I love spending time in the mountains in the winter. Without getting into the backcountry at least twice a month, I would not make it through Seattle’s dreary dark season. I am not alone in this, snowshoeing and other backcountry winter sports are growing in popularity, and you can get started snowshoeing with very little experience or gear.
Exploring Washington’s winter backcountry comes with peril, however. The gorgeous mountains we are blessed with in Washington also make for risky avalanche terrain. With the rise of social media, it is easy to be exposed to these incredible areas and sometimes the safety component is left behind.
So, how do you find trails that are avalanche safe in the winter? The people I connect with in the outdoor community claim they want to find safe trails to snowshoe on, but they don’t know how. They are just starting with snowshoeing and don’t know where to begin to ensure that they are making safe choices. Some go with what they have seen other people post on the group, which may have been safe when the other person but is no longer safe now. Others go with hiking routes they are familiar with in the summer or have heard other people mention, without realizing how much more dangerous that area is in the winter. Others just stay home.
Today, I want to talk about the different ways to stay avalanche safe as a beginner snowshoer. Everyone who recreates in or around snow needs to be avalanche aware, not simply backcountry skiers or mountaineers. While there is risk inherent to spending time in the mountains, there are many resources to reduce your risk of an avalanche accident. Once you learn about avalanche safety, check out my post on finding a snowshoeing route in Washington to plan your trip!
Take A Class
The first thing people will tell you to do to increase your avalanche safety in the mountains is to take an AIARE course. AIARE 1 classes are usually a multi-day class designed to give you to the tools to evaluate avalanche terrain, properly travel in avalanche terrain and rescue someone caught in an avalanche. Anyone who travels in or near avalanche terrain should take this class. This means that if you are winter recreating anywhere besides a ski resort, this class is for you.
AIARE 1 requires a shovel, probe and beacon, the three essential tools of an avalanche kit. I highly recommend taking this course if you plan on spending time in the backcountry. Seriously. This is the official recommendation from me, and anyone else who recreates in the winter. If you want to survive being in avalanche terrain, educate yourself and only travel with people that have also taken the course.
If you have only gone hiking in the summer, just got snowshoes for Christmas and want to see if it is a sport you would enjoy, it is hard to justify dropping $800 on a class and gear. It makes more sense to learn if you even like snowshoeing before taking the course. So, how do you find the routes suitable for a beginner snowshoer?
Well my friends, there is a class for that too. And it is free. REI hosts several of them a year, as well as many other mountain groups. The course is usually listed as an Avalanche Awareness Workshop designed for anyone who spends time in the snow and is an hour and a half class without a field component. This class is structured for the novice snowshoer (or skier, snowmobiler, snowboarder) to avoid avalanche danger. It does not teach you how to navigate avalanche terrain, as you most certainly need the field component and multi-day factor of the AIARE 1 course to scratch the surface on that. Rather, this class will teach you what avalanche terrain is, how to read the NWAC map, how to determine avalanche danger and how to find safe spaces to recreate.
There are not very many good excuses for not taking this class. It is free, there are usually 2 a week all over the state, it is taught by extremely knowledgeable NWAC employees and it might save your life. Get thee to an NWAC class stat!
Go on a Guided Snowshoe
Finding that first route to explore snowshoeing can be tricky. Most people want to go out and explore the snow and not have to worry about navigation or avalanches, particularly when it feels like you are learning to walk for the first time. If this is the case for you, consider a guided snowshoe trip.
These are often routes with 20-30 people, donation-based and led by an experienced ranger or forest service member. These guides know avalanche conditions and navigation well and can lead you on a short trip (most are under two miles), in the kind of terrain suitable for a beginner. Most guided trips also provide snowshoes, so you need no specific gear besides warm clothing. This is a fantastic, low-stress way to see if you enjoy snowshoeing and want to invest further in the sport. My first snowshoeing trip was Commonwealth Basin on Snoqualmie Pass as a guided trip, and it began my love of snowshoeing.
Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest Service provides guided snowshoes at a couple of locations including Snoqualmie Pass, Stevens Pass and Mount Baker. You can reserve your spots early, and they do sell out. Mt. Rainier National Park and the Olympic National Park both provide guided tours led by park rangers. The rangers are extremely knowledgeable and a great resource when getting started.
Lastly, other outdoor groups like the Mountaineers provide snowshoeing classes, where you can complete your first few snowshoeing trips with a guide who will teach you about avalanche risk and snow conditions. Their course includes instruction on where to go, what to rent and what to buy. It can be a great primer to the sport and give you the confidence and training you need to take the next steps. Also, after earning badges through the mountaineers you can be eligible to participate in their activities, which can let you practice snowshoeing with more experienced snowshoers. If you are a mountaineers member, they even have beginner snowshoeing classes that don’t require any badges, where experienced members have already evaluated the avalanche danger and determined it to be safe for the group.
