How To Escape A Tree Well When Skiing

After an overnight pour of fresh fluffy snow on top of days of powder falls, it’s a powder day. The sun is shining, the snow is perfect, and you’re having the time of your life skiing inbounds and enjoying the tree runs on avalanche-controlled off-piste terrain.

Only that if you fall into deep snow or, worse, a hidden tree well, your life could be taken away from you in an instant. If you’re skiing alone, your odds of survival are little to none.

When it comes to mountain safety, the dread of an avalanche is the first thing that springs to mind.

Because of complacency and a lack of awareness, tree well dangers are usually overlooked, despite the fact that they may be just as hazardous, if not more so, than avalanches.

It’s also worth considering the likelihood of finding tree wells on in-bounds land. All skiers and boarders should familiarise themselves with fundamental safety practices and protections before going tree skiing or riding.

Tree well deaths and snow immersion deaths are also genuine. If you fall into snowbanks that then collapse on top of you, into stream beds where you can’t move without disturbing snow that then falls on top of you, or into tree wells where others can’t see you, you have a 10% chance of saving yourself.

These fatal tree well accidents frequently happen while people are having a good time, and the repercussions are almost always disastrous for friends and family.

How To Escape A Tree Well When Skiing

What Is A Tree Well?

A tree well is the hidden section of a tree that is covered in thick snow. In the winter, as snow accumulates around a tree, the branches prevent the precipitation from condensing, creating a large air pocket of loose, unstable snow.

Deep pockets of air run all the way to the trunk’s base beneath the branches of snow-covered trees. This space tube is designed like a well, and the snow that has gathered above it has completely covered it.

The well is hidden below a canopy of branches since fir trees hold their leaves throughout the winter. There isn’t much the ski patrol or the resort can do about it other than make you aware of the danger. As a result, knowing how to avoid and survive tree wells is vital for you and your crew.

Unwary skiers approaching a tree well risk being pulled into it and trapped dangerously in the snow, perhaps choking to death. Tree wells may be found everywhere there is a lot of deep snow, therefore anybody skiing off-piste or backcountry in a tree-covered area should be mindful of them.

A tree fall can occur under any tree, but it is most common and fatal when snow accumulates beneath large trees with many branches. Hardwoods and trees with fewer branches do not create deep tree wells, making them less dangerous.

On ski slopes, conifer trees with thick needle-like leaves like fir, pine spruce, and larch are prevalent.

These heavy branches hold further snow, preventing it from falling to the earth below. This necessitates the construction of deeper, more buried wells.

Snow forms an umbrella effect across the branches of these gigantic trees, preventing thick snow from forming around the trunk. As the snow builds all around, layers of snow-covered limbs vanish beneath the rising landscape.

The only thing visible from the outside is a tree that has sprung from the ground. You’re about to fall into a dreadful trap. The taller a tree is and the more branches it has, the more likely it is to produce a larger tree. The way snow forms around a tree are influenced by snowdrifts, slope, and tree angle.

In deep snow, a third or more of the tree might be hidden beneath the snow. All of that hidden space might be a trap, and the greater the tree grows, the wider the radius around which it could collapse.

Tree wells can range in size from an arm’s length to the height of an adult skier. Tree wells are hazardous because they are essentially hidden pockets of air that can cause injury if they fall, and can quickly cover a skier in snow, restricting their airways.

Why Are Tree Wells So Dangerous?

Tree wells are hazardous because they are difficult to escape and hidden from sight. 90% of skiers and snowboarders trapped in snow-covered holes, according to reports, are unable to free themselves. Because of the angle at which most skiers fall into a well, shifting and wriggling to an upright posture is quite difficult.

Skis and poles limit a skier’s ability to move further, and even the fittest adults will tire out trying to free themselves. With each movement, more snow will undoubtedly fall from above, making escape more difficult.

