Are You Prepared for an Avalanche?
A basic 10-question checklist to make sure that you're focusing on the right things when you head out into the backcountry
For exclusive access to all of our fitness, gear, adventure, and travel stories, plus discounts on trips, events, and gear, sign up for Outside+ today.
Until a few years ago, standard Avalanche 1 courses focused on teaching students to dig snow pits and look for weak and faceted layers that might cause a slide. Now there's a movement to prioritize decision making based on terrain, human factors, and conditions rather than snow-pit analysis.
“The first thing I tell new backcountry skiers to do is sign up for an avalanche course,” says Margaret Wheeler, a Washington-based mountain guide. “The second thing I tell them is to find a course that focuses on decision making.”
Here's a checklist to help you get started.
- Are you skiing in 25-to-45-degree steeps, the slopes most likely to slide?
- Is there safer, lower-angle terrain you should be skiing instead?
- Are you factoring in terrain traps like gullies and streambeds?
- Are you skiing the terrain for the right reasons?
- Is social pressure, a scarcity of good snow, or familiarity causing you to ski a dangerous slope?
- How aware are you of the expert halo—the false sense of security the experienced often get simply because they're experienced?
Weather and Conditions
- Is there a lot of new snow or high winds?
- What does the regional avalanche forecast say?
- What is the temperature and weather forecast?
- Have you seen any fresh avalanches or heard the telltale whoomping sound of snow collapsing?