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Demystifying Tree Wells In Skiing: What You Need To Know


Modified: December 28, 2023

by Laure Barnwell



Skiing is an exhilarating adventure sport that offers individuals the chance to glide down snowy slopes and immerse themselves in the beauty of the outdoors. While skiing can be an exciting and rewarding experience, it’s important to be aware of potential hazards that come with the territory.


One such hazard that skiers need to be cautious of is the infamous tree well. A tree well is an area of loose and deep snow that forms around the base of a tree. It may appear harmless, but it poses a significant risk to skiers and can lead to accidents and even fatalities if not approached with caution.


In this article, we will delve into the treacherous world of tree wells and shed light on what you need to know to stay safe while skiing in tree-filled terrain. We will discuss the formation of tree wells, the dangers they present, and provide valuable tips and techniques for survival and rescue.


Whether you are a seasoned skier or a novice hitting the slopes for the first time, understanding tree wells is crucial for your safety. By equipping yourself with knowledge and knowing how to navigate these natural traps, you can enjoy the thrill of skiing while minimizing the risks associated with tree wells.


So, let’s strap on our ski boots, fasten our goggles, and venture into the world of tree wells to unravel the mysteries and dangers that lurk beneath the snowy surface.


What is a Tree Well?

A tree well is a void or cavity that forms around the base of a tree in deep snow conditions. While the area surrounding the tree is covered in snow, the area directly beneath the branches remains relatively free of snow due to the tree’s canopy acting as a shield against the accumulation of snowfall.


These wells may appear harmless or even inviting to skiers and snowboarders seeking a break or shelter from the elements. However, tree wells present a significant hazard that can result in accidents and fatalities.


Tree wells can vary in size and depth, depending on factors such as snow conditions, tree species, and the age and size of the tree. In some cases, tree wells can be as deep as several meters, making it extremely challenging for individuals to extricate themselves.


It’s important to note that tree wells are not limited to just alpine skiing resorts. They can be found in backcountry terrain, tree-lined trails, and even off-piste areas. Therefore, understanding the risks associated with tree wells is essential for anyone venturing into snowy mountain environments.


Tree wells can be particularly dangerous due to their deceptive nature. From a distance, they may blend seamlessly with the surrounding snow, making them difficult to identify for skiers and snowboarders. Once a person accidentally falls or becomes submerged in a tree well, it can be challenging to escape due to the loose snow and the steep walls of the well.


Now that we have a clear understanding of what tree wells are and the dangers they pose, let’s explore how these treacherous traps are formed.


Understanding Tree Well Hazards

Tree wells may seem like innocuous features of the winter landscape, but they can present significant hazards to skiers and snowboarders. Understanding these hazards is crucial for staying safe while enjoying winter activities in tree-filled areas.


One of the primary dangers of tree wells is their potential to engulf and suffocate individuals who fall into them. The loose and deep snow surrounding the tree can easily collapse and create a cavity that entraps anyone unfortunate enough to stumble or lose their balance near the well. Once trapped, the victim can quickly become disoriented and struggle to escape the compacted snow.


Another hazard associated with tree wells is the risk of injury from falls or impacts. The steep and irregular walls of the well can make it difficult for someone who has fallen to climb out or seek help. Additionally, tree branches and other obstacles within the well can pose a threat of injury if a person collides with them during a fall.


Visibility is yet another hazard when it comes to tree wells. As mentioned earlier, tree wells can be challenging to spot from a distance, especially when they blend in with the surrounding snowy terrain. This lack of visibility increases the risk of accidentally skiing or snowboarding into a tree well, potentially leading to a dangerous situation.


It’s also important to consider the psychological impact of tree wells. Falling into a tree well and being trapped in the snow can induce panic and fear, making it more difficult for the victim to think clearly and take appropriate actions. This heightened emotional state can further complicate rescue efforts and increase the risk of injury or suffocation.


Now that we have a good understanding of the hazards associated with tree wells, it’s essential to explore how these treacherous formations actually come about in snowy mountain environments.


How Do Tree Wells Form?

The formation of tree wells is influenced by a combination of factors, including snow conditions, tree species, and the microclimate around the tree. Understanding how tree wells form can provide valuable insight into why they pose such a significant hazard for skiers and snowboarders.


One of the main factors contributing to tree well formation is known as “branch capture.” When it snows, the branches of a tree act as a barrier, preventing snow from accumulating directly underneath. Instead, the snow is directed away from the trunk, leaving a void or cavity around the base of the tree.


The shape and density of the tree canopy play a role in determining the size and shape of the tree well. Trees with dense foliage and horizontal branches create better barriers against snow accumulation, resulting in larger and deeper tree wells.


The snow conditions also impact the formation of tree wells. Wet, heavy snow tends to stick to the branches and form compacted layers, whereas light, dry snow is more likely to fall away from the tree, leaving a larger void. The depth of the overall snowpack and the presence of previous layers of snow can also contribute to the development of tree wells.


