What You Need to Know About Avalanche Safety in the Backcountry



“They’re not a substitute for an on-snow class, where you can physically see the snow structure,” he added.

In-person avalanche classes, such as those using curriculum from the American Institute for Avalanche Research & Education, teach people how to identify potential hazards in the backcountry — like a weak snowpack — and how to recognize avalanche terrain, among other skills. The institute maintains a list of the classes, which are mostly provided by private outdoor guide companies.

Avalanche safety experts agree that anyone going into the backcountry should carry a shovel, a beacon and a probe. A beacon, which emits a radio signal and can pick up signals from other beacons, allows other people to find you, should you be caught in an avalanche, and allows you to do the same for others. A collapsible metal probe can be used to poke through the snow to locate someone buried, who can then be dug out with a shovel.

Avalanche bags, another survival tool, deploy like large airbags, making it possible to float above snow and debris. They can be powered electronically or by a canister of compressed air.

But simply having the right gear isn’t enough to head into the backcountry safely. In addition to taking an avalanche course, “practicing and training on your own,” Mr. Brackelsberg said, “is critical.”

That includes learning how to use a beacon, a shovel and a probe, as well as how to deploy an avalanche bag. A “beacon training park” created last year in the White River National Forest near Minturn, Colo., has beacons buried in the snow that can be turned on by a control panel, allowing trainees to simulate searching for someone with a beacon.

Before heading into the backcountry, Mr. Brackelsberg said, it’s important to make sure it’s “the right day to go out,” depending on personal skill level and current conditions.


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