Avalanche Preparedness FAQs

trip to snowy mountains GIF
Look at all those avalanche experts.

1. Could Any Size Avalanche Bury Me?

Avalanches come in all sizes! You can start a small avalanche that spans about 10 yards, or you could see one that runs for over a mile. The sizes are Size 1 (Small) to Size 5 (Extremely Large). Small is the least likely to cause you harm, but it’s still possible to be injured or killed by a small snowslide, especially if the movement of the snow traps you in a deeper hole or pushes you off a steep slope. Always stay alert.

2. Do Airbags Help?

The jury is out on this one. Airbags should (in theory) be able to keep you afloat in an avalanche, just as they would in the water.

They’re expensive and you cannot take the compressed air canisters they require on commercial flights, so their accessibility is limited at best. If they are available to rent locally (like swim vests), carrying one as part of your gear may improve your chances of surviving an avalanche.

Research suggests that airbag deployment can reduce avalanche mortality by 50%, but there’s more to this than the numbers suggest. They won’t help you survive these types of avalanche dangers:

  • Collision with an obstacle
  • Deep burial under snow in a thin gulley
  • A subsequent avalanche burying the skier along with their deployed airbag
Snowboarder, avalanche preparedness
Airbags, shmairbags!

3. My Resort Advertises RECCO. What Are RECCO Reflectors and Will They Save My Life?

Transceivers require batteries. RECCO is a locator that doesn’t need batteries and works on the same principle as a ship’s radar. To work properly, your rescue team must be sending out the right signal from special RECCO units to receive a response from your RECCO reflector. If your resort advertises this service, get a reflector if you’re able, but know that your transceiver should work as expected if the batteries are fresh. Recco Avalanche Rescue System (handheld and helicopter equipped) is in use by 900 resorts globally. Check where RECCO is currently offered here.

4. Where Is Avalanche Danger Highest?

Hills steeper than 35 degrees are not safe for 48 hours after heavy snowfall. Both fresh, deep snowfall and steep grade make an avalanche more likely.

5. Why Are North-Facing Slopes More Dangerous?

70% of all avalanches occur in north-facing slopes in the northern hemisphere. They are less stable due to lower levels of sunlight, which causes the powder to set more slowly into more stable snowpack. South-facing slopes are more dangerous during the spring thaw, since thawing makes slab avalanche and wet snow avalanche more likely.

It Still Sounds Scary…

That’s because it is scary. Avalanches are terrifying, but they’re worth the risk for many thrill seekers. Taking in the beauty of the world is worth a bit of a gamble, especially if you’ve taken the time to learn how to spot the danger. Don’t take chances if you’re not ready to react, and don’t let your ego get the best of you.

Stay fully prepared, focused, and aware in snowy conditions, and your caution will see you through.

Skiers the top of a mountain, avalanche preparedness

About the Authors

It takes a village! We are researching, writing and fact checking as a family. Collaboration is the name of the game, whether we’re running from a zombie horde or finding the best way to turn a complex concept into a deliciously digestible set of bullet points.

Katherine Esperanza is a Los Angeles based writer. When she's not conjuring new queer slice-of-life short stories, she's busy watching the newest films, out at queer shows, supporting queer artists, or just checking out the queer community as a whole.

A former international non-profiteer, small business owner, and co-op'er, Katherine is delighted to help introduce more leftist politics into the disaster preparedness/prepper sphere, which is currently far too right-wing.