The first thing to do if heading off piste is to make sure you get the right forecast and avoid dangerous terrain.

Choosing the terrain and getting hold of the correct avalanche forecasts, then interpreting them and linking them to where you’re heading are vital first steps when it comes to mountain safety. The Ski Club of Great Britain’s Mountain Safety Advisor Bruce Goodlad explains why:

Before you even step on snow, make sure you are familiar with the snow, weather and terrain that has – and will – impact your journey in the back country.

We are fortunate that in many of the areas we choose to ski there are daily avalanche forecasts available. Links to all the different European forecasts can be accessed from here:

From this it is clear that Europe doesn’t have an avalanche forecasting problem; instead it has a public engagement problem. The average visit to an avalanche forecast website is only a few seconds: people open up the page, see the headline figure: perhaps a ‘Considerable’ hazard, and base their skiing decision for the day on those few seconds.

Forecasters go out of their way to provide us with high quality, time and location relevant information that is designed specifically to keep us safe whilst skiing, so if we’re thinking about skiing off piste it makes good sense to take the time to digest all of the information available.

Take the time to understand what type of avalanche problem is being conveyed in the forecast and whereabouts on the mountain this problem will exist. A forecasted avalanche hazard may only be on a certain aspect of the mountain or be forecast for a certain part of the day. For example, the considerable hazard may be for springtime solar heating and this may only affect southern aspects in the afternoon.

Take the time to understand the forecast. Checking them for several days leading up to your trip, as well as every day of your visit will give you a strong feel for what the underlying trend of avalanche hazard is in the area that you plan to ski.

90% of human involved avalanches are triggered by the group itself. It was their choice to be in that terrain at that time that led them to be avalanched.

In Europe the ski patrol only has responsibility to secure slopes that threaten the pistes and lift infrastructure, so as soon as we venture off piste we are entering potential avalanche terrain.

When skiing off piste in avalanche terrain, simple travel protocols that limit the exposure of our group to the avalanche hazard is best practice.

  • Avoid suspect slopes that roll away and you can’t see the bottom of from above
  • Don’t loiter on or beneath obvious avalanche pathways
  • Negotiate these one at a time – so only one member of the team at a time is exposed to the risk of being avalanched
  • If you’re thinking about doing a long off piste itinerary think about the terrain the descent will take you through and what key parts of your journey will be most exposed to the threat of avalanche
Grade of risk: Stability of snow pack: Probability of release: Sign:
1. Low The snowpack is well bonded and stable in general. Triggering is generally possible only from high additional loads in isolated areas of very steep, extreme terrain. Only sluffs and small-sized natural avalanches are possible Yellow
2. Moderate The snowpack is only moderately well bonded on some steep slopes, otherwise well bonded in general. Triggering is possible primarily from high additional loads, particularly on the indicated steep slopes. Large-sized natural avalanches are unlikely. Yellow
3. Considerable The snowpack is moderately to poorly bonded on many steep slopes. Triggering is possible, even from low additional loads particularly on the indicated steep slopes. In some cases medium-sized, in isolated cases large-sized natural avalanches are possible. Checked Black and Yellow
4. High The snowpack is poorly bonded on most steep slopes Triggering is likely even from low additional loads on many steep slopes. In some cases, numerous medium-sized and often large-sized natural avalanches can be expected. Checked Black and Yellow
5. Very High The snowpack is poorly bonded and largely unstable in general. Numerous large-sized and often very large-sized natural avalanches can be expected, even in moderately steep terrain. Black


When reading a piste map, remember to look out for the following:

  • Check the forecast carefully before heading out
  • An avalanche risk of “3” indicates “Considerable” risk – consider what that means when planning your route
  • Choose your route carefully to avoid terrain traps or “avalanche risk” terrain
  • Read the avalanche forecast to understand the specific avalanche risk

Ross Woodhall

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To make sure you stay safe in the mountains, the Ski Club’s expert Info & Advice team are on hand to help and offer advice