Avalanches are winter’s secret killer. They lurk deep under the snowpack and easily release without much warning. In winter, the ground moves, and that’s scary business for hikers, snowshoers, snowmobilers, skiers and riders alike. Although we can’t predict avalanches, we can do quite a bit to make informed decisions in wintery terrain. An avalanche safety course, or AIARE course, teaches us how to do just that. Before you set out on any winter epics in snowy terrain, be sure to have an avalanche safety course under your belt. Here’s what you need to know before you hit the snowy trails this winter.
What is an avalanche safety course?
There are several different types of avalanche safety courses. However, here in the US, the gold standard is put on by the American Institue for Avalanche Research and Education, or AIARE. AIARE created a set of standardized courses that are taught by highly-trained professionals across the country. These courses are typically put on by outdoor clubs and guiding services. For most people, the AIARE Level 1 course gives you the knowledge you need to make safe choices in the winter.
What is covered in an AIARE Level 1 Course?
The AIARE Level 1 covers the basics of snow science. Topics include:
- Types of avalanches
- How avalanches form
- Where they form
- How to avoid avalanche terrain
- What to do if you or your partner is caught in an avalanche
- Group decision making
- Planning and executing travel in avalanche terrain.
Accompanied by the eight-hours of classroom instruction, the course also includes 16 hours of field learning time. You practice companion rescue (using your beacon, shovel, and probe), snowpack analysis and executing an outing in avalanche terrain as a group. The hands-on experience and step-by-step walkthrough help put that class time information to good use.
Already got some avy experience? Create your own rescue-worthy trip plan.
Who Should Take this Course?
To be completely honest with you, there is a bit of a disconnect between who should take this course and who these courses are marketed to. For starters, anyone who is traveling in avalanche terrain should have an AIARE 1 under their belt. However, most of these courses are marketed towards backcountry skiers and riders as well as snowmobilers. This is where I think the class truly falls apart. However, I have noticed that some hiking clubs are beginning to offer AIARE instruction for hikers, mountaineers, and snowshoers.
I’ve spent many winters in the outdoors and often the people who regularly put themselves in danger without realizing it are hikers and snowshoers. They simply do not know they are traveling in avalanche terrain.
Psst, hey ladies, want to know how to hike in snow from the pros? Check out this fem-friendly guide to hiking in winter.
Previous Experience Doesn’t Equal an Education
Let’s be honest – the price tag for a 3-day course is pretty steep, couldn’t I just learn on my own?
Sure, I had the proper safety gear and knew how to use it. I’ve practiced companion rescues where you go and find a beacon buried in the snow. Maybe I “refreshed” my knowledge with some Youtube binging. Furthermore, I have previous knowledge of the types of snow, avalanche problems and what aspects of a mountain face avalanches are likely to occur. Maybe I “refreshed” my knowledge with some Youtube binging. All of this knowledge I found by researching over the internet and tagging along with my brother a couple of times while he was out in the backcountry filming. But was I about to pretend that I had the right information to make sound judgment calls in one of the most dangerous avalanche environments in the country? Absolutely not.
How to find an avalanche safety course in your area
First, decide what kind of winter sport you are into. If you ski or ride, finding a course is as simple as typing “AIARE Level 1 course” into good old Google. However, if you’re a snowmobiler, hiker or mountaineer, take a course that’s suited to your sport. Try contacting local clubs for your particular sport and see what they recommend. A local guide service is also helpful, they may either offer courses themselves or be able to direct you to the appropriate group.
If you absolutely cannot afford the class, many gear shops offer an avalanche awareness clinic for free. These free clinics only scratch the surface of the knowledge you’ll need in the backcountry, but it’s a great start. These courses also offer an awesome refresher for those who may be a little rusty.
Avalanche safety knowledge is at the base of any sound decision making while traveling in avalanche terrain. This winter, make sound decisions regarding avalanche safety by enrolling in an avalanche safety course. Despite its high cost, this course is 100-percent worth it. No one can ever take knowledge away from you and you’ll thank yourself for the ability to feel confident about safety outdoors this winter.
Ready to tackle tough winter terrain? Here’s a look at other posts on the blog about surviving the snowy season:
- Alpine touring mistakes to avoid
- What to expect on your first winter hike
- Hiking and snowshoeing with your pup