How To Survive an Avalanche

Avalanches are a serious threat to anyone venturing into the backcountry during winter months. According to the American Avalanche Association, an average of 28 people die in avalanches in the United States each year. These deadly natural disasters can happen quickly and without warning, leaving little time to react. However, there are steps you can take to increase your chances of surviving an avalanche.

In this guide, we will provide you with important tips and strategies on how to survive an avalanche to help you prepare. By following these guidelines, you can greatly reduce your risk of becoming a statistic.

What To Do To Survive an Avalanche?

If you find yourself caught in an avalanche, it’s crucial to act quickly and effectively in order to increase your chances of survival.

  • Jump up the slope: Most avalanches are triggered by humans. This means that, in some cases, the avalanche will start right below your feet. In that case, you will need to jump up the slope and get away from the avalanche hot spot. The fracture line poses a great risk to your survival, and you should strive to avoid it. While avalanches happen too fast for you to react, being keen on movement can get you out of its path.
  • Get to the side of the avalanche: This is one of the most reliable avalanche survival tips. Moving the side increases your chances of surviving an avalanche. Whether it starts above you or beneath you, find a way of moving towards the side. You should do this as quickly as possible and avoid any hesitation. The quicker you do it, the higher your chances of survival. Even when the avalanche starts above you, moving to the side can get you out of its path.
  • Drop any heavy equipment: If you have heavy equipment, you should drop it. It is crucial to have your body as light as possible. Therefore, you should let go of your gear but keep your backpack. A backpack can protect your neck and back when you fall. Without the heavy gear, you can easily jump and move away from the avalanche.
  • Hold onto something: If you are unable to move out of the avalanche pathway, you should hold onto something. Grab a sturdy tree or boulder for safety. This is particularly helpful in small avalanches that don’t have too much force. Hold tight until the flow of the avalanche passes you. You should also avoid getting distracted, as this could loosen your grip.

Video courtesy of CNN.

What To Do If You’re Caught in an Avalanche

If you get caught in an avalanche, try to;

  • Grab onto anything strong and solid to avoid being carried away by the avalanche. This could be things like rocks or trees.
  • Push heavy objects, machinery, or equipment away from you to avoid sustaining injuries.
  • If you get caught in an avalanche and start moving towards it, stay on the surface using a swimming motion.
  • Keep your teeth clenched and your eyes closed. This prevents any exposure to snow particles that might sneak into your eyes or mouth.
  • Try as much as possible to get on the other side of the avalanche.

Avalanche Warning Signs

There are several warning signs you should keep an eye on to survive a possible avalanche. These avalanche signs warn you of an impending situation, and you should take the necessary precautions. Here are the warning signs of unstable snow and possible avalanches.

  • Evidence of previous slides that show the likelihood of avalanche occurrence.
  • You feel that the ground feels hollow underfoot
  • Rapid formation of cracks in the snow around your foot or ski.
  • You hear a thumping sound as you walk. This shows that the snow is settling, and a slab might be released anytime.
  • There have been heavy downpours or snowfall in the past 24 hours. Excessive snowfall is often a sign of an avalanche.
  • Rapidly increasing temperatures or significant warming. This melts the snow and triggers movement. Avoid being on the lower end of the mountain at such times.
  • You notice surface patterns on the snow caused by strong winds. This occurrence means that snow has been transported and deposited in dangerous drifts that could release anytime.

Video courtesy of FOX Weather.

How to Avoid Avalanches

There are several tips on how to avoid avalanches. Some of them include the following;

  • Don’t hike after a storm: If you want to avoid avalanches, don’t hike after storms. Storms increase the risk of avalanches, and hiking puts you at risk of getting caught in one.
  • Avoid steep slopes: You should also avoid steep slopes to avoid triggering avalanches. Walk on safer paths at all times.
  • Avoid treeless slopes: Avoiding treeless slopes helps you avoid avalanches. The absence of trees may be a sign that avalanches have occurred in the area.
  • Stay on the windward side of ridges: It is vital to stay on the windward side of gently sloping ridges. Slow is thinner on these sides and reduces the risk of avalanche.

Avalanche Safety FAQ

What is an avalanche beacon?

An avalanche beacon, also known as an avalanche transceiver, is an electronic device that emits a signal that can be used to locate a person buried in an avalanche. It is a critical piece of equipment for anyone traveling in avalanche terrain, as it greatly increases the chances of survival in the event of an avalanche.

How does an avalanche beacon work?

An avalanche beacon, or avalanche transceiver, functions by transmitting and receiving radio signals through two components: a transmitter and a receiver. In avalanche-prone areas, each member of a group wears a beacon in transmit mode, emitting a continuous radio signal. In case of an avalanche, the remaining group members switch their beacons to receive mode and search for the buried victim.

The receiver component of the beacon detects the signal emitted by the buried transmitter, indicating the direction and distance of the victim. By following the signal and utilizing a technique called bracketing, searchers can locate the buried person and initiate rescue efforts.

How Fast Is an Avalanche?

An avalanche can travel faster than 200 miles per hour.

How Heavy Is an Avalanche?

A fully developed avalanche weighs almost a million tons. This is too heavy and could cause life-threatening injuries should you get caught in an avalanche. Avalanches occur as layers in a snowpack slide off.

How Common Are Avalanches in the US?

According to National Geographic, there are an estimated 100,000 avalanches each year in the United States.

In which US states do avalanches occur most?

Several US states are prone to avalanches due to their mountainous terrain and heavy snowfall. Some of the states with a high number of avalanches include Alaska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana. In particular, Alaska has the highest number of avalanche fatalities in the United States. It’s important to note, however, that avalanches can occur in any state that experiences snowfall and mountainous terrain, and it’s essential to always be aware of avalanche risk when venturing into backcountry areas during the winter months.

What Is in an Avalanche Kit?

An avalanche kit is an essential tool when dealing with avalanches. You need this kit to navigate the challenges caused by avalanches and the resulting effects.

Here are the three important supplies in an avalanche kit.

  • Avalanche transceiver/beacon
  • Snow probe
  • Snow shovel

When do avalanches occur most frequently?

Avalanches in the United States generally occur during the winter months, typically from December to April, when there is sufficient snow accumulation and unstable snowpack conditions.

Avalanche Safety Resources

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