The words “avalanche awareness” along with “snowshoeing” can bring up many emotions for snowshoers: fear, overwhelm, ambivalence. Not often enough does our feeling include confidence. As a snowshoer, it can be easy to ignore the threat of avalanches while on the trail. I know from personal experience. For a long time, avalanches were the furthest thing from my mind while snowshoeing. I was utterly oblivious to the fact that I had to be aware at all, even though I regularly traveled to the mountains.
You could say that I was proof of the saying: You don’t know what you don’t know. And I’m not the only one.
Many of us snowshoers are not aware of avalanches or think they don’t affect us, but they do. Of the 274 avalanche fatalities across the US over the last ten years, 48 were snowshoers and hikers, about 17.5% of all victims.
Of those snowshoers and hikers caught in avalanches (both mountain locals and visitors alike), many traveled into avalanche terrain without knowing it. Needless to say, doing so without any preparation or avalanche awareness can put us at risk and potentially in a scary situation while snowshoeing.
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Why Snowshoers Should Be Avalanche Aware
The threat of avalanches, however, shouldn’t deter our winter mountain snowshoeing excursions. To be honest, the thought of an avalanche still wholly terrifies me, and I’ve met other snowshoers who feel similarly. But the good news is that there are ways to remain safe while altogether avoiding avalanche terrain and the risks associated with it. And, the way to stay safe for those wanting to avoid terrain doesn’t have to include an intensive multi-day course or expensive equipment.
Contrary to what some may think, an awareness of what avalanche terrain looks like is the best way to avoid it. As Liz Riggs Meder, Director of Recreation Programs for The American Institute for Avalanche Research & Education (AIARE), noted, “If you travel anywhere near the mountains in the winter, you need to be at least aware you are doing something potentially dangerous and how to avoid doing that. If you don’t want to avoid avalanche terrain but engage with it, there there is even more you need to know”.
Just as we develop an awareness of the appropriate gear and accessories to carry on a day hike, we can develop the same knowledge related to winter terrain. But, if you haven’t yet jumped on the avalanche awareness train, here are a few other reasons why we should be avalanche aware, even if we want to avoid avalanche terrain altogether.
1. Popular Trails Are Not Immune To Avalanches
It can be easy to see a popular winter trail and assume that it’s safe and devoid of avalanche terrain. I mean, the trail is full of people, so it must be safe, right? Well, maybe not.
Even though other people are on the trail, they may also not have avalanche awareness. The Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) Trail Outreach Project connects with active trail users on popular, avalanche-prone routes. During their outreach, they collect data in real-time related to avalanche knowledge and preparedness while also providing avalanche forecasts and education opportunities to outdoor enthusiasts. In the 2018-2019 season, they found that almost half (47%) of snowshoers and hikers on the trail had no avalanche training or awareness. Furthermore, over half (52%) were not carrying any avalanche equipment with them.
A lack of awareness combined with a lack of preparedness can lead to some dangerous wrong place, wrong time incidents related to avalanches. Plus, as hikers and snowshoers, we are almost always in backcountry or non-patrolled areas, even when on popular trails.
As Riggs Meder said, “There has been a big educational push to name everything that is outside of a ski resort boundary as backcountry… So there’s a little bit of making sure that when we talk about the backcountry, we mean the minute you step out of the parking lot, you’re in backcountry terrain for winter intents and purposes.”
But, having a basic awareness of what avalanche terrain looks like, even in the backcountry, provides the opportunity to avoid avalanche-prone trails or stop before reaching an avalanche-prone area because you know the basic warning signs and danger zones.
2. It’s Easy To Explore Terrain on Snowshoes, So We’re Venturing Farther
One of the best aspects of snowshoeing is that we can snowshoe anywhere.
Snowshoers can explore locally in a neighborhood park, recreation area or head to a mountain trail if there’s snow. Or, we can easily veer off the trail or make our adventure off the beaten path. As more people are going outdoors, more people may want to try winter sports and may take up snowshoeing as a way to explore.
The downside of having the freedom to snowshoe anywhere is that, without the proper knowledge, we can snowshoe into avalanche areas unaware. Riggs Meder mentioned that she has seen a considerable increase in people on snowshoes over the last few years, and many of them are “completely unaware of the consequences of an avalanche in the terrain they are in or the potential hazard posed by avalanches.”
In a conversation with Mark Bender, Senior Avalanche Forecaster from Avalanche Canada, we similarly discussed this effect. Even though the goal may not be avalanche terrain or seek the slope, snowshoers are getting out there in the backcountry, further and further away from the crowd. In this regard, over the last 2 or 3 years, there have been several incidents where snowshoers did trigger an avalanche via a cornice, one of the avalanche danger zones.
Furthermore, snowshoers traveling off-trail may also cross into avalanche run-out areas. So we may not trigger the avalanche directly through a cornice or other means, but we still may unknowingly be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
3. More Course Offerings With Application To Snowshoers
If you’ve been to an avalanche course already, you may have noticed that most of the videos of awareness courses are of skiers and snowboarders, not snowshoers specifically. Plus, classes are often taught from the instructor’s perspective and their winter activity, Riggs Meder mentioned.