The larger the tree well, the steeper the skier’s fall, and impacting the tree head-on might result in serious injury. Small trees, on the other hand, can be lethal, and a small hole less than a meter deep can be deadly if struck at the incorrect angle.

Furthermore, if most of a larger tree is concealed by snow, it may appear little, comparable to an iceberg when much of it is submerged beneath the sea. On a steep slope, snow may drift and collect to tremendous heights. When skiing, be cautious and avoid getting too close to trees.

Snow immersion suffocation (SIS), which occurs when a skier becomes trapped in the snow and is unable to breathe, is the most significant danger posed by tree wells.

When a skier falls into a tree well, they usually do so head first, turning upside down and burying their head in the well’s side.

More snow builds around them as they travel, trapping them in the snow. Many lone skiers who do not have help can succumb to a lack of oxygen and die from snow immersion hypoxia as a result of being swiftly jammed in and unable to move.

65 percent of people who die from SIS are stuck in tree wells while skiing. The danger arises from landing on your head in an inverted position.

How Common Are Tree Wells And Where Do They Happen?

When there is new powder snow on the mountain, tree wells are most plentiful. Valleys, troughs, and shady sections of the mountain have colder snow with more layers.

Tree wells may be found across the mountain, in any backcountry or off-piste area containing trees. Avoiding snow wells may be as simple as sticking to groomed ski slopes or skiing attentively around trees.

Tree wells are the most common following and after snowstorms. As additional snow accumulates in the area, the tree wells get larger.

Deeper snow and a higher skiable ground level result from more snowfall. Because snow builds up in layers throughout the season, tree wells are at their finest in the middle of the season and just before the spring temperatures rise.

On ungroomed terrain, the bulk of Tree Well/SIS disasters occur. A groomed run is a ski or snowboard trail where the snow has been compacted and consolidated using a snow machine.

In places with deep powder and trees, as well as a significant number of powder skiers and snowboarders, the bulk of Tree Well/SIS occurrences occur. When there is a lot of deep loose snow, powder skiing is best. Unfortunately, these conditions heighten the probability of a Tree Well/SIS mishap.

Seventy percent of all Tree Well/SIS occurrences involve tree wells. Tree Well/SIS events occur in regions with deep snow, deep snow pockets, or terrain that concentrates deep snow, such as steep slopes and stream beds. Staying on groomed tracks minimizes the risk of a Tree Well/SIS tragedy significantly.

Prevent tree well deaths

How Can You Avoid And Escape A Tree Well?

Skiing near trees is not recommended. If you’re skiing backcountry or off-piste, choose a trail with fewer trees. If you’re skiing through a forest or among trees, take it slowly.

If there are trees on both sides of you, try to make a center line through them. Skiing near trees is always risky; stay on the slope until you’ve mastered the ability to stop and control your speed.

If you fall out of a tree, stretch out and grab everything you can. Holding on to a tree limb with all your might will save you from falling into the hole or, at the absolute least, stop you from descending.

Hopefully, you’ll be able to escape plummeting down the well or slow down enough to prevent being stuck like a rocket in the tree well wall.

You’ll have a far better chance of surviving if you can avoid going into the tree headfirst. As you fall in, roll over, spread your weight, and fight to stay upright with your skis.

If you’re trapped within the well and can’t get out, you’ll have to work quickly to find an air pocket where you can breathe. To keep as much snow out of your face as possible, hold your arm up over your head.

Adrenaline will have kicked in, and you’ll have to decide whether to fight or flee. Attempt to locate an air pocket, but bear in mind that moving too rapidly may cause you to fall further into the pit.

If you’re in an air pocket with enough room to breathe and know your ski companion will rescue you in the next minute or two, it could be safer to relax and wait it out.

If there is no one on the way to help, you can’t reach your phone, or you can’t breathe, you must move fast and try to get out as soon as possible.

To increase your air pocket, use a rocking motion to dig out space in the snow. Slowly turn your body to the right and try to stand up. Pull yourself up using a limb or the tree’s trunk.

