Basics for Backcountry Winter Recreation
Congratulations, you’re taking your first steps in getting training right now. But don’t stop here. Education and training are crucial for safe backcountry outings. This module is a great place to start and should be followed by taking an introductory avalanche awareness class, formal training and applied practice outside!
Introduction to Avalanche Safety
Venturing into the mountains in the winter can be fun and exciting and there are many ways to enjoy the snow. Just like thunderstorms and lightning in the summer or riptides at the ocean, avalanches are a hazard in the snow-covered mountains. If you’re traveling on or near snowy slopes, you need to be aware of the danger of avalanches. They can occur any month of the year when there’s snow on the ground.
Since 2010, avalanches have killed an average of 27 people per year in the United States. In that time, 42 people have died in avalanches in Washington and Oregon combined, with 35 fatalities in Washington alone. Many avalanche involvements go unreported so we don’t know exactly how many people survive being caught in avalanches. The majority of fatal avalanches are triggered by the victim or their travel partners. A positive point here is that our decisions about which terrain to travel in, or to avoid, can determine whether or not we trigger avalanches. By learning how to make decisions that limit our exposure to avalanche hazard, we can stay safe.
While learning about avalanche safety could seem overwhelming or daunting, you’re already heading in the right direction. There are five basic steps you can do to start becoming avalanche aware: Get the gear, get the training, get the forecast, get the picture, and get out of harm’s way.
Get the Gear
To travel in the snow-covered mountains, it’s essential that everyone carries three key pieces of avalanche rescue gear: an avalanche transceiver (or beacon), an avalanche probe, and an avalanche shovel. These items allow you to locate and dig out your friend if they’re buried in an avalanche. It’s also important to carry things like a map, first-aid kit, communication device, extra warm clothes, and food. These could be helpful in an emergency or unexpected event.
Get the Training
In the vast study of avalanches, there are a few basic areas to focus on as you start learning. You can learn how to perform an avalanche rescue and how to safely travel near avalanche terrain by taking a Level 1 avalanche course from a professional educator or guide. The Level 1 is part of a progression of formal, in-person avalanche courses. The Northwest Avalanche Center offers introductory classes, workshops, lectures, and educational programs that you can take before or after a Level 1 course. Whether or not you pursue more formal education, learning about avalanches doesn’t stop with a Level 1 and it can be an engaging, life-long journey.
Get the Forecast
The avalanche danger changes from one day to the next. Some days are very dangerous and others are less dangerous. The Northwest Avalanche Center and other centers in the United States and Canada publish advisories on avalanche conditions throughout the winter months. These advisories, or forecasts, help you anticipate the potential avalanche conditions on a given day for a specific region of the mountains. There are some days when traveling in avalanche terrain is not recommended even for the most experienced backcountry travelers. It’s important to read the forecast for the area and day where you’ll be traveling so you can be aware of the hazards before going into the mountains.
Get the Picture
It’s important to be observant and aware when we travel in the mountains. We watch for signs of avalanche danger and pay attention to how our group is traveling and communicating. Recent avalanches are the best indicator of dangerous avalanche conditions. Other critical “Red Flag” clues can tell you that you should avoid avalanche terrain. You can get the picture by looking for these snow and weather clues throughout your day.
Get Out of Harm’s Way
Avalanches happen in certain places in the mountains which we call “avalanche terrain.” The surest step to get out of harm’s way is to avoid these areas. Learning to recognize and avoid avalanche terrain is a critical skill for anyone traveling in the backcountry. The first step is identifying slopes where avalanches can start, run and stop. To truly apply this and make decisions near or even in avalanche terrain takes training and practice. You can start down that path by taking a Level 1 avalanche course.
This is an overview of the five steps to staying safe in the snow-covered mountains. You can learn more about each of these steps by following the links above. Other introductory topics include:
- What is the Backcountry?
- Instructional videos from the National Avalanche Center
- NWAC workshops and evening classes
In addition to our Backcountry Basics program, other great resources are the Avalanche Basics Tutorial and the Know Before You Go videos and online learning program. To safely travel in the mountains and make decisions in avalanche terrain, you’ll want to take an in-person avalanche course. You can find course providers at: