How can you survive an avalanche and what can you do to increase your odds?

Hope for a small avalanche instead of a big one and wish for luck.

A bona fide large avalanche can exert so much pressure that it snaps trees, rocks, and bones in its path, carrying enough snow to bury twenty football fields in ten feet of it.

Large or small, you’d think an avalanche would kill about everybody it strikes, so the encouraging news is that one in three people caught in an avalanche actually survives.

If you happen to find yourself in the path of falling snow, there are a few things you can do to improve your chances of survival. The right equipment is your first line of defense.

A small shovel and a long probe can mean the difference between suffocating to death under several feet of packed snow and being seen and rescued. In mountainous areas, always carry a transceiver, turning it to transmitting mode so a partner can possibly locate your signal if you end up caught.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center Web site at carries step-by-step instructions on how to react:

Yell and let go of ski poles and get out of your pack to make yourself lighter. Use “swimming” motions, thrusting upward to try to stay near the surface of the snow.

When avalanches come to a stop and debris begins to pile up, the snow can set as hard as cement. Unless you are on the surface and your hands are free, it is almost impossible to dig yourself out.

If you are fortunate enough to end up near the surface (or at least know which direction it is), try to stick out an arm or a leg so that rescuers can find you quickly.

If you are in over your head (not near the surface), try to maintain an air pocket in front of your face using your hands and arms, punching into the snow.

When an avalanche finally stops, you will have from one to three seconds before the snow sets. Many avalanche deaths are caused by suffocation, so creating an air space is one of the most critical things you can do.

Also, take a deep breath to expand your chest and hold it; otherwise, you may not be able to breathe after the snow sets. To preserve air space, yell or make noise only when rescuers are near you. Snow is such a good insulator they probably will not hear you until they are practically on top of you.

Above all, do not panic. Keeping your breathing steady will help preserve your air space and extend your survival chances.

If you remain calm, your body will be better able to conserve energy.