MISSOULA, Mont. -

It's right after a big snow, which means prime powder and prime danger from avalanches. Snowpack across major Montana mountain ranges is now at 2 to 3 feet after the weekend storm.

Days like Monday, the day after a storm, are the most dangerous when it comes to avalanches. The weight of up to 3 feet of new snow can put tremendous strain on itself; struggling to cling to steep slopes.

As surfaces freeze overnight the snow becomes like a layer cake. The lower section of new snow never has a chance to freeze solid and becomes a dangerous layer of unstable, fluffy powder. A slight disturbance, like a skier, can crack through that solid upper layer and send a giant slab of snow hurdling down the mountain.

Specialized gear is trying to even the odds of surviving an avalanche. Essential items are a rescue beacon, a snow shovel, and a probing tool. They can help you be found and rescued from underneath the snow.

You may have 20 minutes before suffocating. A new trend is packs with air bags that help you float on the top of the avalanche. Another innovation is a mountaineer's version of a snorkel. It draws in oxygen from the surrounding snow and keeps carbon dioxide from building up in the small air pocket avalanche victims find themselves in.

All of this gear does no good if you're by yourself. You can't shovel yourself out of the snow; and even with aided breathing you can suffocate in an hour. Recreating with a buddy is a must.

Snow survival equipment is also a last resort. Ideally, you want to avoid being in an avalanche in the first place. This means digging pits to expose the layers of snow. It also means that backcountry recreators need to be informed enough to interpret the snow and avoid unstable areas. Outdoor retailers and avalanche experts alike stress the importance of avalanche education.

Each winter avalanche courses are held across Montana. For details on when a class is available in your area and current avalanche information, check our avalanche information section on our homepage, nbcmontana.com.