In addition to snow conditions, factors such as temperature and wind patterns can influence tree well formation. For example, strong winds can blow snow away from the base of a tree, leading to shallower tree wells. Conversely, calm conditions can allow snow to accumulate undisturbed, resulting in deeper tree wells.


It’s important to note that tree wells are not static formations. They can change throughout the winter season as new snowfall accumulates, or as the snowpack settles and compacts. As a result, the size and depth of tree wells can vary from one day to another, making them even more unpredictable for skiers and snowboarders.


Now that we understand how tree wells form, it’s crucial to be aware of the dangers they pose and take appropriate safety precautions while skiing or snowboarding near trees.


The Dangers of Tree Wells

Tree wells may appear innocuous, but they pose significant dangers for skiers and snowboarders. Understanding these dangers is key to mitigating the risks associated with these natural traps.


The primary danger of tree wells is the risk of suffocation. When an individual falls or becomes engulfed in a tree well, the loose snow can quickly close in around them, creating a compacted pocket of snow. This can make it extremely difficult to breathe, potentially leading to suffocation if the victim is not rescued in a timely manner.


In addition to suffocation, tree wells also present a risk of injury and impact. The steep and irregular walls of the well can cause individuals to fall or collide with branches or other obstacles within the well. Falls can result in broken bones, head injuries, or other serious trauma, further compounding the danger of tree wells.


Another danger of tree wells is the potential for individuals to become disoriented and lose their sense of direction. Falling into a tree well can be disorienting, and the surrounding snow can obstruct vision, making it challenging to determine which way is up. This can lead to confusion and panic, hindering escape efforts.


Additionally, tree wells can present challenges for rescue teams. The compacted snow and the steep walls make it difficult to access and extract someone who has fallen into a tree well. Time is of the essence in these situations, and the success of a rescue mission depends on swift and coordinated efforts.


It’s important to recognize that tree wells can be lurking dangers even in familiar ski areas. The perception of safety can lead individuals to let their guard down and venture close to trees without realizing the potential risks. Maintaining awareness and caution is crucial when skiing or snowboarding near tree-lined areas.


Now that we understand the dangers associated with tree wells, it’s important to take the necessary safety precautions to minimize the risk of encountering these hazards.


Skiing Near Tree Wells: Safety Precautions

When skiing or snowboarding near tree-filled areas, it’s essential to take proactive safety precautions to reduce the risk of encountering tree wells. By following these guidelines, you can enjoy your winter adventures while minimizing the potential dangers associated with these natural traps.


1. Maintain Distance: Keep a safe distance from trees, especially the base and lower branches where tree wells are more likely to form. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings and avoid skiing or snowboarding too close to trees.


2. Ski with a Buddy: Always ski or snowboard with a partner and maintain visual contact. Having a buddy is crucial for immediate assistance in the event of an accident or if someone falls into a tree well. Be sure to discuss the importance of tree well safety and have a plan in place for emergencies.


3. Stay in Sight: When skiing or snowboarding near trees, it’s crucial to maintain visual contact with your partner. If someone disappears from sight, assume they may have fallen into a tree well and take immediate action to locate and rescue them.


4. Be Mindful of Snow Conditions: Stay up-to-date on the current snow conditions and be aware of areas that have high potential for tree wells. If you notice signs of instability or deep snow accumulation around trees, exercise caution and adjust your route accordingly.


5. Stay on Designated Trails: Stick to marked trails and avoid venturing into unmarked or off-piste areas where tree wells may be more prevalent. Straying from designated trails increases the risk of encountering tree wells and other hazards that may be less monitored or controlled.


6. Carry Safety Equipment: Always have the appropriate safety equipment with you, including a functioning avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe. These tools are essential for rescue efforts in the event someone falls into a tree well or any other snow-related accident occurs.


7. Educate Yourself: Take the time to educate yourself on tree well safety and rescue techniques. Attend safety seminars or workshops, watch instructional videos, and familiarize yourself with the signs and risks associated with tree wells. The more you know, the better prepared you will be to handle potential dangers.


By following these safety precautions and maintaining vigilance while skiing or snowboarding near trees, you can minimize the risk of encountering tree wells and ensure a safer winter adventure.


Tips for Surviving a Tree Well Incident

Despite our best efforts to prevent tree well accidents, it’s important to be prepared for the possibility of a tree well incident. Knowing how to react and take action when encountering a tree well can greatly increase your chances of survival. Here are some essential tips to keep in mind:


1. Stay Calm: If you find yourself falling into a tree well, try to remain calm. Panicking can impair your judgment and make it harder to think clearly, hindering your ability to escape.


2. Create an Air Pocket: As the loose snow settles around you, try to create an air pocket in front of your face by using your hands or any objects within reach, such as ski poles or backpacks. This will provide you with a small pocket of breathable air while you formulate your next steps.


