Make the most of the time and resources you invest in avalanche education. Hone your basic backcountry skiing skills and fitness level, and prep your brain for the information download before taking that introductory avalanche class.
Here’s the scenario: You’ve just moved to a state with more snowfall and elevation gain than that little midwestern town you grew up in, and you’ve decided you’re going to become a backcountry skier. You join one of the state-wide backcountry skiing groups on Facebook and see everybody searching for partners, mentioning they have taken a level one avalanche course and will explicitly ski with people with similar training. Tick that box and you’re good to go, right?
If this sounds familiar, it’s because this networking dynamic is extremely common. And I’m not poking fun at you flatland midwesterners; I had a similar experience.
I grew up in Iowa and moved to Colorado for university and, in the following months, did what I outlined above. I had skied since I was around four, venturing out to Steamboat Springs, CO, every year over winter break and then returning to ski the 300′ ravine, Ski Snowstar, which was a thirty-minute drive across the Mississippi in Illinois. But I had never toured.
With my newly planted feet in the Rockies, I dove in head-first and at high velocity.
Nowadays, I work year-round as a mountain guide and am based around Salt Lake City, UT. During the winter months, I work full-time in the Wasatch ski guiding and teaching avalanche courses. Having gone from zero touring experience to my current role as a guide, I can look back on my journey and recognize things I wish I had done better and/or differently. And one of those things is holding off on taking that first avalanche course right away, at least.
Avalanche EDU in the United States
Let’s clarify the path for avalanche education in the US. Today, recreational skiers can take two main avalanche courses, REC 1 and REC 2, which follow the curriculum established by the American Avalanche Association (A3). Between those two offerings is an avalanche rescue course, optional if you’re only taking a REC 1 but required as a prerequisite if you want to take a REC 2.
Notice how I don’t call them an AIARE 1 or AIARE 2?
Similar to tissue and Kleenex, one is an item, and one is a branded version of that item. In many states, folks think an avalanche course is synonymous with an AIARE course when AIARE is simply a company that teaches approved A3 curriculum courses. Within the US, it’s almost a point of pride to stand behind which avalanche course provider is most popular in your state, professing how much more superior they are to the others. For Colorado, Washington, New Mexico, California, Oregon, all the East Coast, and Idaho, AIARE dominates the leaderboard. In Utah, Wyoming, and Montana, the American Avalanche Institute (AAI) is the name that pops up the most. Southern Colorado is the stronghold of the Silverton Avalanche School (SAS), the oldest avalanche school in the US.
None of this claims the superiority of one school or curriculum over the other; it’s simply to help better understand the education landscape.
What’s Covered in a Rec 1 Avalanche Course?
There is a ton of stuff covered in the first recreational avalanche courses. I mean a lot, especially for somebody coming in with zero knowledge, which many do.
From start to finish, you learn about the different types of avalanches, how they are triggered and flow, basic snow crystals, best travel practices, tour planning, rescue, terrain management, and many other subtopics. It’s an awesome (in the truest sense of the word) resource and can improve your knowledge of operating in the mountains.
Usually, two lectures follow an additional two field days. Depending on the educational outlet, the program may deviate slightly from this. But, no matter how you parse it, the information download is immense. I worry much of the information is not retained a year out from the course due to the amount they are learning.
Why You Shouldn’t Take A REC 1 Avalanche Course Right Away
Talk to any avalanche instructor, and you’ll hear your fair share of horror stories from REC 1 avalanche courses.
Mine include cutting a student’s still-in-the-package-skins in the parking lot amidst a blizzard. In another instance, I thoroughly discussed why a student’s resort boot would not work with the Salomon Shift & Fattypus binding/ski combo they bought off Craigslist the week prior. In other words, arriving at an introductory avalanche course with your gear at a minimum set up for efficient travel makes sense.
You’ll also have a tough time retaining the information in the course if you’re hoping to go from zero to hero.
If it’s your first day ever touring, a REC 1 avalanche course is not the arena to get your bearings. Arriving with little to no experience puts a damper on your learning and everybody else’s. If half the morning is spent explaining what a locked toe is and why you shouldn’t ski with it locked or how to attach your skins to your skis, then it’s time not spent on learning about avalanches and how to avoid them.
