Could you get caught in an avalanche? These are the common Heuristic traps, human factors that can trigger avalanches and Jeremy Jones' Five Red Flags to avoid them.

'A growing body of research suggests that people unconsciously use simple rules of thumb, or heuristics, to navigate the routine complexities of modern life.' It was in 2002 that Ian McCammon, National Outdoor Leadership School, Lander, WY, USA made the above observation when presenting a paper at the International Snow Science Workshop titled: 'Evidence of heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents'.

In looking at the links between heuristic traps and riders caught in avalanches, McCammon advanced discussion and understanding about avalanche fatalities and the human factors that cause them. Using a quantitative method to define the level of hazard exposure in 598 avalanche accidents in the United States, he compared the behaviour of the victims when heuristic cues were present to their behaviour when these cues were absent.

And. recognising these factors could just, maybe, help avoid getting caught in a slide. 

McCammon identified four heuristic traps into which backcountry tourers could fall. And , thus, fall, as in an avalanche.  They are:

  • Familiarity
  • Social Proof
  • Commitment
  • Scarcity.

These are all influencing factors in decision making in other aspects of our lives, where they can be relevant and essential. Only when it comes to a potential dangerous situation such as unstable snow pack, can they be leathal.

Of course, educated decisions about the risks of avalanche involves physical factors such as amount of new snow, predominant wind direction and speed, humidity, temperature history, slope gradient and steepness. But it's human nature to make decisions based less on statistics and more according to experience, applying the rule of thumb - that is, creating a heuristic trap. And the backcountry skier who succombs to a heuristic trap, ignoring the physical signs, records or data and, instead, applying the rule of thumb is, potentially, going to be in trouble.

If you've ever been in a backcountry situation and had the following thoughts - or similar - you'll recognise the traps. 

'I've ridden here before and it's always been fine.'


You feel safe riding an area because you've done it before and it's never avalanched? Well, if there is unstable snow pack and the slope is steep enough, then it may not be safe at all. Hence, familiarity should never breed contempt ie underestimation of danger..

'See those guys are doing it'.


As there's a group of six riders ahead of you on the ridge or doing the powder you're heading for, then it must be ok. Right? Wrong. 

'We made the plan last night to do it.'


So make a plan, make God laugh. Or worse. When a group commits to a plan, no one wants to be the one to bail, even though circumstances such as the wind strength, direction and temperature could have changed dramatically overnight.

'Untracked powder. Woohoo.'

The trap: SCARCITY

It's powder. And it's untracked. Last one down gets the chopped up lines. Powder fever can mist all rational thoughts especially when you see someone ahead who's going to take your line. First one down, though, could be first one in the avalanche.

Along with these four Heuristic Traps, there are these five additional emotive ones including:

Leadership Trust as in following someone who seems to be an expert or know what they are doing. Note that this can include guides whom you have paid to keep you safe but no one is infallible and guides DO get caught in slides, too.

Peer Pressure going along with mates because you want to be accepted in their group.

Social Security going along BECAUSE your mates must know what they're doing?.

Bullet Proof because you have the avy safety kit  including an ABS bag and therefore feel protected so you ride potentially dangerous slopes that you wouldn't consider without equipment..

Bluebird Optimism the sun's shining, there's fresh powder and you're in the mountains, what could go wrong?

Jeremy Jones spine surfing out of a slide

Rather than fall into the Heuristic Traps, apply the Five Red Flag observation system. care of backcountry snowboarder, Jeremy Jones (above). Here are his words of avy wisdom:

'Have you heard of the Five Red Flags? The red flags are simple visual clues that are a sign of potential avalanche danger. I use these observation techniques more than anything else to judge avalanche conditions in the backcountry

'It starts from the second I wake up. When I look out the window on a powder day I see my first red flag – new snow. If I see the trees outside sway in the wind now I have two red flags – new snow and wind transported snow. Seeing recent avalanche activity on the side of the road driving to the trailhead makes three red flags.

'Watching shooting cracks break off of my ski tips skinning up or small slabs peel off my board as I am bootpacking makes four.

'Before I even get to the trailhead I can use the red flags to make decsisons as to where I can safely go that day. As the red flags pile up my terrain plans continue to change. Digging a snow pit to analyze the snowpack is also valuable but it is these simple and quick observations that can be used over and over that are the most important.'

So here are the Red Flags:

  1. New snow
  2. Signs of recent avalanches
  3. Collapsing or cracking in snowpack
  4. Rapid rise in temperature
  5. Strong winds, blowing and drifting snow

Ride safe, people. Respect the mountain...