Snowmobile and Avalanche Safety
It’s snowing in much of the U.S., and that means snowmobile adventures for millions of enthusiasts. Snowmobiling is more than a mode of winter transportation. It tends to be a family sport, with parents and children spending around $24 billion annually on backcountry fun. It can be dangerous to hit the trails and slopes in frigid weather, but with the right preparation and equipment, you can keep sledding risks to a minimum.
- Map out your route in advance. Check local weather and avalanche warnings. Read about ice conditions on lakes and rivers, and leave a note in your hotel room or at home, stating where you plan to ride, and when you plan to return.
- Dress for comfort and safety, in warm layers, with hands, neck, and face covered. Wear a helmet with a visor or goggles to prevent branches and snow from hitting your eyes.
- Check your sled’s brakes, lights, fuel, oil, and coolant to make sure everything is working properly. Check that your tool kit is stocked and stowed safely.
- Always ride with a friend so that if one of you breaks down or suffers an injury, the other can go back for help.
Snowmobile professional Kevin Allred advises that you pack the following items in a compartment or bag on your sled:
- Food and water, especially if you plan to be out more than a few hours
- A snow probe
- Waterproof, long-burning matches, along with a small fire starting kit
- Bivvy sac or other waterproof, portable emergency shelter
- LED headlamp
- First aid kit
If you plan to ride in a mountainous area where an avalanche is possible, keep the following in a backpack on your back, not on your sled:
- Your avalanche beacon
- Small snow shovel
Make sure to practice using your beacon, and know how to activate your airbag quickly. These two small items can save your life if you get caught in an avalanche. Try to pack all your equipment in waterproof bags or containers, and stay on top of weather updates and warnings.
When and Where Can an Avalanche Occur?
It only takes three ingredients to cause an avalanche:
- A slope steeper than 30 degrees
- Unstable snow
- A trigger, which can often be a snowmobile, skier, animal, or simply a strong gust of wind
Many winter sport hobbyists love to hit the slopes on the first day after a big snowstorm. The powder is fresh and deep, and the untouched fields make for gorgeous sledding scenery. However, these are prime avalanche conditions. If the temperatures are well below freezing, the wind is strong, and the old snow under the fresh layer is smooth and weakly-bonded, you can bet that an avalanche is likely on the steep slopes.
What Can You Do to Avoid an Avalanche?
There are a few ways to avoid avalanches when you ride safely.
- Ride single-file to avoid adding too much weight on the snow at once. The most common type of avalanche is caused when entire slabs of snowpack break away and slide off at once. These are usually triggered by a bit of excess weight.
- Use switchbacks on steep slopes, and avoid areas that seem unstable. If you notice ledges in the snow and suspect that a natural avalanche has already occurred, leave the area immediately.
- Check wind conditions frequently. As the wind blows dry snow over the edges of ridges and outcroppings, an accumulation builds at the top. This can trigger a downfall at any moment.
Avalanche-safe sledding conditions include low winds, temperatures barely below freezing, and well-bonded, rough-textured snowpack under the new snow. An avalanche safety course and a daily check for avalanche warnings can provide important insights to help you avoid danger.
Even when you know the ropes, it’s important to keep your senses sharp on the slopes. About 75 percent of avalanche victims are experienced backcountry adventurers.
- The ten-time Big Mountain Rider of the Year winner, Jeremy Jones, says he is always on the lookout for five red safety flags:
- New snow
- Shooting cracks in the top layer
- Rapid heating
- High winds
- Signs of recent, natural avalanche activity
95 percent of victims trigger the avalanche that kills them, which means you have a lot of power over your own safety, and the safety of other sledders. Take red flags seriously in steep terrain. When in doubt, turn back.
It’s an Avalanche! What Should I Do?
Avalanche expert, Chris Van Tilburg, told CBS News that the most important thing to remember is this: “You can’t outrun an avalanche.” Snow and debris fall at a rate of 50-70 mph, so even on your sled, your best bet is to race toward the side of the avalanche, whether it occurs above or below you.
A few more survival tips:
- Activate your avalanche airbag right away.
- Try to stay upright and on your feet, if possible.
- Grab something stable, like a tree or boulder.
- If you are about to go under, try to elevate part of your body above the snow line.
- Take a deep breath right before you go under, and ‘swim’ hard toward the top by moving your arms. The current of snow will try to drag you downward, but you can fight this to some extent.
- When the movement stops, clear space in front of your nose and mouth.
- If you’re close to the surface, try to dig out, or at least put a hand out.
- If you can’t tell which way is up, save your energy, and wait for your beacon or airbag to lead rescuers to your location.
If you are out of harm’s way, and you see another sledder or skier start to go under, Van Tilburg says that the most helpful thing you can do at that moment is to keep your eyes on him. This can cut rescue times drastically, and save lives. It can be tempting to immediately pull out your phone when you see an avalanche begin, but it’s more important to know where to dig than to have help on the way, and no idea where to start searching for your friend.
Prepare for Financial Fallout
You can be ready for the cost of a sledding accident with the right snowmobile insurance policy. Make sure yours includes comprehensive coverage, to take care of damage from storms, debris, and avalanche, as well as theft and vandalism. A good policy can also cover your medical payments and sled repairs, to get you back on the trail as soon as possible. If you aren’t sure whether your coverage is up to date, talk to a local agent. Then play it safe, and enjoy your sledding adventures with peace of mind.