How to Escape A Tree Well? Dangers of Tree Wells While Skiing

You’ve got your snowboard, sunshine and two feet of fresh powdered snow. This is everything you need to have an awesome time on the slopes.  On the top of every lift, you will face your first significant decision of your run.  Which path are you going to chose? You can go down the groomed path as most people would, or you can take the ungroomed trail and be the first one to create the tracks.  One of these routes kills more skiers in one year than avalanches. Ever heard of something called a Tree Well?

One false move and the groomed, expert trail could take you directly to the hospital, but choosing the ungroomed path, could take your life.

DXY1GN Professional backcountry ski mountain guides demonstrating a rescue technique for skier trapped in snow tree well. National Geographics.
Caught in a Tree Well

It’s not uncommon when skying down an ungroomed path to slam into a tree since you don’t have the control and agility a groomed trail would provide.  If you slam into a tree and fall deep into the snow, you could either suffocate or freeze to death.  It’s one of mother nature’s booby traps, a deep chasm hidden at the base of a tree.  This is called a tree well.

A tree well is a hole in the snow formed around the base of a tree left by the rain shadow of the branches of the tree.   The low hanging branches of the trees can effectively act as an umbrella.  While it is snowing, the snow builds up thicker away from the tree but not as much snow falls directly next to the tree trunk.  It creates a hole around the tree trunk, that’s where the name “Tree Well” originates.

Tree Well’s are very dangerous since once you get caught in one of these confined spaces, it is tough to get yourself out of them.

What’s the first thing you should do if it’s you that becomes trapped in a tree well? FIND AIR, THEN SIGNAL FOR HELP.  If you try to dig your way out, it might drive you deeper into the snow.

Getting yourself caught in a tree well is a perilous predicament to face.  Without having a partner to help you, it’s tough to free yourself from a tree well.

The very first thing you need to do is create an airway.  I would recommend putting your hand in front of your face and try to clear an airway in front of your mouth. You must know that our body temperature is approximately 98 Degrees Fahrenheit.  You will start having problems if your core temperature drops below 95 degrees (mild hypothermia).  Your memory will start slipping, and your body will begin to shiver to recoupe some heat loss.

If you stay in the snow too long, your organs will begin to shut down, and that’s when you know that death may be near.  There is such a sense of urgency because what you may not realize, the snow on the tree could come down on you at any moment and bury you alive completely.  You need to call for help and hope they can get to you before it’s too late.

Tips on How To Survive Being Caught In a Tree Well (If you have a cell phone).

Professionals have done a lot of research on tree well extrication, and they found that a vast majority of the time, people are unable to free themselves.  If you think skiers rarely encounter tree wells, you’re wrong.  Tree wells are the culprits of an astounding seventy percent of skiing suffocation deaths.  You need to know what will happen to you when you first get caught in a tree well.  The first thing that will most likely happen to you is landing head first in the snow. You’re now upside down, making it much more difficult to free yourself.  Being trapped in a tree well could end your life, but you can survive it if you can remember these tips.

  • Don’t panic.  If you panic and wiggle around, you will only waste energy and allow the snow to compact more and more around you.
  • Always take a beacon or a cell phone with you when you’re out on the slopes.
  • If you get trapped, immediately create a pocket of air to give yourself some breathing room.
  • Don’t ski alone.  Or at least let someone know where you’re going.
Tips To Survive When Caught In a Tree Well Without a Cell Phone.

If you’re caught in a tree well, and you have no cell phone on you or any other type of signaling devices, you will have to follow these tips in hopes of surviving.  Remember, these next tips are only if you have no means of communication and your in a situation where you have to act to survive.

  • Follow the above steps.
  • If able, Grab or hug any part of the tree within reach.  Hold on tight to the tree or its branches to prevent you from sinking more profound in the snow.
  • Look for any pockets of air you can breathe into.  Do this by moving as slowly and as little as possible because any movement will cause the snow to pack in on you.
  • Decide what your next move will be.  At this point, you will have to consider trying to wedge yourself out of the tree well.  Will you have enough energy even to do this?  Sometimes your body heat will allow the snow to compact tighter around you, making you able to lift yourself up slowly.
  • Turn your body as slowly as you can in hopes of turning yourself upright.
  • Pull yourself up against the tree slowly.  This process will take time and will not be easy, but with focus, you can do it.  People can escape these types of situations, know that and keep telling it to yourself until you’re free.

The best tip to give you is to not fall into a tree well.  I say this because this type of accident is preventable by just staying away from trees in deep snow while on a ski trip.

Tips while on a ski trip in the wilderness.

Follow these tips to increase your chances of surviving If you decide to go off on a ski trip, deep into the wilderness,

  • NEVER go on a ski trip alone in the wild.  Always have at least another person with you that’s good on the slopes.
  • You need to keep sight of each other at all times.
  • Try bringing a friend that is knowledgeable about the area.
  • Bringing someone with you that has basic rescue techniques is always a plus.
  • Always bring rescue equipment with you when skiing off the beaten path.
  • Be aware that prevention is the best route to take.  There was a simulation where ten volunteers were placed in a tree well.  How many do you think got out by themselves? None.  In a real-life situation, without a cell phone or rescue equipment, they would have all died.  Expert or not, they’re dead.

Ski Equipment You Should Carry On You While on the Slopes! What do the Experts Use?

These Items are some of the top gear that expert skiers, and search and rescue personnel carries with them while skiing off the path or far in the wilderness.

