Technical information, news, research, and opinion on avalanches, snow safety, and winter backcountry travel.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

There Are No Magic Bullets

Chances are, when said and done, Who'll be the lucky ones, Who make it all the wayFive For Fighting

A complete backcountry safety system uses a mix of elements, including thorough planning, safe travel habits, rescue gear, and good judgment. Using multiple risk management elements allows you to reduce risk in a variety of different places, which is the same as not putting all your eggs in one basket. ( Putting all your eggs in one basket is referred to as risk concentration. )

To this point, many recreational skiers go lite on the trip planning, and by doing so they miss out on important opportunities to reduce risk. Then, perhaps due to poor planning, or lack of skill, the party makes a few poor decisions, which again represent missed opportunities to reduce risk.

As opportunities to manage/reduce risk are discarded, more pressure is put onto the rescue gear component of your backcountry safety system. Unfortunately, the rescue gear component of your backcountry safety system is really only designed to give you a chance at live recovery in the event of a complete burial. Rescue gear is not a comprehensive backcountry safety system.

And it's certainly not a magic bullet.

If you travel somewhere frequently, you may be tempted to avoid planning. But remember, even though the terrain remains the same, both environmental conditions and humans are subject to frequent changes. For this reason, it's a good idea to have a set of stock trip plans that you can pull out and review from the perspective of current conditions.

Human conditions: Are you tired? Maybe a bit hungover? How's your hydration and calorie intake? Are you really jonesing for a fix? What about your friends? Environmental conditions: Is avalanche danger high? What do you think the snowpack is doing on your intended route? What does the public avalanche bulletin have to say?

Three major elements of a complete backcountry safety system:
  • Planning: Thorough pre-trip analysis of terrain, snowpack, weather, and people involved.
  • Traveling: Safe travel habits, avalanche forecasting, managing yourself, and good judgment.
  • Rescue: Beacon, shovel, probe, spotting, searching, extraction.


  1. Friend passed this site along. There is some very interesting and informative posts in here. Thanks for the hard work. Will be reading up in the archives and looking forward to new posts.

  2. Hey Nick, Thanks for the kind words.

    I've been reading your site for a few months, and I especially liked the Alaska posts. Sometimes your trip reports make me homesick, even though I'm not from California.

  3. Thanks! Yeah, hopefully I can start putting up some Sierra touring (if work would quite getting in the way!).