But changes are on the horizon. For example, some avalanche centers, such as NWAC, are partnering with REI stores to offer basic and intermediate avalanche coursework specifically for snowshoers.
Plus, prominent avalanche awareness players such as AIARE and Avalanche Canada recognize the need to reach different winter enthusiasts. “We [winter enthusiasts] look at terrain differently because we use the terrain differently… So, we need to get more snowshoers and winter hikers teaching avalanche education,” Riggs Meder noted. The catch, though, is in managing risk and finding qualified instructors with adequate experience in this area to relate to snowshoers and winter hikers specifically. “It’s a professional training problem we have to solve.”
In the short term, though, more tailored awareness courses are looking promising. “It’s become very clear that we need to address the population of folks who want to avoid avalanche terrain”…[We] need to make sure that we’re meeting our audiences, and I think that we have an obligation to do that now. We’re recognizing who’s out there, and we’re beginning to understand how to better meet those needs,” Riggs Meder added.
For those not interested in navigating active avalanche terrain, a course tailored to avoiding avalanches could make all the difference.
Read More: Avalanche Avoidance Tips & FAQ
4. Knowledge Is Power
Speaking of the changes to avalanche coursework, it’s incredible what a little knowledge can do for our confidence. Especially for a first-time snowshoer, it can be intimidating to try a new sport or not know where to go to participate in our winter activity. Luckily, the knowledge obtained from avalanche coursework gives us the power to know where to go. Even if the photos we see in avalanche coursework are of skiers and snowboarders, learning how to identify the terrain is the same for both groups.
I stumbled upon an avalanche awareness course on social media that was offered locally for free. I’m so glad I decided to go! I increased my confidence by learning what avalanche terrain looks like, which has inspired me to expand my snowshoeing adventures. Even though my goal is to avoid avalanche terrain, I feel much more comfortable with my safety on the trail by identifying terrain features.
As snowshoers, we all have the power to stay safe from avalanches. It just takes awareness. Each of us has different preferences for our adventure. But how do we stay away from avalanche terrain or remain safe in avalanche terrain if we don’t know how to identify avalanche terrain?
Tips For Snowshoers To Increase Their Avalanche Awareness
For those looking to avoid avalanche terrain, keep these tips in mind the next time you go.
1. Know Before You Go
Avalanche Canada offers a basic one-page introduction or an online tutorial of what avalanche terrain and conditions look like, along with how to decipher the avalanche forecast in your area. These basic concepts will help you know what to avoid so you can choose a safe trail devoid of avalanche risk.
A few key takeaways:
- Avalanches depend on the terrain and are most common on slopes between 30-45 degrees
- Openings in the trees of a forested area can identify an avalanche path
- Avoid cornices (wind deposited snow that forms a shelf along a ridge)
- Heavy snowfall, wind, and warm days after a storm increase the chance of avalanches
- If on a specific trail, look at the trail sign for avalanche terrain warnings
Just remember, “If you are going into the mountains, you could be in avalanche terrain.” Riggs Meder recommends that if it’s your first time snowshoeing, perhaps it’s best not to pick somewhere in the mountains but somewhere looking at the mountains from a distance.
2. Talk To The Locals
If you’re visiting or venturing into an unknown area, locals can supply a wealth of information about the trails and prospective avalanche terrain. Reach out to your local tourist information center, national park visitor center, or avalanche center. These centers have a plethora of information and knowledgeable staff members to help beginner snowshoers. In addition, your local center may help you determine whether or not your trail of interest is in avalanche terrain. So, don’t hesitate to contact them!
3. Be Aware Of Your Surroundings
If there is one factor that is the best predictor of avalanches, it’s the slope. Thus, we can avoid potentially dangerous avalanche terrain by being aware of the trail’s geography while we’re snowshoeing.
As Scott Schell, Executive Director of NWAC, recommends, ask yourself whether your trail interacts with or is in the vicinity of slopes 30 degrees or more. If your route avoids slopes with this degree, you will likely be out of avalanche territory. But, always remember to look up and around you when you’re snowshoeing!
Tools To Measure Slope
Until there is a more in-depth mapping of avalanche terrain on a large scale, there are a few tools that you can use now. But, if you’re unsure of the slope degree, you can use an inclinometer, such as this slope meter or this smartphone avalanche inclinometer.
According to Snowshoe Mag writer and International Mountain Leader Kingsley Jones, in Avalanche Avoidance Tips, you can also measure the approximate angle with trekking poles as you’re approaching the slope. Stand one pole vertically and the other horizontally. Place one tip of the horizontal pole on top of the vertical pole and the other end against the snow. If the horizontal pole handle touches the snow, the angle is 45°. If you have to lower the horizontal pole to halfway down the vertical pole, for the handle to reach the snow, the pitch is roughly 25°.