3. Call for Help: Yell or shout for help as loud as you can. Your companion or nearby skiers may be able to hear and locate you more easily. Use a whistle if you have one to attract attention.


4. Try to Stay Upright: While falling into a tree well, try to remain upright. If you end up upside down, it can be more challenging to breathe and orient yourself. Use your limbs to push off the sides of the well and try to stay as upright as possible.


5. Create Space: Clear space around your face and chest using sweeping motions with your arms. Keep moving to prevent the snow from consolidating and burying you further. This will also help maintain your body heat and prevent hypothermia.


6. Stay Oriented: Use your senses to determine which way is up. Look for light or listen for sound cues from above. Spitting or dropping a small object can help indicate the direction of gravity.


7. Play Dead: If you are unable to escape, playing dead may increase your chances of survival. As strange as it may sound, being still and conserving your energy can help prolong your air supply while you wait for rescue.


Remember, the best-case scenario is to avoid falling into a tree well altogether. But if it happens, following these survival tips can make a significant difference in your outcome. It’s critical to stay aware and informed about tree well safety and always ski or snowboard with a partner who can assist you in an emergency.


Tree Well Rescue Techniques

When a skier or snowboarder falls into a tree well, immediate action is crucial to ensure a successful rescue. Having the knowledge and skills to perform a tree well rescue can be life-saving. Here are some essential techniques to employ:


1. Call for Help: If you witness someone falling into a tree well or if you yourself are trapped, immediately call for help. Shout loudly or use a whistle to attract the attention of nearby skiers or ski patrol. The sooner help arrives, the better.


2. Create a Plan: If you’re the person witnessing the incident, assess the situation and develop a plan for the rescue. Determine the best course of action and communicate with other skiers or ski patrol members to coordinate efforts.


3. Secure the Scene: Ensure the safety of the rescuers and prevent further accidents by marking the area around the tree well. This will alert other skiers to the presence of a potential hazard and allow them to give a wide berth.


4. Utilize Safety Equipment: If you have safety equipment such as an avalanche beacon, shovel, or probe, use them to locate and extract the victim. The avalanche beacon will help pinpoint their location, while the shovel and probe will aid in digging and extricating them from the well.


5. Form a Rescue Line: Form a rescue line by attaching ropes or straps to the rescuers. This will create a secure connection between the individuals performing the rescue, ensuring their safety while allowing them to distribute their weight across the snow surface more effectively.


6. Dig Trenches: Once the victim’s location has been determined, start digging trenches leading away from the well. This will create pathways for the trapped individual to crawl or climb out. It’s important to dig in a downhill direction to follow the flow of gravity.


7. Support the Victim: Once the trenches are dug, encourage the person trapped in the tree well to stay calm and use the carved pathways to climb out. Offer verbal support and guidance throughout the rescue process.


8. Seek Professional Help: In some cases, tree well rescues may require the assistance of professional search and rescue teams or ski patrol. If the situation seems beyond your control or if multiple individuals are trapped, it’s important to call for professional help immediately.


Remember, tree well rescues can be complex and physically demanding. It’s crucial to prioritize your safety and the safety of others throughout the rescue process. Act with caution, rely on trained professionals when necessary, and always be prepared with the appropriate safety equipment.



As we conclude this exploration of tree wells in skiing, it’s undeniable that these seemingly harmless formations can pose serious risks to skiers and snowboarders. Understanding the formation, hazards, and safety precautions surrounding tree wells is essential for ensuring a safe and enjoyable winter adventure.


Tree wells, created by the absence of snow around the base of trees, can easily trap individuals in loose and deep snow, increasing the risk of suffocation and injury. The deceptive nature of tree wells, combined with the potential for disorientation, makes it imperative to exercise caution when skiing near trees.


By maintaining distance, skiing with a buddy, and staying in sight of one another, the chances of prompt rescue increase significantly. Being aware of snow conditions and sticking to designated trails further minimizes the risk of encountering tree wells. Carrying safety equipment and educating oneself on tree well safety and rescue techniques are also essential aspects of being prepared for potential incidents.


In the event of a tree well incident, it’s crucial to stay calm, create an air pocket, call for help, and strive to stay upright. Employing survival tactics such as creating space, staying oriented, and playing dead if necessary can significantly improve the chances of a successful rescue.


Tree well rescues require quick and coordinated action. Calling for professional help, securing the scene, utilizing safety equipment, forming a rescue line, digging trenches, and supporting the victim are all important elements of a tree well rescue operation.


Remember, prevention is the best defense when it comes to tree wells. Knowing the hazards and taking appropriate safety precautions can help mitigate the risks associated with these treacherous traps. Stay informed, stay cautious, and prioritize safety while enjoying the thrill of skiing in tree-filled terrain.


By combining knowledge, preparedness, and responsible behavior, we can continue to enjoy the wonders of winter sports while minimizing the potential dangers that tree wells present. Stay safe, stay vigilant, and enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the snowy winter wonderland!