Avalanche Awareness and Backcountry Safety

Get the Forecast/Recognize Terrain/Bring the Gear

No matter what type of outdoor activities you choose to pursue in Summit County this winter, understanding avalanche danger is extremely important. Whether you are hiking, snowshoeing, cross-county skiing, alpine touring, snow biking, or snowmobiling, having the proper gear and knowledge to keep you safe in the mountains and avoid avalanche risk is essential. The Summit County Open Space and Trails Department is partnering with Friends of The Colorado Avalanche Information Center to increase awareness of avalanche safety and backcountry preparedness. Look for our “Recognizing Avalanche Hazard” signs at trail heads throughout the county as you head out into the backcountry this winter. Additional educational materials are provided below. 

When in doubt, follow these three steps:

  1. Get the Avalanche Forecast
  2. Recognize Avalanche Terrain
  3. Bring the Right Gear

Avalanche Hazard Informational Poster Installed at 20 Summit County Trailheads

Recognizing Avalanche Hazard

Get the Avalanche Forecast

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center issues daily avalanche forecasts for each region of the state. Please be sure to check the Avalanche Forecast every day before heading out. For more information on how to read avalanche forecasts, click here.

Avalanche Forecast

Avalanche Forecast Example. A typical avalanche forecast issued by the CAIC. This example is from March 26, 2017. For the current forecast visit https://avalanche.state.co.us/

We ask that all backcountry users take the Friends of CAIC Avalanche Forecast Pledge, which is your way of saying, “I commit to reading the avalanche forecast each day that I head into the backcountry.” The forecast is available at www.colorado.gov/avalanche

Recognize Avalanche Terrain

Avalanches almost always occur on slopes greater than 30° in steepness. Learning to visually estimate slope angle is a very valuable skill that comes with experience in the backcountry. For more exact measurements of slope angle, a small instrument called a Clinometer when used properly can give accurate readings.

BCA clinometer

Clinometers. These simple devices can help you assess slope angle to stay on safe slopes. (Photo Credits: Poleclinometer.com, BCA)

Another excellent way to recognize avalanche terrain is by looking for signs of past and recent avalanches. Vegetation can give you a great indication of past avalanche activity. By looking for past avalanche paths and areas where vegetation has been stripped from the landscape, you can avoid risky avalanche paths. Avalanche debris on slopes is a good sign of general instability and high avalanche danger in the area above the debris. Remember that even travelling under or adjacent to avalanche terrain in the wrong conditions can have high consequences. Always read the Avalanche Forecast before heading out into the backcountry for any recreational activity.

Avy Debris

Avalanche Path and Debris. Left, the “J” Chute above Frisco. This path runs frequently and has stripped the slope of mature vegetation. Right, fresh avalanche debris is always an indication that avalanche risk is high on the surrounding slopes.

Avalanche on a Convex Landform Feature near Fremont Pass

Freemont Pass Snowmobile Avy

Bring the Right Gear 

Anyone who travels on or near avalanche terrain should have, at a minimum, an avalanche transceiver (beacon), shovel, and probe, along with the knowledge of how to use them. . In addition to these basics, always bring a first aid kit, extra warm layers, water and snacks.  While some users, such as snowshoers and cross country skiers, may not need to carry avalanche rescue gear they still need to read the forecast, recognize avalanche terrain, and plan their trip to avoid traveling on or below avalanche terrain.

For more videos on staying safe in the backcountry, visit https://backcountryaccess.com/en-us/learn-avalanche-safety/avalanche-rescue. These videos will give you the basics of using your beacon, shovel, and probe and a lot more; all from one of the most trusted names in backcountry safety.

Avalanche Education Resources

There are several ways to increase your awareness and knowledge of avalanche danger and how to recreate safely in the snow covered mountains. A great place to start is the Know Before You Go ELearning Videos. Know Before You Go is a free and easy avalanche awareness program - not much science, no warnings to stay out of the mountains, no formulas to memorize. In 1 hour, you will see the destructive power of avalanches, understand when and why they happen, and how you can avoid avalanches and still have fun in the mountains. This video series is a great overview for beginner backcountry travelers and can serve as a great refresher for more seasoned recreationists. See the videos below for an introduction to the program and visit www.kbyg.org for more information.

By completing the Know Before You Go ELearning series, you have only begun your journey into backcountry and avalanche education. The best way to continue your education is through an in-person American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) course. The Avy 1, Avy 2, and companion rescue courses offered by qualified AIARE guides will give you classroom and hands on experience with recognizing avalanche terrain, reading the avalanche forecast, and using your rescue gear. Visit https://avtraining.org/ to learn more about AIARE courses and find a course near you. After you have completed formal avalanche education, make sure to practice the new skills you have learned and never stop seeking to improve your knowledge. Backcountry and Avalanche education should be a lifelong endeavor!