There is nothing that can replace practice in the field and learning first hand from avalanche experts, but it doesn’t hurt to read as much as you can about avalanche safety. This list of the best avalanche safety books range from covering the basics to pretty advanced topics. There is something here for everyone. Personally I find it helps to do a bit of reading at the start of each season to refresh my memory. After a long summer of not worrying about getting buried we tend to forget some of the finer points about avalanche safety.
Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard
Authors: Jill Fredston & Doug Fesler
Length: 132 pages
Snow Sense is a best selling classic and for good reason. It provides an excellent grounding in the basics of how to avoid getting caught in an avalanche. The focus of this book is on terrain analysis, weather, and it even touches on the ‘human factors’ that can contribute to avalanches.
While Snow Sense is an excellent overview of safe travel in avalanche terrain, the target audience of this book isn’t advanced backcountry travelers, like guides. If you’ve spent a lot of time in the backcountry and the basics of avalanche safety are ingrained habits, this book likely won’t teach you anything new. That said, it’s great for a beginning of season review or a reminder for someone who’s been away from avalanche terrain for a while. And it’s cheap, so why not have it on your shelf?
The one downside of this book is that it is somewhat hard to find a particular section. There is no index, so you may spend a lot of time flipping through pages to read that short paragraph you’re trying to remember. Minor downside, and the book as a whole is still great.
About the Authors: Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler are among North America’s leading avalanche experts. They have spent more than thirty years evaluating avalanche hazard, predicting avalanches, triggering them with explosives, teaching potential victims how to stay alive, and leading rescue efforts in Alaska.
Avalanche Essentials: A Step by Step System For Safety and Survival
Author: Bruce Tremper
Length: 176 pages
Avalanche Essentials is basically a must have for any winter backcountry traveler. It’s basically a step by step guide on how to survive in avalanche terrain and doesn’t bog you down with unnecessary details. This is kind of your layman’s avalanche safety bible, but is slightly different from Snow Sense. This book really focuses on a step-by-step system with checklists, decision-making aids, terrain and weather cues as well as rescue techniques and gear. I would also give the nod to Avalanche Essentials for having slightly better illustrations and pictures as well as slightly clearer organization.
This book is for the average Joe or Jane that doesn’t aspire to be a snow scientist. Well, at least not yet anyway. It is a great resource for all skill levels, but is perfect for new to intermediate backcountry skiers and boarders alike. Avalanche Essentials doesn’t cover any crazy complex topics that you would likely forget about anyway. It sticks to the basics, but does so in a way that will help you remember them. You also learn what is truly critical to know when you are trying to survive in the backcountry.
About the Author: Bruce Tremper is one of the nation’s foremost experts on avalanches and has been the director of the US Forest Service’s Utah Avalanche Center since 1986. He coordinated all backcountry avalanche safety preparations for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City and lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has also written the next book in this list.
Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain
Author: Bruce Tremper
Length: 320 pages
The title of this book says it all. If there is something that you need to know about Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, it’s in this book (along with a bunch of other things you probably didn’t know existed). This is the winter backcountry traveler’s bible. Or at least, the aspiring snow scientist’s bible. For most of us laypeople, the vast majority of the content in here will go right over our heads.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can certainly pick and choose the topics you read about in Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain and you’ll still learn more than you ever hoped to. It’s almost twice as long as the other books in this list, so you can be sure it’s packed with knowledge. Seriously, this book looks intimidating, but it’s very accessible. It’s kind of like a great shirt that you grow into. When I first got this book, some sections really left me scratching my head but I kept going back to it. Now, it’s one of my favorite resources for questions about avalanche terrain.
You may have guessed this from the length of the book, but it covers everything related to travel in avalanche terrain. Even if you haven’t yet taken an avalanche safety course, this book is worth at least flipping through. Once you’ve taken a course, read it again.
If you spend any amount of time in avalanche terrain and are only going to buy one book on this list, this is the one.
Bruce, if you ever read this, I just want to say thanks. I’m sure I’m not the only person you’ve helped keep alive in the backcountry.
Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering
Authors: Martin Volken, Scott Schell, Margaret Wheeler
Length: 339 pages
This book isn’t 100% focused on avalanche safety, but it is still a great addition to your backcountry skiing library. The skills discussed in this book are for intermediate to advanced ski touring and split boarding. It covers topics from ski touring and mountaineering to mastering the perfect way to carve turns in powder. The info about skiing powder is a bit dated – skis have changed a lot since this book was written. Luckily skiing powder is much easier with modern powder or touring skis.
Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring even dives into advanced topics geared toward mountaineering in very technical terrain. Roped climbing, setting anchors, using ice axes, etc. are all covered. If you’re considering getting into ski mountaineering or glacier travel, this book will serve you very well. As I mentioned, the book is a bit old, but the vast majority of the techniques remain unchanged.
This list of the best avalanche safety books should give you some ideas for reading over the summer (and fall and winter). You might even find some of these in your local library! The one thing to remember is that no matter how many books you read or videos you watch, training and experience trumps them all. These should be used to complement training, not replace it. Stay safe out there.