Conterra Adjusta-Pro Radio Chest Harness
1- Conterra Adjusta-Pro Radio Chest Harness

Originally designed for ski patrols and mountain rescue, this one-size-fits-all radio harness will instantly adjust to hold any sized radio snuggly to your chest without the use of multiple Velcro straps or buckles found on lesser quality harnesses.

The vertical orientation of the radio improves reception, extends antenna life, and reduces the chance of chest injury during a fall. The unique suspension system virtually guarantees that your harness will not bounce or swing. The harness features all Cordura construction, a large cargo pocket, pen pouch, and twin elastic antenna keepers.  You can also wear it over your jacket.  Click here for current Amazon price.


GM CLIMBING 32kN UIAA Certified Large Rescue Pulley Single
2- GM CLIMBING 32kN UIAA Certified Large Rescue Pulley Single

These Single/Double Rescue Pulleys are excellent choices for anyone who need a quality-manufactured pulley for mountain rescue, tower work, ski patrol or whatever requires block and tackle system.  

Mounted with ball bearing for higher efficiency and smoothness. Swing side for easy and rapid rope installation and remove.  Rating to 32kN / 7100lbs for high durability to satisfied all your requirements.  Compatible with textile ropes up to 16mm (5/8″).  Click here for current Amazon Price.

3- Leatherman Wave Multitool
Leatherman Wave Multitool

The Leatherman Wave is hands down one of the most popular multitools on Amazon. With larger knives, longer wire cutters, and all-locking blades, the redesigned Wave is perfect for any job, adventure, or everyday task.

It includes 17 built-in tools, including knives, pliers, screwdrivers, a small bit driver for eyeglasses, wire cutters, a wire stripper, scissors, bottle and can openers, files, a saw, and a ruler.  The Wave only requires one hand to open and use all the tools, even the ones that aren’t accessible from the outside. And with all-locking blades, you can cut with confidence. Backed up by a 25-year limited warranty.  Click here for current Amazon Price.


4- Midland GXT1000VP4 36-Mile JIS4 Waterproof Two-Way Radio

This radio connects users up to 36 miles away in ideal conditions and has 50 channels. Ski groups will appreciate the 142 privacy codes: even during ski season, conversations will remain private. The SOS feature is a must for anyone spending time on a mountain, and with 10 NOAA weather channels, skiers can monitor the weather from atop the hill. The GXT100VP4 is a basic two-way radio at an affordable price! Best value in our opinion!  Click here to check current Amazon price.

5- Tape and Trauma Shears

Medical tape and trauma shear are handy for many types of accidents. These scissors are wonderful. I have used them on a total of 4 shirts, that’s 48 hours of cutting a variety of items. These handled everything wonderfully. The best test for me is cutting fiberglass splinting material. To reduce that stuff, you need a good pair of scissors. As you see, these trauma shears will be of great use if something terrible happens on the slopes. Click here to see current Amazon price on these  Madison Supply Medical shears. 

Snow Safety Gear
6- Snow Safety Gear

Every backcountry skier should always carry at lease “some” snow safety gear!  Carry a Pieps beacon, probes, and a shovel at all times. These items are issued to Squaw patrollers, and they’re also the ones we recommend.

Backcountry skiers often make the mistake of getting the lightest items available, but we would rather have the most extended probe and sturdiest shovel, regardless of weight. While we don’t think it’s necessary for inbounds resort skiers to carry all three, we highly recommend wearing a beacon on days when the resort is doing avalanche control.  If there are reports of a slide in an area where there are skiers, the first thing snow patrollers do is perform a beacon search on the slide debris.  Click here to view pricing on the entire kit on Amazon.


Black Diamond Telekneesis Knee Pads
7- Black Diamond Telekneesis Knee Pads

Do yourself a favor and get these Black Diamond Telekneeses Knee Pads!  They might not give you telekinetic abilities, but at least you won’t end up with beat-up knees.  I went a whole season without knee pads and then decided that having two bruised knees isn’t something I felt like dealing with anymore.

These things are godsends. Besides protecting me when I fall, I tend to plop down to my knees while waiting for my friends to catch up, and with these, that action is entirely painless. Without pads, I couldn’t do that with the ease I do now. It’s not a big deal, but it’s a convenience.

Unless you’re pro and never fall, just get these knee pads. I know cool kids don’t wear pads. I don’t care. I’d prefer not to have sore, discolored knees.  Click here for current Amazon Pricing!

James Drummond Caught in a Tree Well

Catching himself in a tree well happened to a snowboarder by the name of James Drummond.  Click HERE to watch a video of the entire ordeal recorded from his helmet cam.  When he hit the tree, he was immediately six feet under the snow, head first in a tree well.

James uses his snowboard to create an air passage.  James could now breath, but he would freeze to death if help doesn’t arrive soon.  Tangled in branches, James could barely move.  It takes him fourteen minutes to dig out his phone to call his wife for help.  Around this time, James was beginning to panic as his temperature continued to decline.

Sky patrol finally reached him by phone after twenty-seven minutes. The first thing they tell him is “Don’t wiggle around.”  That’s because it will make him sink even more.  The search began, but with a mountain full of snow-covered trees, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.

James Drummond was fortunate, at fifty-nine minutes, the sky patrol locates him, and saves his life.  James said in an interview that when they located him, “It went from voices in the distance to voices right on top of me.  You can’t explain in words how fantastic that was.  A hand reached out and grabbed me, and I was just… I was out. I was right side up.  And I never never thought I’d stand on my feet again.”

You might be an expert skier, but out in the wilderness, not knowing the rules of survival could put you, six feet into the ground. Be aware of the dangers of tree wells. 

I hope you found this informative. Please share with anyone you think could benefit from this article and don’t be shy to leave me a comment!


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