Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Avalanche Safety Practices in Utah

We are finally in the midst of repeated major snowfalls in the Sierra of northern California. Given the large accumulations here and in other mountain ranges, such as the Wasatch Range of Utah, avalanches are inevitable. One may not head for the slopes at a ski resort thinking about avalanche hazard, but it is wise to do so. This is highlighted in an article that appears in the 4th issue of Volume 18 of the journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, which has recently been published.

Natalie Silverton, M.D. and her colleagues from the Division of Emergency Medicine at the University of Utah commented in an article entitled "Avalanche Safety Practices in Utah." They utilized a survey of 353 winter backcountry users to determine the percentage of participants in a variety of categories with respect to whether they were carrying avalanche transceivers, shovels, probes, or AvaLungs; whether or not they had taken an avalanche safety course; and whether they were traveling solo or with a partner(s). Interviewees were backcountry skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers, snowmobilers, and out-of-bounds resort skiers/snowboarders traveling in the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains of Utah during the winter of 2005-06.

The results are revealing and make sense. Backcountry skiers showed the highest level of avalanche preparedness, with 98% carrying avalanche transceivers, 98% carrying shovels, 77% carrying probes, 86% having taken an avalanche safety course, and 88% carrying out minimum safety practices. Out-of-bounds snowboarders were the least prepared, with only 9% carrying avalanche transceivers, 9% carrying shovels, 7% carrying probes, 33% having taken an avalanche safety course, and 2% carrying out minimum safety practices. The authors concluded, "There are significant differences in the avalanche safety practices of backcountry travelers in Utah. Backcountry skiers and snowboarders were the most prepared, while snowmobilers, snowshoers, and out-of-bounds skiers/snowboarders were relatively less prepared."

Unless the demographics and attitudes of the respondents for this survey are remarkably different from those of similar populations that utilize the winter backcountry, this very useful demonstration points us in the direction of where best to apply outdoor safety education campaigns. If snowmobilers, snowshoers, and out-of-bounds skiers/snowboarders are least well prepared to survive an avalanche, if they can be persuaded to be better prepared, that might result in fewer future personal tragedies.

"Fresh Frosting, Wasatch Mountains, Utah" by David Whitten at

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.