You can alter the trekking pole technique above by using it in conjunction with your phone. For example, if you have an iPhone, the measure app can assist you in measuring the slope angle. First, look at the slope from the side and at a distance. Then, line your pole up along the ridge and use the measure app on your phone to measure the angle. Or, you can add these handy stickers to your pole to gauge the slope angle.
4. Don’t Assume Summer Trails Are Appropriate Winter Trails
Many snowshoers choose a trail based on their summer hiking habits. I have done so myself. However, some summer trails are in prime avalanche territory, and you should avoid them in winter, such as these trails near Seattle. If you have a route that you love, think again about the terrain.
Is the trail below a steep slope? Or, are there unexplained clearings? Was the trail in dense forest one minute, and now you are out in the open? Does the route have any other avalanche warning signs? Have avalanches occurred in this area before? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, you may want to reconsider the trail if you’re unprepared and without the proper equipment (see below).
Alternatively, can you snowshoe part of the trail, or is there an alternative route? Many trails could be in simple terrain, meaning that there are options to avoid the avalanche path. Alternatively, some summer trails may stay out of avalanche terrain for the first several miles and only approach avalanche territory further along the trail. If this is the case, you may choose only to snowshoe the first mile instead of the entire route.
Avalanche Safety Basics For Snowshoers: Warning Signs & Danger Zones
How To Choose A Trail: Tips For Learning When You Need Snowshoes
4. Be Prepared If You Do Go Out In Avalanche Terrain While Snowshoeing
If you do decide to go snowshoeing into potential avalanche terrain, always be prepared! You do not want to chance it and get caught in an avalanche, which could be deadly. To make sure you have what you need, Schell encourages you to:
Get The Forecast
Forecasts can range from low to extreme avalanche conditions. Plus, be aware that the forecast may differ depending on whether you are below or above the tree line. Avalanche centers in your area will list the forecast each day, so remember to check before heading out.
Avalanche.org has a list of all centers in the United States, and here are a few common centers around the world to be aware of:
Colorado – The Colorado Avalanche Information Center
Pacific Northwest – The Northwest Avalanche Center
Alaska – The Alaska Avalanche Information Center
New Hampshire – Mount Washington Avalanche Center
Canada – Avalanche Canada
Europe – European Avalanche Warning Services
Japan – Japan Avalanche Network
Australia – Snow Safety Australia
Get The Training
Different levels of avalanche preparedness training are available, with more options to come! An awareness course or online tutorial is a good starting point if you are heading into or near avalanche terrain (not just avoiding). However, a longer, more intensive course is recommended for avalanche conditions.
NWAC offers a free 90-minute introductory course or an online basics course for winter recreation enthusiasts, including snowshoers. Alternatively, AIARE offers a three-day Level 1 course. If in the US, you can search for a class near you. Additionally, Avalanche Canada offers an Avalanche Skills Training Level 1 course, which is a minimum of 2 days.
The courses above all offer an introduction to using tools to help manage risk. After all, the best way to be prepared is to take a course that allows you to practice your training techniques in the field. Plus, as Ski Mag mentioned, there are some life lessons from avalanche education that you may learn too. Don’t fret, as these lessons apply to skiers as well as snowshoers.
Get The Gear
There are a few pieces of safety gear that are imperative when traveling into avalanche terrain:
- A transceiver (also called a beacon) – If you become buried in an avalanche, your transceiver will emit a radio signal. Then, other transceivers worn by your party members will receive this signal. Always wear the beacon around your shoulders or waist. Do not store it in your backpack.
- Probe – You can use the avalanche probe to shift through avalanche debris to help find the buried party member.
- Shovel – Use an avalanche shovel to dig the buried person out of the snow.
An avalanche airbag can also be a helpful piece of gear. The airbag helps decrease the chances of burial if caught in an avalanche. If you choose not to carry an airbag, you can attempt to avoid burial by grabbing a tree, riding on debris, or trying to escape off the avalanche slab.
To carry your gear, choose a backcountry backpack with loops and storage on the outside of the pack. You’ll want to keep your equipment easily accessible in the unfortunate case you need to use it.
Read More: Avalanche Avoidance Tips & FAQ
Avalanche Awareness Is Key While Snowshoeing
Overall, avalanche awareness and safety are not just for experienced snowshoers. The threat of avalanches can affect all of us. Popular summer trails can travel into avalanche terrain in the winter. But, if we don’t have the awareness, we’re setting ourselves up for a potentially dangerous situation. We need to remember, just as Riggs Meder suggests that, “If you’re going to a mountainous area, you need to take the time to learn about additional hazards.” Having a basic level of avalanche awareness knowledge is key to a safe and enjoyable snowshoeing experience.
What tips do you have for avalanche awareness for snowshoeing beginners? What strategy works best for you? Let us know in the comments below.
This article was first published on May 8, 2020. Susan Wowk most recently updated it on November 11, 2021.
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