Whether you’re an avid freeride skier pursuing big steep lines or a casual snowshoer going for a snowy wilderness hike, you need to know how to read an avalanche forecast. The scary reality of backcountry travel is that avalanche danger can be present in areas you wouldn’t normally expect. Just because you aren’t planning on skiing a 40 degree couloir doesn’t mean you’re totally safe from hazards.
Avalanche forecasts provide a snapshot of your local snowpack conditions, weather, dangers, and recent avalanches—all summarized in an easy-to-read format. They can seem like an overwhelming amount of information at first but become much more digestible once you understand how to read them. I would like to note that just knowing how to read an avalanche forecast is not a replacement for taking an AAA- or AIARE-certified avalanche education course, but it’s a great starting point for the rest of the learning process.
Where to Find a Forecast For Your Area
Most regions in the U.S. have their own avalanche organization that provides local forecasts. If you don’t already know the name of your local avy center, you can find it on the U.S. Avalanche Map—a site operated by the National Avalanche Center and American Avalanche Association. Jans is based in Park City, UT, so we get all our avalanche info from the Utah Avalanche Center.
Avalanche Danger Ratings
The first thing you’ll see on an avalanche forecast is the overall avalanche danger for that day. Avalanche dangers are sorted into five tiers that rate the severity of the hazards. The five tiers are:
- Low: Generally safe conditions, avalanches are unlikely (green)
- Moderate: Heightened conditions on specific terrain, avalanches are possible (yellow)
- Considerable: Dangerous conditions, conservative decision-making is essential, avalanches are likely (orange)
- High: Very dangerous conditions, travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended, avalanches are very likely (red)
- Extreme: Avoid all avalanche terrain, avalanches are certain (black)
The Avalanche Danger Rose
You’ll find an avalanche danger rose on every forecast you read. A danger rose is a 2-D depiction of a mountain from above. It’s divided into three rings that represent different elevations. The ring on the outer part of the rose shows elevations below 8,000 ft, the middle represents mid-elevations between 8,000 and 9,500 ft, and the inner-most ring symbolizes elevations above tree line (over 9,500 ft). You’ll then notice that the rose is further divided into eight sections that represent directions on a compass, which are also known as aspects. This makes it easy for forecasters to explain which slopes are more or less dangerous depending on which directions they’re facing.
Danger roses are useful tools that allow forecasters to visually explain where hazards might be found in the mountains. When I read an avalanche forecast before heading into the backcountry, I copy the danger rose into my route planning notebook. It’s helpful to have this ready in case I forget the forecast—a screenshot or picture will also work. Bare in mind that the rose is an over-simplified image of a very real scenario and that it is absolutely vital to keep reading the forecast to get more details about current conditions.
Read the WHOLE Forecast!
A common mistake many AIARE instructors note is that people tend to stop reading the forecast once they see the danger rose. Yes, it’s a good summary, but it lacks the in-depth information about the potential avalanche problems you might find in the backcountry. Let’s talk about the rest of the forecast and why you need to read the WHOLE thing.
Types of Avalanche Problems
Next in the forecast, you’ll find a more detailed look at the local conditions that impact the avalanche danger for that day. Avalanche problems are types of avalanches that could occur as a result of specific conditions. These include wind slabs, storm slabs, persistent weak layers, wet loose, and many more. Understanding these types of avalanches and where they might be found will help people navigate safely through the backcountry. The image below was pulled from a Utah Avalanche Center forecast for the Salt Lake area on February 20th, 2023. You’ll see they listed the first avalanche problem for that day was wind drifted snow that could be found at all aspects at upper elevations. They also listed the likelihood of triggering a wind slab was relatively low, and that the size of that avalanche would be small.
Recent Avalanche Activity
The mountains tell us exactly what we need to know, and reading about recent avalanche activity gives us obvious clues about current snowpack conditions. The Utah Avalanche Center has a portal where backcountry users are encouraged to report avalanche incidents as well as observations and analysis about the snowpack. This resource helps us all get an even deeper insight into what kinds of avalanches are happening and where.
Weather and Snow
Some avalanche centers include a short summary of the weather forecast. Avalanche hazards can rise quickly with new snow, high winds, and warming temperatures. It’s vital that you make yourself aware of potential changes in weather conditions throughout your day in the backcountry.
Why You Should Still Take an Avalanche Course
Being able to read an avalanche forecast is just one piece of the puzzle. It certainly doesn’t replace the valuable experience you get from learning in the field with professional instructors. Utah residents are lucky to have the Utah Avalanche Center—they have an army of talented forecasters who provide lots of in-depth information to educate us on our local avalanche conditions. The UAC even has an app that can be used to reference forecast and slope information in the field.
Some larger, more remote areas across North America don’t have the resources to publish forecasts as frequently or as detailed as the UAC. Generous contributors in the community as well as state government and corporate sponsors provide funding to support the Utah Avalanche Center. If you plan on becoming a frequent backcountry traveler, consider supporting your local avalanche organization for providing vital, life-saving information!
By Olivia Reed, Content Writer & Media Manager