How to Survive an Avalanche

Person Stuck in Avalanche Snow
Jupiterimages / Getty Images

There’s one thing that all skiers and snowboarders look forward to every year: the first day the slopes officially open to riders. And whether you’re heading to an under-the-radar ski resort or a more popular destination like Jackson Hole, WY, or Park City, UT, there are plenty of action-packed spots to break out your fresh new winter gear.

There are also plenty of opportunities to wipe out. Not for you, of course—but for those less-experienced skiers. To help steer those guys safe on snow-covered mountains, we connected with Pat Moore, an all-terrain professional snowboarder with an X-Games Real Snow bronze medal under his belt. Though Moore no longer competes, he’s been a member of the Volcom team since 2013, and now brings his expertise to teaching avalanche safety and developing workwear-inspired gear for the next generation of riders.

Here are five of Moore’s essential mountain safety tips that could save your ass the next time you go skiing or snowboarding.

1. Pre-avalanche warning signs

While alpine veterans learn to notice several avalanche warning signs, the two most obvious signs are 1) if you see other avalanches around you, or 2) if you hear a “whumpf” sound under your feet while riding or walking, says Moore. That “whumpf” indicates that there’s a weak layer of snow caving in around you—a “clear sign of danger”. You should also avoid riding terrain that has dangerous cornices (overhanging edges of snow on a ridge or crest of a mountain) and unsupported slopes.

Another major red flag: weather changes. “New snow, high winds, or rising temperatures” are alarm bells in avalanche forecasting, Moore says.

2. What to do if an avalanche starts to happen

If you’re in an avalanche, “do your best to get off the slab [a thick, cohesive layer of snow] and make it to a flank or a high point of safety as quickly as possible,” Moore says. Because the moving snow wants to take your feet out from underneath you, “your best bet is to try and direct yourself at a 45° angle downhill toward your exit”. With this technique, you maintain your momentum, but have a chance of getting outside the avalanche, and in the direction of your exit toward safety.

Mountain Safety Tips from Pat Moore

3. If you get stuck, do this

If you get “taken for a ride,” as Moore describes it, the best thing you can do is “get your body into a position where you are seated on your butt with feet point downhill, using a backstroke swimming technique to try to keep your body on top of the snow”.

The avalanche will eventually start to settle down. Once it does, your best bet is to “create an air pocket around your mouth with either your arms or hands”. And while this might be pretty difficult considering the circumstances, you should always try and stay calm while your partners and first responders dig you out. This is especially important, Moore says, because “the less you panic, the less oxygen you use, which ultimately increases your odds of retrieval”.

4. Essential mountain-ready gear

Whether you’re going to spend a lot of time on the mountain this winter or just hit the slopes for a quick weekend getaway, it’s important to be outfitted with gear that’s durable and comfortable, while providing protection from the elements. (Trust us: That guy skiing in swim trunks knows what he’s doing.) Moore worked with Volcom to develop a winter coat, aptly named the Pat Moore 3-in-1 Jacket, that comes with “multiple layers of insulation to provide versatility in changing conditions,” as well as a mask attachment and a zip-in feature for snow pants.

For backcountry travelers who might find themselves in more treacherous conditions, the bare essentials are “a transceiver, probe, and shovel,” which will help locate and extract someone buried in an avalanche. Just make sure your batteries are full, and that your probe is working properly. Also wise to bring along: A First-Aid kit, as well as a way to communicate when cell service gets spotty. Moore brings a satellite phone and inReach SOS communicator (like this one from Garmin) whenever he hits the slopes.

5. Above all, follow this rule

When it comes down to it, “if you don’t know, don’t go,” Moore says. Plenty of resorts have amazing terrain that’s also safe and controlled by a ski patrol, so you can have plenty of fun without putting yourself at risk.

“People put themselves in risky situations and, in extreme cases, have died from simply following tracks to areas they shouldn’t be in,” Moore warns. If you’re interested in riding in less-regulated spots and getting into the backcountry, take a class with a pro or hire a qualified guide to show you the ropes.

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!