How to Use an Inclinometer for Backcountry Skiing

According to Bruce Tremper, in Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, “…an inclinometer is one of the most important tools to carry in avalanche terrain.”  Just a couple of degrees can be the difference between safe and not safe.  Humans by nature are not good at judging slope angles, mostly because slopes look different depending on your perspective. A slope viewed straight on will always look steeper than viewed from the side.

What is an inclinometer (or clinometer)?

An inclinometer is a tool used to help you measure slope angles, which has obvious benefits for backcountry skiers and riders. Knowing slope angles helps you determine what slopes are high avalanche dangers, all else equal.

A quick slope angle refresher: Prime avalanche terrain rests between 28-45 degrees. So theoretically, if you have an inclinometer, no matter the avalanche danger, you could ski safely if there are slopes available that are not in that critical range. That point alone, to me, is the biggest selling point on having one. You can use ski poles to determine slope angle but it takes a little more skill, and with inclinometers being inexpensive, you might as well go buy one and save yourself the hassle. Below are the four common methods of using a slope meter/inclinometer.

Inclinometer Methods

From the Side

This method allows you to measure the angles of adjacent slopes. It is very accurate and easy to do. Just align your slope meter to a nearby slope that you have a good side profile of. You can use a ski pole to help get a more true average.

Advantages

  1. Can easily read entire average slope angle and/or variations in the slope.
  2. Can be done with just one person.
  3. Ski pole not required.

Disadvantages

  1. You must be on a different slope to take the measurement.

Best Use

  1. Determining if the slope you are looking at is in your desired slope angle for a descent.
  2. Determining which areas to ski or stay away from on the descent.

On the Slope

This method is useful for attaining the angles of small variations on the slope. Like where to skin up or where to conduct snow tests. Just lay your ski pole on the slope and place your inclinometer on your ski pole. This method only measures that exact spot and not the entire slope.

Advantages

  1. Measures your current exact slope angle, and just that.
  2. Can be done with just one person.

Disadvantages

  1. Doesn’t tell you the entire slope angle.

Best use

  1. Determining the slope angle where you want to dig a pit or another snow study test.
  2. Determining where to set a skin track.

From Below

Get as close to the bottom of the slope as possible. Use your ski pole like a gun and sight the tip to the top of the slope. Place your inclinometer on the ski pole and have a friend read the measurement. You should aim for an imaginary you on top of the slope (about 4-5 feet from the top), to account for your height variant.

Advantages

  1. Can easily read entire average slope angle and/or variations in the slope.

Disadvantages

  1. Must adjust for height of person.
  2. Must be directly under the slope which can put you in harm’s way of a potential slide.
  3. Requires two people.

Best use

  1. Determining where to ascend.
  2. Determining if slope angle is in desired range for a descent.

From the Top

Get as close to the edge of the slope as possible. Use your ski pole like a gun and sight the tip to the bottom of the slope. Place your inclinometer on the ski pole and have a friend read the measurement. You should aim for an imaginary you on the bottom of the slope (about 4-5 feet from the bottom), to account for your height variant.

Advantages

  1. Can easily read entire average slope angle and/or variations in the slope.

Disadvantages

  1. Must adjust for height of person.
  2. Must be directly at the edge of slope which can put you in harm’s way of a potential slide or cornice break.
  3. Requires two people

Best use

  1. Determining where to descend.

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