A backcountry snowshoer’s guide to avalanche safety

If you only ever snowshoe in the valley, then you will most likely never need to worry about avalanches. However, as soon as you venture into the backcountry, you move into avalanche terrain and assume new risks.

It’s important to know about avalanche safety so you can avoid risky slopes and rescue a friend in trouble. If you haven’t already been trained in avalanche safety, consider taking a course or booking a guided snowshoeing trip. Here are five tips for staying safe in avalanche terrain:

1) Know before you go!

The best way to avoid being avalanched is to avoid avalanche terrain. But to do this, you need to do your homework before you head out.

If you’re going on a snowshoeing trip, you should keep an eye on the weather conditions and the avalanche bulletin for a couple of weeks. At the very least, check the avalanche forecast the night before and the morning of your outing.

Plan your route accordingly!

2) Always carry avalanche safety gear… and practice using it!

There are three vital pieces of backcountry equipment that everyone should keep on hand: a transceiver, shovel, and probe. If you don’t have this equipment, then you are putting yourself and your friends at risk.

When buying this equipment, make sure that you get the best you can afford; it’s never appropriate to have a plastic shovel.

The avalanche survival rate declines rapidly after 15 minutes, so be familiar with your equipment, and practice rescue scenarios before you go out. Again, if you haven’t been trained on your equipment, consider taking a training course or snowshoeing with a guide.

Avalanche rescue sets include a shovel, probe, and transceiver.
Companies such as Ortovox sell avalanche rescue sets which include a transceiver, probe and shovel at a cheaper price than buying all the equipment separately

3) Be aware of the six heuristic traps

In 2004, avalanche researcher Ian McCammon reviewed 715 accidents to find a common avalanche cause. He identified six human factors — the “heuristic traps” — which often led to avalanche deaths. These traps are:

  • Familiarity: If we’ve been somewhere often, we feel familiar with the terrain and take more risks because of it.
  • Acceptance: We all like to feel accepted by our peers, which means that sometimes we try fitting in by agreeing to do dangerous things.
  • Commitment: We tend to stick to a plan that we have made, even when conditions are unfavorable. It’s much safer to make a plan after looking at weather and avalanche conditions.
  • Expert Halo: Just because someone in your group appears experienced, it doesn’t mean that you should follow that person blindly. Everyone in the group should understand avalanche safety and speak up if something feels unsafe.
  • Scarcity: If something is in low supply, then we value it more and will take greater risks to get it. Think of busy resorts on powder days — people rush to get first tracks on slopes that they normally wouldn’t use if they had the resort to themselves. In the case of snowshoeing, maybe you’ve already spent a week on vacation, and you’ve only had unfavorable conditions, so you decide to take a risk on the last day.
  • Social Proof: Humans tend to place too much stock in safety in numbers, so it’s not surprising that we take bigger risks in group settings. In fact, social scientists believe that our decision-making is skewed in group sizes larger than four. What’s more, the presence of snow tracks can lead us to erroneously believe that a slope is safe.

4) Snowshoe with a group

It’s important to snowshoe with a group for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s helpful to have more than one person making decisions regarding the safety of your route. Next, if an avalanche does occur, then hopefully certain group members can dig out anyone who’s stranded.

Like we mentioned, the perfect group size is four. By walking with more people than that, you risk falling into the heuristic traps of acceptance and social proof described above.

5) Go with a guide

If you want to venture into the backcountry, going with a guided group can be the perfect way to learn the skills needed to stay safe. At Alpenwild, we run a guided snowshoeing tour in the Swiss Alps.

Jennifer Stretton
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