Staying safe in the trees

31 Dec, 2010

Since December 20th, nine lives have been lost in North America from snowboarding accidents.  At least four of the deaths have been from riding in trees either from colliding with a tree or falling into a tree well.   As beautiful as winter wilderness is to look at and fun to ride in; snow and trees can create a lethal combination on the mountain.   I hope that everyone stays safe this winter and understands some basic knowledge about riding in trees and tree wells in hopes it could possibly help prevent more deaths.

Educate Yourself

This website is an good resource for understanding tree wells and deep snow dangers.  During the winter, a trees branches collect snow but also the lower branches create a well that surrounds the tree.  This hole doesn’t fill with snow and when you get close enough, you can fall into that well that is deeper than you think.  Our snowboards are attached to our feet which is good and bad, it’s bad if you fall headfirst into a treewell and can’t unstrap.  The more you struggle, the more snow can pile around you from the branches and you can suffocate.  Ride within eyesight of your friends and know the terrain, don’t hug close to trees branches and ride within your ability.  If it’s deep powder, being able to control your turns matters.

Riding Ability

Tree riding is not for beginners. Any rider that plans to ride in the trees should be able to stop quickly, make short quick turns and have total control over their body and snowboard. There is no second chance when riding trees. If you are out of control, your chances of getting injured or death are greatly increased. Wearing a helmet in the trees will help.  Riding in trees means riding in powder and being comfortable riding in powder.

What to do

If everything goes wrong and you find yourself in a tree well, stay calm.  You can make things worse by freaking out, moving around and causing more snow from the tree to fall on you or sink even deeper.  If possible, clear an airway in front of you so you can have more air room and space.  Move your body in a rocking manner to hollow out more air and space around you.  You hope that someone has seen where you were last were and is looking for you, if not, the heat from your body and rocking movement will help compact the snow and you can try to work your way out.  Staying calm is very important.

Here are some pointers for snowboarding in trees:

  • If it’s your first time in trees, have a friend or someone who knows the trees take you.
  • Wearing a helmet when riding in trees will help if you have a collision but nothing if you fall in a tree well.
  • Know the area where you are riding, the safe exits in and out of the trees. The better you know the terrain, the trees, the safer you are.
  • Ride with a buddy and stay within eye sight of each other. Generally when I ride with others, one of us leads and the other follows staying within eye sight. This helps in case of any injuries and accidents.
  • It does help to follow lines but be careful with that as well. You could follow someone’s line who has to back track out or goes through terrain beyond your skill level.
  • Tree riding is about quick snap judgments. You must be able to ride making quick judgments but also have your mind tell your snowboard. If you are slow in either…don’t go in the trees.
  • Don’t focus on the trees, look at the open spaces between the trees when riding.
  • I generally spot my line as I ride through the trees but not everyone can do that depending on what type of trees you ride in.
  • Keep your speed in tune with the terrain you are riding. I like to ride in trees with a moderate slope, not super steep but not flat. Riding in the trees on flatter terrain means trouble in terms of tree wells and harder to get out if you get stuck. If you ride steeper terrain, you’ll have to control your speed more.
  • Ride knowing your conditions and ride knowing there are hazards. Know the type of snow you are riding in, lighter snow is easier to maneuver through but heavier snow can be harder to stop in and start in.
  • Do not stop next to a tree, again…know about tree wells.

What advice do you have from riding in trees and what would you recommend to those heading out on the slopes this winter so they can be safer on the mountain?

About the author


From the beginning of time, I was Shannon. From the beginning of snowboarding, I was Shay. From the beginning of online communities, I was Shayboarder. In the end, I’m the writer, photographer, editor, publisher, guru of sorts, product tester, curvy girl, and most importantly the snowboarder behind it all. Follow me on this journey through snowboarding, mountain biking, traveling and fun experiences!

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  1. December 31, 2010

    great info Shay, for a long time I rode pretty carefree through trees and now believe I have been pretty lucky not to get hurt. Trees are fun, but more dangerous than they seem. This is definitely something everyone should read before starting to ride trees. Good lookin’ out!

  2. Dan
    December 31, 2010

    Just over the holiday weekend my gal and I were riding the trees on the backside of Northstar when she skidded out on a tight turn and slid into a tree well feet first and sank up to her neck. It’s crazy how well snow muffles sound because I couldn’t find or hear her yelling for help until I was just a few feet away. Hate to think what could have happened if she’d gone in head first…
    Anyways, stay safe out there and ALWAYS ride with a partner and keep that person in sight. Maybe take a whistle to.

  3. debs
    December 31, 2010

    good info, thanks. Is there any best advice on the right things to do/not do if I’m the one finding and rescuing a rider in a tree well?

  4. Elias
    January 04, 2011

    good info shay, thanks~ even I don’t see myself playing in the trees, still wanna know what could happen and always be prepared. Seen alot of SB videos SBers riding in trees, never thought it could be THAT dangerous.

  5. January 05, 2011

    I did a bit of research into tree wells the first time that I went to Canada (Fernie)…

    I know it might be stating the obvious seems as though you’re talking about shredding off-piste – but having a beacon on, and knowing how to use it, will always help.

    If you did get stuck, your friends can use that to find you and help you out!