Know Before You Go: Winter Hiking
by Patrycja Witt, Girls Who Hike Utah Ambassador
“Avalanches don’t discriminate. They are equal opportunity killers. They affect everyone in the mountains. Whether you’re snowboarding, skiing, snowmobiling, cross country skiing, hiking, snowshoeing or extreme snow angeling. If you [play in] snow covered mountains you need to learn about avalanches. It just goes with the territory…” - KBYG.org
What is an avalanche?
An avalanche is a rapid flow of snow down a hill.
What causes an avalanche?
Avalanches are either triggered by human activity or natural forces such as rapid temperature changes, precipitation, or wind drifting. An avalanche occurs when stress in the snow pack exceeds the strength of the snow and triggers a layer of snow to break away.
Where do avalanches occur?
About 90% of all avalanches begin on slopes of 30-45 degrees, and about 98% occur on slopes of 25-50 degrees. Avalanches strike most often on slopes above timberline that face away from prevailing winds however, avalanches can run on small slopes well below timberline, such as in gullies, road cuts, and small openings in the trees. Very dense trees can help anchor the snow but, once again avalanches can release and travel through a moderately dense forest as well.
Who do avalanches affect?
Anything or anyone on or in the path of an avalanche.
So what do you do?
Preparation is important to ensure the safest possible hiking experience when in the backcountry. Know the fives steps of preparation that winter backcountry enthusiasts follow:
1. Get the gear.
If you plan on hiking in winter conditions, always carry at minimum a transceiver, probe, and shovel to help you find a buried partner and be found if an avalanche occurs.
2. Get educated.
Take an avalanche class and learn the basics. A good place to start is with REI’s free Avalanche Awareness Classes [https://www.rei.com/events/76928/know-before-you-go-avalanche-awareness]. Here you will be able to get a general idea about the dangers of avalanches. However, there is no substitude for basic Avalanche Training [http://www.americanavalancheassociation.org/course-providers/].
3. Get the forecast.
Go to Avalanche.org to find your local avalanche center and get the forecast before you go out.
4. Get the picture.
Always be aware of hazardous or changing conditions in the region.
5. Get out of harms way.
Know what terrain traps are and avoid them completely.
Remember the goal is to get home safely.