Understanding Avalanche Problems when Preparing to Travel in the Backcountry

As a backcountry traveler, it should be our goal to avoid avalanches. Forecast centers often discuss current avalanche problems, where they are likely found, how sensitive to triggering they are, and how large of an avalanche this problem might produce.

Understanding current avalanche problems can help to hone in a daily route plan.

Watch this video explaining the avalanche problems forecast centers might identify in their daily forecasts.  

And here is a little deeper dive into specific avalanche problems:

The North American Danger Scale and the Use in Avalanche Forecasts

Each avalanche forecast offers a tremendous amount of information.  Most forecast centers offer daily danger ratings.  The danger scale goes from Low to Extreme, and offers a danger rating, commentary on the likelihood of triggering an avalanche, the size and distribution of avalanches, and travel advice.  

Here’s a great blog post from the Utah Avalanche Center about interpreting the danger rating.

An Introduction to the Avalanche Forecast – How to Gather Information from Forecast Centers

One resource that we will use whenever traveling in the backcountry is the local avalanche forecast page.  To locate your forecast center, go to avalanche.org and click on your local forecast center.

If you’re headed to Canada, you can go to avalanche.ca to find regional forecasts.

The avalanche forecast offers current hazard ratings, as well as any reports of recent avalanche activity, current and forecasted weather, and a variety of other information.

Classifying and Documenting Avalanches

The avalanche vocabulary lesson continues. In the following video, Jake Hutchinson reviews how avalanches are documented, the shorthand codes, and the order of documentation.

Avalanches are documented in this order for consistency – TYPE, TRIGGER, SIZE, FAILURE PLANE.

Type of avalanche: Soft Slab, Hard Slab, Wet Slab, Loose, etc..

Trigger: There are 2 categories – Natural, Artificial. There are subcategories for artificial triggers including Skier, Snowboarder (rider), Snowmachine, Explosive, etc..

Size: This covers the destructive potential of the avalanche. The bigger the number, the bigger the avalanche.

Failure Layer: What did the avalanche fail on?

The language and vocabulary of snow and avalanches

Many activities have their own vocabularies. The world of snow and avalanches is no different. Understanding this terminology is important as you read the avalanche forecast, communicate with fellow backcountry travelers, and submit observations to your local avalanche forecast center.

Avalanches are categorized as loose snow avalanches or slab avalanches.

When we are thinking about avalanche hazard, we often ask ‘Do we have the recipe for an avalanche?’ Is there a slab, a weak layer, and a bed surface on terrain that is steep enough to slide?

In the following video, Jake Hutchinson is going to dive deeper into some of the vocabulary of snow and avalanches.

How to sort information using the avalanche triangle

The avalanche triangle is one way to sort information in the world of snow and avalanches. We can sort information using TERRAIN, SNOWPACK, WEATHER, and the HUMAN FACTOR.

When thinking of terrain, we ask “Is the Terrain Steep Enough to Avalanche?” The majority of slab avalanches occur in terrain that is 30° – 45°.

When thinking of snowpack, we ask “Is There a Recipe for an Avalanche? Is there a SLAB, WEAK LAYER, BED SURFACE and are we in TERRAIN steep enough to avalanche?”

When thinking of weather, we ask “Is the Weather Contributing to the Instability?”

And when thinking of the human factor, we ask “Is my Group Working as a Team?”

Tips for when you’re ski touring

The following videos are OPTIONAL. Feel free to watch them or to skip them.

It can be tricky to put skins on in deep snow. Here’s one way to make it easier on yourself.

The easiest way to take your skins off is to take your skis off and then remove your skins. If you want to try another way, check this video out.

If you’re already out touring, you’ll notice that skins don’t stick perfectly to the bottom of your skis or splitboard every time. Below is a video on how to revive skin glue.

If you find yourself slipping as you’re skinning uphill, here are a few ways to make it easier on yourself.