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Danger ratings are used across many fields to convey the severity of a hazard. In snow avalanche risk management, danger ratings play a prominent role in public bulletins by concisely describing existing and expected conditions. While there is considerable research examining the accuracy and consistency of the production of avalanche danger ratings, far less research has focused on how backcountry recreationists interpret and apply the scale.
We used 3195 responses to an online survey to provide insight into how recreationists perceive the North American Public Avalanche Danger Scale and how they use ratings to make trip planning decisions. Using a latent class mixed effect model, our analysis shows that the most common perception of the danger scale is linear. People with a linear perception expect the hazard to increase in a stepwise fashion between levels. This understanding is contrary to the scientific understanding of the scale, which indicates an exponential-like increase in severity between levels. Regardless of perception, most respondents report avoiding the backcountry at the two highest ratings. Using conditional inference trees, we show that participants who recreate fewer days per year and those who have lower levels of avalanche safety training tend to rely more heavily on the danger rating to make trip planning decisions. These results provide avalanche warning services with a better understanding of how recreationists interact with danger ratings and highlight how critical the ratings are for individuals who recreate less often and who have lower levels of training. We discuss opportunities for avalanche warning services to optimize the danger scale to meet the needs of these users who depend on the ratings the most.