Another reason to wait for the REC 1 class is fitness and skill — this is not to say that you must come in as a super athlete, having trained all fall to operate in the mountains like a pro. If you find hiking at altitude for extended periods pretty hard, odds are the suffering will detract from the learning. When I’m sweaty and breathing hard, it can be tough to focus on somebody lecturing why that stand of trees is safer than the other. This is but one granular example to drive home that being comfortable in an outdoor classroom makes for a more enriching experience. Remember, we want you to retain and apply the information from the class as you become independent in the backcountry.
Another thing to note is riding skills. Again, you don’t need to be at the level of skiing featured in Steep, but being able to ski variable snow after walking uphill all day will lead to a safer experience (your knees will thank you).
Finally, let’s discuss knowledge. If you were required to come into these programs knowing the ins and outs of snow science, then these courses would be irrelevant! Remember, this is a course, not an exam; you’re expected to come away having learned things. However, I’ve found that having some idea of what the lingo means and the basic functions of systems beforehand helps me understand the small and big pictures better when it’s being taught by an instructor or professional.
Solutions & Ways to Prep Before Your First Avalanche Course
As I mentioned above, a REC 1 avalanche course is not the place to learn how to backcountry ski. My ideal student already has a season or, say, ten days of touring experience under their belt.
A person can achieve this by doing everything from skiing with more experienced partners to getting out early in the season at a resort with an uphill policy and working out the kinks of touring. Those kinks include learning how to attach your skins, pack your backpack, what layers you’re most comfortable in, what food makes you the happiest (snickers, easily), walk uphill, down-skin, and, most importantly, transition.
Don’t worry, you’re not expected to master any of this. I still have internal debates every morning on what layers I need to wear, and I’ve been touring for around a hundred days a year for nearly seven years.
Another option is taking an intro to backcountry skiing course, which I can almost guarantee the provider of avalanche courses in your area offers (if it’s a guiding service, not an avalanche school). These intro courses generally cover everything mentioned above but in a more structured way. And if you’d rather learn the basics outside of a group, hiring a private guide for the day is helpful too. Choose what works for you and your budget.
Building basic fitness and skill can be achieved by doing the things mentioned above, like getting in early season laps at your local ski hill. That’s how I kick myself into ski touring shape every year. No matter how much trail running I do, my hip flexors are never truly ready for how much vertical I strive to ski in a day. Shaking off the cobwebs on groomers is a great option becoming more available nationwide.
You can also do some dryland training; it never hurts. More conditioned leg muscles will lead to stronger uphill & downhill performance as well help injury prevention. Doing something as simple as going on a hike once a week with a weighted backpack will do you wonders. Bonus points if you do it with poles, getting those triceps ready for skin-track hell.
Don’t try to DIY your avalanche course from books, websites, or friends when you’re trying to become vaguely familiar with terminology and concepts. You may be able to learn a lot, but it’s better if you learn a lot from a professional so that you know what you’ve learned is actually correct. I’d recommend picking up a book like Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain as a good primer. Even if you browse through it, coming in having heard some of the terms before will be helpful. It’s about priming the brain for new inputs, so you are not overwhelmed.
Also, finding a partner with more experience can be a great way to glean some free info. Some not-so-free info will come from hiring a guide for a day of touring to learn a bit about avalanches along the way. Plus, you’ll likely have a great day of skiing and get to check out some new zones.
Finally Taking The Avalanche Course
You’ve done it. You’ve acquired the basic skills, fitness, and a little understanding of avalanches. And now you’ve signed up for that avalanche course. Go into it ready to learn, cancel any plans you have during the evenings so that you can think about the information you’ve been learning, and sleep well.
The REC 1 avalanche course covers many topics and can sometimes feel like a firehose of information. Be patient and inquisitive, and take plenty of notes.
One thing to keep in mind is something I’ve learned from going through the US avalanche education system. Initially, I’d come out of my courses feeling like I understood everything about snow. But, as I progressed, gaining more experience and taking more classes, that confidence decreased as I realized that the more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know.
