What should I look for while I’m out?

After getting the forecast and coming up with a plan, you can get the picture by being observant and aware of your surroundings while you’re in the mountains. There a few key things to watch for:

  • Identify any avalanche terrain
  • Look and listen for signs of dangerous avalanche conditions
  • Watch for conditions that are different than those described in the avalanche forecast
  • Be aware of group dynamics

Identify avalanche terrain

Avoiding or minimizing your exposure to avalanche terrain is the best way to stay safe. This is one of the most central skills to traveling and making decisions in the backcountry. This comes with practice and coaching from a professional or experienced mentor. The first step is identifying avalanche terrain. On a basic level, avalanche terrain can be defined by both of the following factors:

  • Slopes steeper than 30 degrees and areas below these slopes 
  • Slopes lacking trees or with trees open enough to move through easily on a snow machine, skis, or board

From our trip plan, we should already have an idea of where we might be near avalanche terrain. As we carry out the plan and travel through the mountains, we need to look for indicators that we may be near avalanche terrain. It’s common to encounter small avalanche paths that don’t show up on maps or photos. Slopes are often steeper than anticipated. A slope meter is the best tool for accurately measuring the slope angle of the terrain. Measure or estimate the steepest part of a slope from a safe location. Watch for indicators of frequent avalanches in the trees and vegetation. This could be broken or scarred trees or a dramatic thinning of the vegetation. Consider that large avalanche paths can originate from much higher in the terrain and could potentially run to your location from above.

Signs of dangerous avalanche conditions

There are a handful of indicators of dangerous avalanche conditions that most people can learn to observe. You can train yourself and your travel partners to look for these “red flag” signs. They include:

  • Recent avalanches
  • Cracks shooting through the snow or a sudden collapsing of snow under your weight
  • Significant accumulation of new snow or rain
  • Wind blowing snow and forming drifts
  • Rapidly warming temperatures or melting snow
  • Persistent slab avalanches in the forecast or snow profiles showing weak, sugar-like layers of snow

Recent avalanches are the number one sign that the snow is unstable. They can also confirm the location of avalanche paths in the terrain. Any of these red flag signs could indicate dangerous conditions. These warning signs tell you that you could trigger an avalanche and that it’s a good idea to avoid avalanche terrain. Even avalanche professionals will look for red flag observations. With experience you can dive into details of other nuanced observations.

Conditions different than those in the forecast

Finding conditions different from those described in the forecast is another reason to avoid or minimize your exposure to avalanche terrain. While teams of forecasters work hard to give you the best information, the mountain weather and avalanche conditions are dynamic. Forecast zones are vast and conditions vary throughout each zone. At times, snow and avalanche data available to forecasters can be very sparse. Even though avalanche danger is displayed as a binary of colors on the map, the reality is that there’s a complex spectrum of conditions that change through the terrain. All of these factors could lead you to observe different snow, weather, or avalanche conditions than what you read in the forecast. If you experience this, it’s important to limit your exposure to avalanche terrain and opt for safer terrain choices.

Be aware of group dynamics

Groups communicate and make decisions in a variety of ways. Sometimes this can lead to effective decisions and high-functioning dynamics and other times not. When we look at avalanche involvements and fatalities, there’s almost always dysfunctional group dynamics or poor decisions that lead up to the event. While there are entire realms of academic study dedicated to decision-making, with a little practice you can learn to recognize when group dynamics are effective versus dysfunctional.

Effective communication is one of the best ways to promote good group dynamics. This starts before you head out for the day and continues until you’re back at the car. 

  • Use a checklist to help your group communicate and make decisions
  • Ensure that all members of your group get the gear, get the training, and get the forecast
  • Build a plan for the day including key decision points and stopping locations
  • Keep the group within earshot and easy talking distance while traveling
  • When you take breaks to re-group and check-in, remove helmets, goggles, or other gear that could prevent effective communication.
  • Verbalize and gain consensus on terrain decisions
  • Ask, “Is anyone uncomfortable with the decision?”
  • If so, defer to areas that are not avalanche terrain or less exposed to the hazard

The point is to be explicit and intentional in your communication. As you practice decision-making, you’ll gain comfort with the process. You may gravitate to practices that you find helpful. Along the way, you can watch for some classic behaviors that can lead to poor group dynamics:

  • Deferring to one person’s opinion or decisions
  • A silent group member not engaging in discussion or offering opinion
  • Feeling uncomfortable but not saying anything
  • Following tracks without considering your exposure to avalanche terrain or deeming terrain as safe because other groups traveled there
  • Not listening to a teammate’s opinion or trying to convince them otherwise
  • Ignoring signs of unstable snow or “red flags”

You can start being aware of group dynamics when traveling in the backcountry. Becoming proficient with communication and decision-making could take years, and it’s a skill that most of us may never master. As you practice and develop your skills, you can steer your group into effective and safer decisions in the backcountry.

Getting the picture means being observant and aware of your surroundings while traveling in the backcountry. You can do this by identifying avalanche terrain, watching for signs of unstable snow and avalanche danger, looking for conditions different than those in the forecast, and being aware of group dynamics and communication. After getting the picture, you can get out of harm’s way.

More resources

Recognize Red Flags

Next Steps: Get Out of Harm’s Way >