Safety in avalanche terrain
In order to be safe in avalanche terrain, you need to cover these three components before you go.
1. Have the training
Proper training is essential to fully understand the avalanche forecast and interpret the information correctly. It will also give you the tools to make decisions based on what you are seeing out there in person. Attending an Avalanche Awareness (1-2 days) or Backcountry Avalanche Course (4 days) allows you to soak up this information and put it all into practice in the snow. Nothing beats real-word, practical experience.
- Watch and learn about Avalanche Rescue Techniques
- Online Avalanche Course where you can learn the basics of avalanche types, factors and how to reduce risks in avalanche terrain
- Attend an avalanche awareness, see our list of course providers
2. Get the forecast
The current weather forecast and backcountry avalanche advisory are essential to decide whether to go or not, and for establishing what to look out for in the field. The New Zealand Avalanche Advisory (NZAA) is provided for anyone planning on traveling in backcountry alpine areas. These avalanche advisories are supplied by the Mountain Safety Council (MSC) and are just that, an advisory only. NZAA and MSC recommend checking the mountain weather forecast provided by MetService as part of your trip planning.
How do you use the advisory?
For an introduction to the components of the advisory see our video on ‘How to use the NZAA’. We also have a free Online Avalanche Course that you can work through at your pace to learn the basics of identifying avalanche terrain, learning about different avalanche types, and getting a few tips on rescue techniques. This is a great introduction (not a replacement) of what you’ll get on an in-person, practical Avalanche Awareness or Backcountry Avalanche Course.
Public Observations via avalanche.net.nz add to the official advisory and give some snapshots of what is going on in specific parts of the region you will be recreating in. Public observations are submitted by members of the public and can give you a more localised picture of what the snow and avalanche conditions are like. Make sure that you check the dates in which they were published to make sure they are still relevant. You can also share observations on social media to help spread the word.
- Watch and learn from our video about Snowpack Observations and Warning Signs
- Read and learn What is the NZ Avalanche Advisory?
3. Take the right equipment
In the event of an avalanche burial, you'll need the equipment to save your own or someone else's life. Everyone in your group should carry an avalanche transceiver, probe, and metal-blade shovel and know how to use them.
What’s the equipment for?
Avalanches are far from an exact science. As a result, it’s still very possible that even with good training and an understanding of the forecast, you could still get caught in an avalanche. That’s why it's extremely important to carry an avalanche transceiver, probe, and shovel. The transceiver makes it possible for you to find others carrying a transceiver if they are buried. It also means you can be found if you’re the one buried!
The shovel and probe are essential tools to allow you to find the exact location of a buried victim and dig them out as soon as possible. When someone gets buried in an avalanche, the clock is ticking. These tools help you make the most of the little time you have. Avalanche courses will teach you how to use all of this equipment correctly and efficiently so that you have the best chance of saving your friends.
Avalanche transceivers should be worn by every person entering the backcountry. Transceivers are small electronic devices that transmit a radio signal. In the event of an avalanche, the people who were not buried can switch their transceiver to the search mode and follow the signal towards a buried person(s). It is important to know how to use your transceiver. It is also important to know how to use generic search techniques. If you do not know what these are, we recommend you take an avalanche course before heading out. Remember, avalanche transceivers require plenty of practice to acquire and maintain proficiency.
Shoveling is an extremely important aspect of avalanche rescue. A proficient and strategic shoveling technique can save you minutes, which can make all the difference for a buried person. It is extremely important that you select a good shovel and practice as often as possible. What makes a good shovel? Needless to say, we all would like a light shovel, but you need to make sure that strength isn't compromised. Bigger is better, but it does need to fit into or on your pack. Plastic is not good! When exposed to cold temperatures and hard avalanche debris plastic breaks. Another important aspect is an extendable shaft. A shovel blade with a flat top is helpful for stepping on when chopping blocks and in hard avalanche debris.
Avalanche transceivers will bring you closer to the buried victim, but a probe is what will actually find the person. Probes are like sectional tent poles that snap together. Systematic probing allows you to pinpoint the exact location of the buried person, which indicates the direction you need to start digging towards. Some probes have centimetre markings, which is a great tool to figure out how deep the burial is and where you should therefore start digging.
- Watch and learn from our video about Important Equipment to take into the backcountry
Continue your learning
You can find more resources in our Learn section. Where we have information on avalanche safety, education, and courses available around the country for getting the appropriate training plus some excellent avalanche safety videos to get you started.