On average, there are 28 avy fatalities each winter in the U.S. Nine of those are hikers, snowshoers, and skiers. While careful planning and navigation can prevent most accidents, sometimes the slope still rips.
1. Learn the basics. First things first: Get certified with an AIARE Level 1 course, which offers instruction on snowpack and terrain hazards. Pack a beacon, probe, and shovel into the backcountry—and know how to use them.
2. Avoid steeps. Don’t cross on or below slopes between 30 and 45 degrees —those are the ones most likely to let loose.
3. Get to stable ground. If the snow starts sliding under (or above) you, try to escape the avalanche path and reach for a tree or plant a ski pole or ice axe beyond the break line. Move fast—slabs can hit 80 mph within five seconds. Far from the fracture? Start ditching potential anchors like skis and poles.
4. Stay above the snow. Only 40 percent of victims survive after being fully buried for 15 minutes. Keep your pack—bigger objects tend to “float” in an avalanche, and it may protect your backside. Fight to keep your head above the surface, using your arms to “swim” upward.
5. Create an air pocket. If you’re caught in the flow and likely to be buried, tuck your face into the crook of your elbow (do this before the snow stops moving—once it does, it’ll set like quick-dry concrete). If you can thrust your hand upward, it’ll make you easier to find, but digging yourself out isn’t an option; save your energy, and rely on your partners for rescue.