How To Survive An Avalanche

avalanche GIF
Holding onto your cliff is a great start.

Escaping an avalanche before it buries you is always the ideal scenario, but you might get caught. Let’s divide our survival tactics into two parts: what to do while an avalanche is happening and what to do if you’re buried after things calm down.

Surviving the Flow

The ground shakes and moves. You see your friend who is downhill looking back behind you with surprise. You know you are in the path of an avalanche and your decisions in the first few seconds are key. What do you do?

1. Jump Above the Fracture

Your movement through the snow will be the most likely cause of an avalanche. When you trek up or down a slope, you cause layers of snow to separate and shift downhill. Large sections of snow will be shifted if you are in danger of starting an avalanche, so you should be able to see where it splits. If you can see a fracture and are quick to react, you can jump uphill over the fracture line onto stable snow. The snow downhill from the fracture is likely to slip away in an avalanche.

how to survive an avalanche

2. Move to One Side

What if the avalanche was caused by something uphill? You cannot outrun the avalanche on the downhill; the average avalanche moves at 90 mph and the possibility of outpacing it is nil.

If you have time, move diagonally away from the avalanche’s path to (hopefully) let it pass you by. Not all avalanches will be escapable with this method, but do attempt to move away from the center point if the avalanche hasn’t reached you. The center will have the maximum mass and velocity.

how to survive an avalanche
Weeeee, the side is relatively calm!

3. Lose the Gear

Let it go, let it goooooo! Come on, Elsa, sing it and shunt that gear. Or at least some of it. Skis, snowboards, ski poles, and similar gear will slow you down or could injure you. Don’t throw off your transceiver under any circumstances. Keep your backpack on if you’re wearing one.

4. Hold On to a Tree

Your chances of surfing an avalanche and making it out unscathed are not great. A fully developed avalanche can weigh a million tons, and is full of debris that could kill you very easily.

If the slope has trees, try holding on to one to reduce your chances of being buried in or carried away by the flow. Wrap your arms around it as tightly as possible, and hold on as long as you can while doing everything you can to protect your face and neck. Many avalanches are over in a matter of seconds. You might emerge bruised and shaken but unscathed.

5. Swim

If you’re stuck in the flow and moving downhill, do everything you can to swim or thrash toward the surface. The closer you can stay to the surface of the snow, the better your chances for survival. Moving while the snow is moving may be easier than moving after it stops, so try as hard as you can to fight to stay on the surface.

Rule of Thumb

Snow is frozen water, so it makes sense that you can “swim” through it! Please don’t attempt swimming through other forms of frozen water, such as solid ice.

Surviving Burial

This fun ski trip has taken another terrible turn. You weren’t able to grab a tree, so you’re buried in the snow. What now?

1. If You Are Buried in Shallow Snow

There’s a good chance you’re disoriented. If you’re not sure which direction is up, spit to see which direction it falls. Your spit will fall down and you want to go up, so move in the opposite direction.

If you can’t get a foothold, use a swimming motion to move toward the surface. If you’re unable to free yourself completely, prioritize making sure your airways are clear and try to make some part of your body visible to rescuers. There is a real possibility that most of you will be submerged in the snow till help arrives.

Stay calm while you wait and make sure your transceiver is working as a beacon.

how to survive an avalanche
Rescuers in Gallatin National Forest, Montana looking for survivors following an avalanche in early February 2022

3. If You Are Buried in Deep Snow

If you are buried more than a foot below the surface, the chances of making it out on your own are much lower. As soon as the avalanche stops, the snow and ice begin to congeal into a semi-solid mass that grips your body like a tight bodysuit.

Create a cavity in front of your face so you can breathe. Hopefully you’ll be able to use your hands for this! Once you have a space to breathe, use the spit trick to determine which direction you’re facing. If you’re upside down, you may be in danger of fainting as blood rushes to your head.

If you’ve determined you can’t move, conserve energy. Lashing about won’t help. The snow is many million times heavier than you are. Focus on survival. Breathe in deeply while you can.

When you hear rescuers, try to make a sound by clapping and shouting. Remember that you are inside the snow and can hear them better than they can hear your muffled cries. This is a great time for your whistle to make an appearance, if you can reach it.

Hopefully, your abandoned items and your transceiver signals will give them an idea of your approximate location.

If you’re on the other end and are looking for victims of snowslides, work quickly. Since air is limited, people rescued from avalanche burial within ten minutes have much better chances of full recovery.

Now that you have some basic training, let’s go over some tips that haven’t been covered already.

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.