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How to Survive an Avalanche

Avatar for Chris Thompson Chris Thompson  |  Updated: November 5, 2019
How to Survive an Avalanche

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Winter provides so many avenues to enjoy the snowy outdoors. From ice-skating to snowboarding, there’s something for everyone. 

Some may argue skiing is the best winter sport of all. Anywhere there’s a mountain range, you’re likely to find ski resorts. Thousands flock to these villages to slide down the shining white slopes and enjoy the crisp air. However, this sport doesn’t come without its fair share of danger. 

Humans trigger 90 percent of avalanches, and approximately 150 people are killed by these snowy landslides each year. The most disastrous ones occur when giant slabs of snow break free from mountainsides and race downhill at speeds as fast as 100 mph. Most take place on slopes of 35 to 50 degrees, the same ones that intermediate to advance skiers brave.

The “it won’t happen to me” mindset won’t do you much good if you’re planning on traversing the slopes this winter. Being prepared for the worst and becoming educated on slope safety is the best bet if you want to save a life.

Survival Packing List

In addition to the basic helmet, goggles, poles, boots, and skis, you should pack several other helpful items in case of an avalanche. Experts recommend packing the following essential items for your next skiing trip:

  • An avalanche probe is a rod you can use to poke through piles of snow to find a buried victim. Rescuers typically use this collapsible pole to quickly locate the person immediately after the slide. Having one on hand allows you to respond first and cut precious minutes off the rescue endeavor, greatly increasing the chances of survival.
  • An avalanche transceiver goes hand-in-hand with the probe. This safety device acts as an emergency locator beacon by emitting and receiving radio signals. After an avalanche, if the person with the transceiver is safe, they can switch their device to receive signals from others. Likewise, if a victim has a transceiver, its radio waves will be transmitted to rescuers, dramatically decreasing rescue time.
  • An avalanche shovel is another essential piece of gear that can be used to dig out the victim or yourself if you have enough room to move under the snow. Like the probe, a shovel makes a huge difference in executing a timely rescue.
  • A GPS is important for more than just navigation in the case of an avalanche. Search and rescue teams rely heavily on GPS position, which makes it possible to determine a victim’s location with incredible accuracy. The signal can even help detect people buried under snow up to a meter deep.
  • A first-aid kit is also a great piece of gear to have on hand. Make sure to choose one that is waterproof, compact and easy to use in an emergency. Of course, these come in handy in more than just avalanche emergencies.
  • Multiple clothing layers might be a no-brainer when packing for a ski trip, but wearing them on your adventure could save your life. Hypothermia is one of the main causes of death in avalanches, so staying warm is a must, especially if you are trapped for a long time. Your base layer acts as your strongest defense against the cold, while your mid-layer acts as a blanket. Your outerwear, like a ski jacket, battles wind, snow and rain on your runs down the slopes.

Surviving an Avalanche

The best way to survive an avalanche is to avoid areas where one is possible.

Unfortunately, that’s not always a viable option. However, understanding how avalanches work and learning how to spot potential threats can keep you out of danger. It can even save your life if you ever fall victim to one of these rolling waves of snow and ice. 

How Avalanches Work

The factors that increase or diminish the likelihood of an avalanche are quite complex. Weather, wind, sun, temperature, angle of the mountain’s slope and snowpack conditions all play a role. Avalanche conditions can fluctuate hourly as these factors change. Therefore, understanding the making and anatomy of an avalanche is vital to know how to avoid or survive one.

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Avalanches include three main parts — the starting zone, avalanche track, and runout zone. It begins further up the mountainside at the starting zone and follows its track, or natural path, downhill. Finally, it comes to a stop in the runout zone at the bottom of the slope, where snow and debris pile up. 

For an avalanche to occur, there must be a surface bed of snow, a weaker layer, and an overlying slab. Human-triggered landslides begin when someone walks or rides over a snow slab covering a weak layer. The layer collapses, causing the overlying plate to break free and start its descent. Earthquakes and snowstorms can also trigger powerful avalanches. 

Temperature and sun-exposure are also important to consider. Shaded slopes are more prone to avalanches because the lack of sun prevents bonding between snow layers in cold conditions. In warmer weather, sunny slopes can melt, increasing the risk of an avalanche. 

Once an avalanche is triggered, many factors determine its track downhill. Precipitation, wind, slope angle and orientation, vegetation, terrain, and snowpack conditions can all influence how the snow moves down the mountainside.

Due to the complexity of avalanche conditions, experts recommend taking a safety and survival course to understand them better.

What to Do if You’re the Victim

Even if you take every precaution and heed every warning, there’s still a chance an avalanche can catch you off guard and sweep you away. 

Experts advise skiers to move off the slab as soon as you spot an avalanche and call for help so your friends know you’re in danger. If you can’t escape the onslaught of snow and ice, here’s what you should do:

1. Abandon all ski equipment.

If you don’t, it’ll weigh you down and drag you beneath the snow. Extra items like skis can also put more torque on your legs, resulting in broken bones. However, if your backpack is light and contains emergency equipment — like the items previously listed — keep it. 

2. Use swimming motions.

Try to swim on top of the snow by backstroking uphill. Use your feet to push into the bed surface the avalanche is sliding on to slow your descent. If you can, grab onto a tree. This is easier to do if it’s in its starting runout zone since the speed will be slower. 

3. Create an air pocket.

As the snow slows, create an air pocket around your mouth with your arm or hand. If you are buried, this will give you oxygen to survive until rescuers locate you. As the snow settles, take a deep breath. This will expand your chest, giving you a little extra room to breathe. 

If you think you’re near the surface, try to thrust an arm or leg up out of the snow to help rescuers spot you. If you can’t tell up from down, try spitting or drooling to reorient yourself.

4. Stay calm and wait.

This will help conserve oxygen and increase your chances of survival. Yelling will only eat up precious oxygen and is likely useless underneath layers of hard-packed snow and debris. Wait patiently for rescue and trust that your friends and emergency personnel are working frantically to dig you out. 

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Choose Safety and Have Fun

Finding yourself buried under the snow can be a terrifying experience, but it doesn’t have to be fatal. Ultimately, having a healthy respect for the power of nature, understanding potential danger and preparing accordingly will greatly increase your chance of survival.

By taking all the necessary precautions, you can be sure your next ski trip will be a fun-filled, safe experience for yourself and others. You’ll know what to do should a dangerous avalanche ever rear its ugly head.

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