In simplest terms, an avalanche is a mass of material sliding quickly down a slope. It sometimes consists of rocks, ice, or other debris, but the vast majority of avalanches are made up of snow. Snow avalanches are a common occurrence in mountainous areas, tumbling downhill at speeds of up to 60-80 miles per hour (about 96-130 kilometers per hour), gathering mass and volume as they go, and able to destroy any forests or settlements in their path. When they finally stop, the snow solidifies to the consistency of concrete. People caught in the swell find themselves unable to dig their way out and frequently die of suffocation, hypothermia, exposure, and other trauma.
In North America and Europe, about 150 people per year die during avalanche events. The number of annual deaths has risen with the popularity of winter sports like downhill and backcountry skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and more. Avalanches are sometimes caused by wind or new snow. However, sources estimate that about 90% of fatalities occur in avalanches triggered by the weight of either the victim or one of the victim’s companions.
Avalanches occur in mountainous terrain, usually on slopes of about 30 to 45 degrees. Most occur between December and March, when the weather is at its coldest and the snow at its deepest. If you’re planning a winter sports trip, or any vacation that puts you in these kinds of conditions, it would be prudent to purchase an insurance policy in case the worst should occur. Make sure to do your research and pick out the best travel insurance, travel outside the U.S. medical insurance, or visitors to the U.S. insurance plan that fits your needs.
Warning Signs of an Avalanche
There are three main factors that cause avalanches: slope, snowpack, and trigger. Avalanches usually occur on slopes with a steepness of at least 30 degrees. Snowpack refers to unstable snow, signs of which are recent avalanches, shooting cracks, and a “whumping” noise with each step. Triggers can include wind or new snow, but again, the vast majority of avalanches fatalities are caused by the victims themselves (or members of their party).
Despite the myth that avalanches occur without warning, there are usually obvious conditions or signs of snow instability that come beforehand. These can include:
- An area where an avalanche has recently occurred
- Cracks forming around you in the snow as you walk or ski
- The ground underneath your feet feels hollow
- A "whumping" sound as you walk indicates that loose snow is settling and a slab could still break free
- Heavy rain or snowfall during the last 24 hours
- A rapid warm front or rising temperatures
- Surface patterns in the snow indicating strong winds, which could mean the snow was blown and deposited there and a snow drift could still release
Keep an eye out for these signs. And, as always, make sure to stay informed and check for avalanche warnings or alerts in your area.
How to Stay Safe from an Avalanche
If you're vacationing in an area prone to avalanches, it's important to be aware in advance of some basic safety procedures should one occur. Learn how to properly use safety and rescue equipment, sign up for alerts regarding avalanche activity, and get yourself trained in first aid. Never go out alone; always bring a buddy with you. Avoid steep slopes and areas underneath steep slopes. Always wear a helmet--not just to protect against a head injury, but also to help create an air pocket should you be buried underneath the snow. Bring with you and learn how to use devices like avalanche beacons, avalanche airbags, a collapsible avalanche probe, and a small shovel. And, most importantly, follow all avalanche warnings on roads or posted signs.
Avalanches and Travel Insurance
Most insurance companies include avalanches in the natural disaster coverage portion of their policies. If you're worried that an avalanche might disrupt your vacation plans, the natural disaster benefits included in travel insurance, travel outside the U.S. medical insurance, and visitors to the U.S. medical insurance should protect you from the worst of the financial consequences.
Travel insurance is available to both U.S. and non-U.S. residents. It covers pre-paid, non-refundable trip costs like airfare, lodging, transportation rentals (such as cars or snowmobiles), and others. Travel insurance includes both trip cancellation and trip interruption coverage, which could both be helpful during a natural disaster.
Trip cancellation insurance allows policy holders to cancel their trip for one of the covered reasons listed in the certificate wording. If the cancellation is for a covered reason, insurance will reimburse them for the cost of the non-refundable deposits and expenses listed above. In order for trip cancellation insurance to take effect, the traveler must be prevented from following through on their intended travel plans and also unable to make alternate travel arrangements. For example, if an avalanche were to destroy or shut down the traveler's intended destination (like a cozy ski lodge), or if it were to cancel flights for at least 24 hours, then the traveler would be eligible to make a claim.
Cancel for any reason travel insurance takes the benefits a step further. Although this coverage is only available to U.S. residents, it allows policy holders the freedom to cancel their trip for any reason they so choose (within general parameters specific to the individual policy). Imagine you have travel reservations at a ski lodge in the mountains. Three days before your trip, an avalanche occurs near the area. Say the ski lodge is unaffected, but it shuts down all of the nearby ski trails. Because you are still technically able to stay at the lodge, trip cancellation insurance would not cover the decision to cancel your reservation. However, cancel for any reason coverage would give you the leeway to cancel your intended ski vacation.
Trip interruption coverage would be useful if an avalanche were to occur during the middle of your vacation. It would protect your remaining non-refundable trip costs, and some policies of this type would pay for alternate lodging and travel arrangements for your return trip.
Regarding medical insurance, both Travel medical insurance and visitors medical insurance provide benefits relevant to an avalanche event. Travel medical insurance is available for both U.S. and non-U.S. residents taking trips that don't involve the U.S. Visitors medical insurance is intended for people visiting the U.S., usually citizens of other countries but sometimes U.S. citizens who live abroad and are returning to the U.S. for a short stay. These two types of insurance usually offer benefits like trip interruption (or interruption of trip), natural disaster evacuation, and natural disaster replacement accommodations.
Depending on the location and the severity, an avalanche would likely allow the policy holder to take advantage of natural disaster evacuation coverage. Different plans offer different levels of coverage, so make sure to check the certificate wording. To receive benefits, submit proof of payment for any activities or events from which you were displaced to the insurance company. You may also be eligible to claim any expenses directly or indirectly related to items in the plan's General Exclusions section.
Finally, many visitors medical insurance plans offer natural disaster replacement accommodations. If an avalanche were to destroy or shut down your reserved lodgings, this type of coverage would offer a daily stipend for a limited number of days to cover the cost of replacement accommodations.
Avalanches might not be as widespread a phenomenon as tornadoes or earthquakes, but they are just as destructive. Given how many avalanche fatalities are of people enjoying winter sports and recreation at distinct travel destinations, purchasing the proper insurance coverage should occupy at least some portion of your attention as you’re planning your trip. Keep yourself covered with travel insurance, travel outside the U.S. medical insurance, or visitors to the U.S. insurance. If you need help finding the plan that best fits your needs, please contact our licensed, experienced representatives.