wikiHow to Escape a Tree Well when Skiing

A tree well is a hollow created around the base of a tree that is covered by deep snow falls. When the lower branches force snow away from the tree rather than allowing it to pack closely to the tree, a hollow or air space tends to form around the tree. This creates a weakness that pressure from above, such as a skier going over it, can cause to collapse, bringing down the skier into a death trap.

This article discusses how you might be able to escape if this should ever happen to you, based on the experience of a survivor of a tree well accident, Craig McNeil.[1] Realize, however, that this is a very dangerous situation to be in and survival chances are slim without external help.


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    Understand what will happen. Generally, a skier will tip head first into the hole created by the tree well. This means that your head and arms will be heading straight down into the hole and your skis will be the last thing above you. Loose snow will start to fall in around you as you tumble, packing you in against the tree or other snow in the hole.
    • The biggest threat is suffocation from the snow packing in around you. Another threat can be from hitting the tree and getting concussion or other injuries.
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    Don't panic. Rapid movement and struggling will worsen your situation. It is important to stop panicking and to start thinking as calmly as you can about how to get out.
    • Bear in mind that every bit of wriggling, squirming, struggling, and angry gestures will compact more snow around you. Save your energy and let your thinking take over.
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    Grab whatever part of the tree you can or hug it. As you fall, do your very best to arrest yourself as quickly as possible. Do this by grabbing and holding onto the tree branches, or any other parts of the tree to try to stabilize yourself and stop yourself from falling any deeper. Hold on tight.
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    Look for air pockets to push your head into gently. Breathe. Be aware that every movement, however slight, will cause more snow to pack in.
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    Make a decision. At this point, consider whether you have the energy or even the opportunity to try to wedge yourself out of the situation. If you don't, continue focusing on creating air holes and waiting for rescue. Use a rocking method to carve out space in the snow and to gain more air; your body heat may also help to compact snow around you that can help you to lift yourself up from. If you think you might be able to get yourself out, consider the following method, based on how Craig McNeil got himself out of a tree well:
    • Turn your body as slowly as you can to try to turn yourself upright.
    • Pull yourself up the tree, slowly. This will be a long and difficult process. While there is no guarantee of success, continue believing that you can do this and be aware that people have escaped from this situation.
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    Get well clear of the hole when you reach the top.
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    Signal for help if you're not able to move once out. You are likely to be very tired, so conserve your energy as best you can and use snow cover to keep you warm.
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    Always ski well clear of trees when skiing deep powder. Falling into a tree well is completely preventable, simply by staying away from trees in deep snow.


  • Keep sight of each other at all times.
  • Always ski with rescue equipment when you go off piste, back country, etc.
  • Always ski with at least one other person, preferably knowledgeable of the area, and basic rescue techniques.
  • It is recommended to remove pole straps before skiing down deep powder slopes because trapped skiers have experienced much difficulty in removing these straps.


  • As with any instructional article attempting to explain how to rescue oneself, this is purely a guide. Every rescue situation is different and subject to its own conditions, weather elements, manner of injury and fall, location, etc. The best advice is to be prepared and to avoid getting into such a situation in the first place by being prudent and having all knowledge of the area and hazards understood before setting out.
  • Never ski off piste or back country alone. It is too dangerous to be without friends or guides.
  • Often other skiers won't notice you've disappeared unless they were near you. This can make if hard for anyone to know where you've fallen.
  • Be aware that prevention is better than cure: When 10 volunteers were put into a simulated tree well situation and asked to self-rescue, none of them could do it.
  • Skiing un-groomed areas with deep snow and trees is dangerous, period. Know what you're doing before heading into danger.

Things You'll Need

  • Rescue gear if assisting someone

Sources and Citations

Article Info

Categories: Snow Skiing