Objective.—Risk assessment is an important part of safe backcountry travel in avalanche terrain. The purpose of this study was to determine and compare the ability of backcountry travelers to accurately estimate the avalanche danger for their destination and time of travel.
Methods.—We surveyed 353 winter backcountry users, asking them to rate the avalanche danger for their destination that day. We then compared this estimation to the Utah Avalanche Center daily advisory for that specific location, aspect, and elevation. Tendency to underestimate the avalanche danger was then compared across 6 different sports (backcountry skiing, backcountry snowboarding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, out-of-bounds skiing, and out-of-bounds snowboarding) as well as across age, gender, and subject participation in an avalanche safety course.
Results.—A comparison across different sports, adjusted for age and gender, showed that snowshoers were 7.11 times more likely than skiers to underestimate the avalanche danger (95% CI, 2.95, 17.11). This difference was maintained after adjusting for past education in an avalanche safety course (odds ratio, 5.74; 95% CI, 2.28, 14.46). Snowmobilers were also significantly more likely to underestimate the avalanche danger when compared to skiers (odds ratio, 3.11; 95% CI, 1.12, 8.24), but these differences ceased to be significant when the data were adjusted for avalanche safety course (odds ratio, 2.39; 95% CI, 0.84, 6.74). While there was a trend for women and older age groups to underestimate the avalanche danger when compared to men, these trends were not significant.
Conclusions.—Snowshoers and snowmobilers are groups that tend to underestimate avalanche danger when traveling in the backcountry. These groups may be unknowingly assuming a higher risk and should be targeted for avalanche education and awareness.