid areas of terrain identified in the day’s safety report. Considerable danger means you should avoid avalanche terrain if you do not have the skills or experience to move carefully through the area; human-triggered avalanches are likely. High avalanche danger signals that, regardless of your experience, you should avoid all avalanche terrain. Your safe options within the terrain become limited to non-existent.

Below, we have included an infographic provided by Avalanche.Org.




No matter what skill set you have in skiing and snowboarding, you are going to be wary about avalanches. Just because you’re an expert in riding, doesn’t mean that you’re not going to have to deal with issues associated with snowfall, and slides. It’s for that reason why you may want to pursue a few tips and tricks that even experts have trouble with in regard to safety overall. The following tips could very well help you keep safe, for years.

More Information Is Everything

The first thing that you need to remember is that you need to have up to date information. That means up to the point where you seek a chair lift. With today’s multimedia devices, you can get avalanche reports up to the minute, and you can setup notifications if need be. You should know if there’s an avalanche danger or not coming for the day, and then plan your route accordingly.

Observe Everything

When you’re on the mountain, make sure that you look around you and know everything that is going on. You should know whether or not there’s freshly packed snow, if there’s powder, if something is hollow, if you see clouds forming, if there’s wind hitting hard, or if you hear a sound of settling or more. You should also focus on rolling elements on the snow and whether or not there are slides occurring as you go through the routes you choose. The more aware you are, the more you can progress with the right focus overall.

Get The Right Gear

Before you get to the slopes make sure that you have avalanche gear with you. You can be observant, you could have a lot of different warm weather items, but you need to have specific avalanche elements to keep you safe. That includes getting a shovel, communication devices, probes, and emergency kits. Education can get you far, but you need to also have gear that can save you, including elements that are specifically made to help first responders find you if need be.

Do Not Go Alone

Unless you’re a professional snowboarder or skier, you should not go alone. These professionals are paid a great deal of money to take on risks, and they usually have someone with them filming, or watching for their safety. Even if you’re great at snow sports, make sure that you go with a group or at least a partner and make certain you both know where each other is, and has equipment that could very well save you. These are just the basic tips to consider, even if you’re an expert.

How to Do a Compression Test

Thinking about hitting the slopes this winter? Want to get past the beaten path? Many beginners dream about powdery snow, flying down mountains on skis or snowboards, and so much more. There’s a lot of different things that you can explore when you’re hitting mountain tops. If you’re extreme and you want to explore more than just the bunny slopes, then the following tips and tricks are going to help you. These are things that will help you stay safe just in case you have to face off against an avalanche, which could be deadly.

Know What These Are

The first thing that you need to do is simple, look at the weather conditions. Not just the cold weather, not just the snowfall, but avalanche condition risks. You will need to ask around, look online, get an app, and do your due diligence in regard to the mountain range that you’re going to be going towards. It’s imperative that you know how steep slopes are, and how close to ridges you may be.

Pack Appropriately

If you’re going to go backcountry, if you’re going to test the limits, you need to have an emergency kit with you. You need a shovel, a probe, a small oxygen tank, and you’ll need emergency elements that may keep you warm and safe. You will need a backpack, and get used to it being on your back, and easy to open. You could get caught up fast, so you’ll need quick reflexes to ensure that you’re out. Traveling alone is not recommended, but hey, if you’re going to traverse extremes, be prepared with emergency kit elements.

What If You’re Caught Up?

The next thing that you should know is that you may get caught up. You need to not panic. According to National Geographic, and other resources, you should focus on swimming upwards away from the bottom if possible. Swimming to the surface, and grabbing a tree or anything heavy is a good option to consider. If that’s not possible, you’ll need to rely on your emergency kit and shovel to dig yourself out.

Aside from these tips above, you should focus on electronic communication. Make sure that someone knows you’re on the mountain, and check in during runs, etc. If there’s an emergency, send out a signal and ask for help. Use your emergency kit to help yourself in the meantime, and don’t travel alone if you can avoid it.

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