It will take a lot of work and resolve, but pull yourself up and out with all your grit and muscle. Use your body to make gentle, purposeful rocking movements. This will create air space around you, and the heat created by your body will likely help compress the surrounding snow, making the climb out easier.

After you’ve gotten out, take some time to relax and recuperate before heading below. Ask for assistance if you need it; you don’t want to fall into another well because you’re exhausted.

How To Survive A Tree Well

It’ll be difficult, but don’t get too worked up over it. The more panicked you become, the more energy you’ll spend and the less oxygen you’ll be able to take in.

If you’re skiing with a companion and you think someone else could be around, holler and shout as loudly as you can to get their attention.

Take your phone out of your pocket and dial 911 for help. Call anybody you know on the slopes, the ski patrol, the cops, or anyone who can help you. Before going skiing, set up active voice control so that if you become stuck and can’t get to your phone, you can use Siri or voice control to ring it.

For convenient access, keep your phone in your breast pocket at all times. Make a note of the local ski patrol or rescue number on your phone before you go. If you have a whistle, you should use it.

Use your reaching ski poles to break a hole in the snow for more oxygen and access to the outdoors if you have them. You should be aware that excavating your way out of your home may result in additional snow falling on you, so proceed with caution.

It’s typically safer to wait for aid if you have enough breathing room, rather than risk damaging your air gap. You’ll have to decide whether to wait for assistance or concentrate all of your efforts on clearing the snow so you can escape.

Always keep an eye on your ski buddy when skiing off-piste. Check for them on a regular basis, and if you can’t find them, seek them out. Follow their ski trail if you can’t find them.

If your companion becomes stuck, they’ll need help immediately away; time is of the essence. If their airways are stopped by snow, they’ll only have a few minutes to survive.

Ski carefully in forested areas and keep a safe distance from trees. It’s considerably simpler to stay out of a tree than it is to get out of one. If you prefer to ski in the woods, be aware of the hazards and only bring experienced skiers with you.

Gradually increase the difficulty of the terrain. Do not attempt to ski a backcountry forest on your second week of skiing.

Cling to trees or fling yourself on the ground to disperse your weight if you start to sink into a well. If you can’t stop the slide, do all you can to avoid plunging headfirst into the hole.

Don’t worry if you fall in; any movement will just encourage more snow to fall on you, restricting your breathing. To keep from falling deeper into the hole, grab the trunk or branches. If feasible, move your head to any available pockets of air or clear a little space around your lips.

Unclip your bindings and rock back and forth carefully to create space around you, as most tree well victims end themselves upside down in the hollow.

To get up, either turn around or use the tree as a lever. This will be challenging, but continue and take your time. Once you’re erect, spread your weight across the snow and push yourself clear.

Take some time to rest and recover before proceeding down the hill; the last thing you want to do now falls into another well. The moral of the story is that, especially on powder days, you should never ski or snowboard alone. It takes planning to avoid tree wells and snow immersions.

While skiing with a pal, attach a tree well whistler to the zip of your jacket near your mouth so you can move it between your lips and blow so others can hear you. Put the phone number of the ski patrol on your phone so you may contact them immediately away if your friend falls.

Consider if you have the energy or even the opportunity to try to pull yourself out of this predicament right now. If you don’t, focus on making air holes while you wait for assistance.

Use a rocking motion to carve out space in the snow and get more air; your body heat may also help compact the snow around you, allowing you to get up.

How To Survive A Tree Well

How To Help A Friend From A Tree Well

If your friend is trapped in a well and you are the only one who can save them, you must act quickly. Be aware of becoming entangled, and use caution while remaining firm.

Pull them out by their legs or dig them out with your bare hands or a shovel, digging down to the level of the skier. The method you choose is determined by the depth of the well and the skier’s position.

You’ll probably have to employ a combination of shoveling and pulling to accomplish the job.

