avalanche safety
Credit: David Webb

No matter the advances in equipment, the winter backcountry will remain an inherently risky place.

Avalanche danger lurks on just about any slope worthy of turns, broken gear can mean real trouble and with cold temperatures, short days and difficult access, injuries can become life threatening quickly. 

The most important piece of safety gear is knowledge: take an avalanche course (check avalanche.ca for a list of courses coast-to-coast), learn wilderness first-aid and know who to call if you get in trouble.


Quick Slope Tests

Because snow stability changes with aspect, elevation and exposure to wind and sun, no two places on a slope have the same snowpack or stability. Rather than spending a lot of time digging a big pit to check out the snow in one place, it's better to do lots of quick stability tests.

1. Hand Pit
With your hand, dig out a vertical column of snow about 30 centimetres square and deep. Pull from the back of the column with increasing force until the column slides or crumbles.

2. Pole Test
Handle first, push a ski pole as deep into the snow as possible. Feel for the different densities of snow, especially a hard layer followed by a soft one — a sign of instability.

3. Ski Cut
Skin or ski across a small slope and then have a second person ski a metre above your track. Watch for snow sliding between the tracks.

Safety Gear

Beacon: Used for locating an avalanche victim. The digital or analog device is worn on your person and sends or receives a signal to be used for searching (receiving a signal) and location (sending a signal). Always ensure your beacon is set to “transmit” before heading out.

Probe: A lightweight, multi-piece long pole used for pinpointing the location of someone buried in an avalanche.

Shovel: Usually two-piece, wide blade and durable for moving lots of snow quickly. Mostly used for stability tests and camp kitchens, it's an essential tool for digging out someone buried in avalanche debris.

Backpack: Any pack will do for hauling the necessary gear, but a growing number of ski-specific models are making the backcountry safer. The simplest units have a fast-access, dedicated tool pocket for avalanche gear. Black Diamond's AvaLung series incorporates a snorkel that extends how long someone can survive under the snow. But the most exciting developments are air bag equipped packs. During an avalanche, the user deploys the air-bag, which inflates and helps to keep the person on top of the snow. Mammut, Backcountry Access, Snowpulse, The North Face and several other brands make air-bag packs.

5 Signs of Unstable Snow

  1. Signs of recent avalanches.
  2. Cracks in the snow.
  3. Whoomffing sounds or settling in the snowpack.
  4. Temperatures climbing above zero.
  5. Crust conditions: when a hard layer overlies a soft layer.

Avalanche Rules

  • If the terrain is as steep as a staircase, it is steep enough to slide.
  • 30 kilometre winds + 30 centimetres of new snow within 30 hours + 30 degree slope = high chance of an avalanche
  • Less than 15 minutes buried in an avalanche, 90 per cent chance of survival. More than 15 minutes buried in an avalanche, 50 per cent chance of survival.
  • The greater the number of people in a group, the greater the chances of an accident.