So you have taken the free, basic avalanche course and gone on a guided snowshoe. You feel ready to venture to the mountains, and strap on your snowshoes for your first snowshoe trip. When you are planning, first consult this blog post to find out everything you need to know about picking your first trip, in addition to simply avalanche risk.
If you haven’t taken the AIARE 1 course, your goal is likely to find a route that does not have avalanche terrain so that you can safely maneuver through it. Rather than rely on skills that take time and experience, many beginning snowshoers want someone to point to a route and say this is safe for you. Unfortunately with snow sports, that is not always a successful plan, as conditions can change rapidly changing the safety of individual routes.
Instead, I recommend reading a few key books to learn more about avalanche safety so you can find routes yourself. I own and reference these books frequently throughout the winter season. Avalanche Essentials can teach you the basics of avalanche risk and safety, while Snowshoe Routes Washington provide some excellent routes for beginners.
This book is a great primer on avalanche safety. I try to reread sections before every winter so I stay fresh. It is not a replacement for a class, but an excellent way to become more familiar with avalanche risk and safety, including decision-making and mental aspects.
When I first started snowshoeing,all of my routes came from this book. Dan Nelson is a former executive editor of the WTA and a reputable source. The tables in the beginning list avalanche danger per trail, and an easy way to find a route is to look for the trails rated as low-risk for beginners and start there.
Find Suitable Terrain
After reading the books or attending the classes recommended above, you probably learned a bit about avalanche terrain and what can cause avalanches. Avalanche likelihood is sometimes referred to as a triangle, with terrain, weather and snowpack making up the different factors. While weather and snowpack can take a certain level of expertise to understand, the basics of terrain can be determined while evaluating a route so that you can plan conservatively.
Avalanches primarily occur at slopes ranging from 30°-45°, with the maximum risk at 38-39º. Avalanche risk actually decreases after 45º, primarily because there is not as much snow accumulation on such a steep slope. However, getting to such a steep slope often involves traversing riskier areas, so for the beginner snowshoe looking to avoid avalanche risk, staying on or near slopes less than 30º is likely the goal.
This is all great background, but when I am looking over a trail description on the internet, or even walking down my route, I can’t tell just by looking at a slope if it is 28 degrees or 32. It takes time and experience to build that knowledge, but gaining the experience can be deadly if you don’t know how to safely recreate in these areas. That is where map tools like CalTopo, GAIA, and apps like the Mammut Safety are very useful (Android, iPhone).
Online mapping system with slope overlay.
Expect a longer post on CalTopo in the future, but as a quick primer, CalTopo is an awesome website that lets you make high-resolution maps for many wilderness zones. As a topo map is one of the 10 essentials that should always be in your backpack, this free resource is incredibly useful. In addition to topo maps, CalTopo allows you to add a slope angle shading to the wilderness area you are looking at. I always pull up a CalTopo map before going snowshoeing so I understand which risky areas the route may be crossing.
Smartphone GPS system, including maps with slope overlay
In addition to CalTopo, the GAIA GPS app with the premium subscription allows for slope shading. This is a gps unit you can bring on your smartphone if you want to determine slope while you are out on the trail. It is useful for aiding in navigation if you are off-route and ensuring you don't cross risky areas. It is also a useful tool to frequently check your map and look around to start to make those connections about what a slope looks like, versus what it says on the map.
Mammut Safety App
App produced by Mammut with clinometer to determine slopes of different mountain aspects.
The Mammut Safety App is primarily a tool for when you are on the trail. It has a clinometer that you can line up with the slope you are looking at, and it can give you an approximate slope degree. While this is not robust enough to base your safety decisions on, it is useful to start building the experience and understanding of different slope levels and gain the foundations necessary to evaluate terrain by sight.
These are three of many tools to estimate the slopes on your route so you can avoid avalanche terrain. Both CalTopo and GAIA can help in the planning stages at home, while the Mammut Safety App is a useful tool while in the mountains. The shading techniques of a slope layer highlights the dangerous slopes in orange and red, so you know not to take that route if avalanche conditions are not favorable. Essentially, as a beginner, you are searching for a route without slopes in the avalanche danger zone. You are also looking for routes that do not have significant terrain traps, such as valleys in which avalanches on the steeper slopes above could come down to the valley floor. Slope-shaded topo maps can help you find terrain traps like gullies that could increase your risk. This is an excellent way to quantitatively test the safety of your route, rather than relying on the evaluation skills of others.