It may be necessary, depending on their conditions, to disentangle any tangled skis or poles that are preventing them from leaving. It’s typically easier to get them out of a downward posture than it is to combat gravity.

If you don’t have a shovel, you can create one out of the end of a ski or snowboard.

The most crucial thing is to urge them to take a deep breath. Scream at them and tell them to calm down because you’ll get them out. Remove them as rapidly as possible without being stuck.

Keep an eye on your ski friend at all times. Regroup frequently, especially if you’re in the woods. If your companion is apprehended, do not abandon them; instead, phone patrol and beg for help.

Clear the snow away from your buddy’s airway. Make sure you don’t push any more snow upon your companion.

Pulling or digging them out should not be done in the same direction they fell in. Digging at an angle towards their face will help you get to the airway as quickly as possible.

Once you’ve excavated enough snow to access the well from the side, it should be much simpler to reach them and keep them from suffocating. After you’ve approached them and their head is free, calm them down and reassure them.

Once you’ve been rescued, if they have any injuries or are unable to ski down the mountain alone, request more assistance.

Check-in stations have been built for larger groups to keep everyone together while on the move. If you’re too far down the road or at the chair, you won’t be able to save your friend who is trapped a few hundred feet up in a tree. When it comes to SIS, time is of importance, and navigating through deep snow is difficult.

Can You Suffocate In The Snow?

In a couple of seconds, snow can go from beautiful to deadly. Due to pressure, weight, and snow accumulation, light crystals can become thick and hefty.

You can’t breathe in the snow the same way you can’t breathe in water. If you strike the snow at the wrong angle, you may become trapped. Snow obstructs your airways and prevents you from breathing oxygen if there is too much on the ground.

You’ll perish in the snow if you don’t obtain enough oxygen, as if you’re trying to breathe underwater. If you ever find yourself trapped in a tree, look for an air pocket and move gently and methodically. More snow will collapse around you and fall into your path as you go.

You’ve got your head down, are unable to remove your skis, and your hands are trapped in the worst-case scenario. Because powder snow is light, dry, and fluffy, and you inhale it quickly, it is easy to choke on.

Assume that all trees have tree wells beneath them, even the smallest ones. Tree wells are difficult to see when skiing since the lower hanging branches cover the hidden holes beneath.

What Equipment Should You Take With You When Skiing?

The following list will recommend good tools for you to take with you when skiing, that will aid you in case of an emergency:


Keep a whistle handy in case you fall into a tree and your partner isn’t paying attention. The closer you are to your mouth if you fall headfirst into soft snow, the easier it will be to reach it.


Digging a nice tunnel by hand is nearly impossible. As a result, everyone in your company should have a snow shovel when riding in the backcountry.


In the majority of tree well accidents, the victim is visible, but sometimes the hole is so deep that he or she cannot be seen. An avalanche beacon will assist rescuers in identifying the victim in either case, but especially in the latter.


This device can locate someone who is completely enveloped in snow. It is, however, mostly useless if the members of their party are unaware of the precise location of the crash site. If no other options are available, probing all of the tree wells in the general area may be the victim’s only hope.

Final Thoughts

Every season, after a significant snowfall, mountain experts warn outdoor lovers about the natural snow risk – a zone of loose, thick snow that may gather around tree trunks. They’re especially common among evergreen trees, and they may grow rather large during snowy years.

It’s heartbreaking to find that a friend has gone missing, to embark on a desperate search, only to discover a choking death. When playing in deep snow, it’s possible to prevent tree well deaths by forming a team and staying within eyeshot of each other.

About the author

Jesse Blaine

Jesse is the owner of, contributes to a lot of the material, and directs day-to-day operations. He lives in Colorado with his wife and kids and loves the outdoors. He’s an avid skier, hiker, kiteboarder, and adventure sports explorer. Jesse has also traveled the world and lived in five different countries. He speaks several languages and loves communicating with people

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