Backcountry skiing is a lifelong endeavor, just like learning.
Salt Lake City based McKay is actively pursuing his IFMGA Mountain Guide certification. He also combines his love for photography by capturing images as he navigates mountain environments. You can find his work at willmckayphotography.com.
Since there are plenty of Colorado readers on this site, can’t miss an opportunity to plug Friends of Berthoud Pass. They do an excellent series of free avalanche awareness classes and on-snow sessions. They are terrific primers prior to taking a rec level avy course and I can say I got a lot more out of my rec course by attending one of their classroom sessions and on-snow sessions beforehand.
Thanks for sharing that, Patrick.
And don’t forget about Friends of the San Juans!
Should mention that a WFR course is super important. Gotta be able to stabilize your buddy if you dig them out.
As a mid-westerner who learned to ski at 35 in Colorado, I can attest that simply learning how to effectively use the gear that ski touring requires, and becoming somewhat competent at navigating variable snow, and navigating the brush & trees that dominates low-elevation, safe skiing was a very steep learning curve for the first two seasons. Going on tours with more experienced backcountry users were the most valuable learning experiences. I would credit much of it to the low-key environment of being a group of 2-3 friends v. an assembly of strangers where you feel like the ignorant newbie.
Good advice. I would add that many forecast centers provide cheap or free evening awareness classes, and weekend field sessions. Check their website or find them all here: https://avalanche.org/#/current. Check in with local universities – most have an outdoor program that put on similar classes. Don’t forget Know Before You Go (https://www.kbyg.org/learn) for an intro to basic information as well as taking a look at BCA’s outstanding set of videos and tutorials: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHSViD7ro7BdHgzIscQqNlQ.
One more thing and this seems obvious – take a class where you are going to ski. Snowpacks vary and so does what we should know about them. It might seem fun to go to a CO hut to take a class but it may be more useful to take one where you live.
As a backcountry skier of many years, I understand 100% what the author of this article is saying.
That said, I think the title can be misleading to someone who finds this web site for the first time and wants to get into backcountry skiing and also wants to avoid getting killed in an avalanche. Such a person likely has no clue about the various ways to become educated about avalanche safety and can likely take this title as just go out there for a some time and roll the dice before taking the time to understand what’s really happening.
Jerry Johnson’s suggestions are spot on. I did exactly that with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center 1 hour awareness talk and then their 2 evening + one field day (just behind the boundary of Bridger Bowl so easy access even for those without significant skills skiing off groomed slopes at the resort). I also found some good experienced local mentors. Eventually I took a Level 1.
Another critique of the article regarding pre-season (and post-season) resort skiing. The author failed to mention that it is quite easy to get into avalanche terrain within the boundaries of a resort so a person just starting into backcountry skiing (and likely a very good resort skier) needs to be aware that just because it’s “safe” to ski various runs when the resort is open, the same is anything but true pre and post season.
I think a good corollary of this recommendation should also be: engage in more formal and continuous learning late in your avalanche ‘career’ as you’ll have all the foundations (skills, fitness, experience, mental framework etc.) to get a ton out of it.
As the late, great climber/bc skier Alex Lowe once said, “one of the most important safety tools one can take into the Backcountry is the ability to move quickly.” BC skiers who can barely link two turns don’t have that safety tool. Go ski lifts for a season before hiking for turns.
Although I ski tour a lot, and this is a ski touring website, I gott say that avalanche education should be separated from skiing. All the climbers out there, and those of other winter sports, not just those with specialized travel equipment (snowshoes, skis, splitboards, or whatever) should find the same ease of choosing a course. Many of the types I mention never ever put on skis and seldom use snowshoes, yet are in avalanche terrain a LOT. Frankly I’d prefer to save the time skiing in a course and have more education. And for those that might respond that you have to get to the terrain, I reply, that is not necessarily true with good course design.
But in any case I absolutely question after many avalanche courses, and 60+ years in the outdoors that avalanche courses give one that much useful info anyway. Info that one actually uses, and info that actually saves lives. Statistics don’t bear that out.