There is a reason that maps are one of the ten essentials and it is especially imperative in the winter. Finding a route with minimal avalanche danger that doesn’t cross unsafe slopes is only useful if you stay on-route. Which is easier said than done in the snow.
Many circumstances in the winter can cause you to deviate from your planned route. Previous avalanches can make the route difficult to pass, stream crossings can be nearly impossible or you can just crave solitude and decide to skip switchbacks (following LNT principles). Trails are not often marked in the winter, weather can make it difficult to see very far and additional hazards like tree wells or boulder fields can be present. All of the planning before your trip to find a route that does not cross any avalanche paths is useless if you leave the safe route you established.
There are no trustworthy, established trails in the snow unless you are on a guided trip. There are often established trails winding through the popular trails in Washington, however, you have no idea about the avalanche knowledge, experience or end goal of the people that came before you. The summer route to Snow Lake is an established snowshoeing route that stays all winter long due to its popularity, but is an extremely dangerous trail with an unstable snowpack. The trail has seen multiple avalanche deaths with the most recent as last weekend. All of this to say, never, ever assume that the footsteps you are following are leading you to safety simply because someone has been there before.
Bring a paper map and compass and know how to use them. Cold weather zaps cell phone batteries and you may not have access to your smartphone GPS. I always bring my phone, fully charged, with a handwarmer in my pocket to keep it warm and the GAIA app ready with the area pre-downloaded, in addition to my paper map and compass. Make sure you are following the route you chose, or have enough information about where you are deviating to that you do not accidentally find yourself in dangerous avalanche terrain. If following these rules seems too hard or intimidating, either go with a group that is familiar with the area or continue to do guided trips until you feel comfortable.
Northwest Avalanche Center
NWAC’s primary purpose is to provide avalanche forecasts for Washington’s mountain regions. NWAC collects extensive data from Mid-November through April to warn of relative risks for traveling in the backcountry when snow is on the ground. To help you evaluate potential avalanche risk, NWAC provides a map with color-coded areas correlating to the level of avalanche risk for two days. The colors correspond to a rating system, low to an extreme risk of avalanche danger, with detailed descriptions of each category available on their site. In addition, NWAC breaks down the specifics of the avalanche danger, including how it varies below and above the treeline, and which specific avalanche issues are present.
Understand the rating system and also understand what it means to you and your comfort level. It is easy to make conservative choices with the rating system, such as only snowshoeing when avalanche risk is low, or sticking to beginner routes and snow-free areas in high risk. My first year of snowshoeing, I didn’t snowshoe at all unless the rating was low or moderate and we stayed away from open slopes. As time has passed, my comfort level has changed, and the trips I take reflect that. Always, always turn around if you feel unsafe, or see avalanche warning signs. NWAC can be an incredible tool and taking the classes mentioned above can teach you how to use to to maximize your safety in the backcountry.
Word of caution: it is easy to see people in amazing places and want to blindly follow in their footsteps. I chose to not hike at all last weekend because I felt avalanche risk was too high (and I had a hangover, but that is not the point). On Sunday night, when I scrolled through Facebook, I saw pictures of people from Snow Lake, Lake 22, Franklin Falls and other massively popular but dangerous routes. A part of my brain thought, shoot! I could have gone out and been fine, look at all of these people who didn’t die! But the snow is stable 95% of the time, I am confident in my abilities and I determined it was too risky for me and my skills. I do not know what level those people’s risk meter is at, their avalanche training or if they were simply ignorant about the danger. My number one priority for outdoor recreation is coming home at the end and social media cannot change that.
I see snowshoe lists pop up on the internet with recommendations for locations. Some of them I trust because I know the author and their background, or the institution that put them together and am comfortable with the vetting process. I will still check CalTopo and trip reports before going, but I can safely assume that it has reliable avalanche information. I also get route inspiration from blogs and WTA trip reports frequently, but don’t use it as a source for safety information. And I put about 2% of faith in trip reports I find on Facebook or Instagram. The stakes are simply too high to trust the internet people, myself included.
Get Out There!
Recreating in the snow can be an excellent way to experience Washington’s wilderness areas that is richly rewarding. It can also be risky and dangerous. Spend some time researching and learning about avalanche safety and you will feel empowered to get out in the winter. Encourage your friends and family to take avalanche danger into consideration as well. Sometimes, accept that avalanche safety means skipping a day in the mountains and hang out at a climbing gym, spa or movie theater.
Stay diligent, stay humble and most of all, stay safe.