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Everything You Need to Know About Taking an Avalanche Safety Course

 In Backcountry Touring, mountains, Reviews, Reviews Experiences, Skills, Snow Skills, Winter

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.

AIARE Level 1 Course Review

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.

AIARE Level 1 Course Review

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.

AIARE Level 1 Course Review

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.

AIARE Level 1 Course Review

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:

Everything you need to know about an avalanche safety course. What to know before you take an avalanche safety course. Information about AIARE courses. Which AIARE course to take. #winter #hiking #skiing #snowboarding #outdoors

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Showing 23 comments
  • Annika
    Reply

    Great post! This is something I really want to do sometime.

  • Nicole Anderson
    Reply

    I agree that this type of course is definitely worth the investment of time and money. Especially if it helps potentially save lives when things go wrong and these skills and knowledge matter the most. Really great post to promote the importance of this.

    • foxintheforest
      Reply

      Thanks Nicole! I agree 100%. It’s well worth the effort and cost – knowledge is priceless.

  • Joanna
    Reply

    I didn’t hear about this type of courses before but after reading your article I realise how important the Aiare course is. You are right, you can’t go on a snowy mountain without any avalanche training. I remember when I was hiking a mountain in Peru when an avalanche occurred on the other side of the valley. Even if it didn’t threaten us, it was still scary to see the force of nature.

    • foxintheforest
      Reply

      That’s still super scary! I haven’t seen a natural avalanche occur in front of me before – I hope I don’t! They are much scarier than people realize I think. It shouldn’t scare you from going into the wild, but being aware of dangers and how to avoid them should be on everyone’s mind when out in the winter .:)

  • The Curious Creature
    Reply

    Looks like a super essential course. Hope to visit Colorado one day — looks incredible!

  • Alyssa
    Reply

    What a great idea to share about avalanche education! I always wondered what I would do in that situation (besides scream)! 😀

  • Travellinn
    Reply

    I agree, it is very important with a course like this. I did many years back, and should really repeat it. But please be careful as well, unfortunately I’ve learned the hard way. Enjoy your skiing! 🙂

    • foxintheforest
      Reply

      Oh a course doesn’t guarantee your safety – it just helps out A LOT. Having been out both with and without the course, I’d say I’m a lot more comfortable having taken the class. There are a lot of refresher courses out there that are offered for free in my neighborhood – they suggest taking one at the beginning of each season to freshen up your skills.

  • Reply

    I never thought about this type of course, might be because I’m a summer person and have never had a good experience with snow (not that I’ve seen much) but it makes total sense if you compare it to other type of sports such as scuba diving. If you want to be safe underwater then you’ll take one of the many certificates that can guarantee your chances of survival in case something happens, then… There must be something similar if you are into snow sports: HERE IT IS!!

    • foxintheforest
      Reply

      Sara – that’s a great analogy! It’s a LOT like scuba diving (something I have on my list to get certified for this year). Underwater exploration just sounds so fun! I’ve snorkeled tons, but I’ve always been jealous of those who get to dive deeper!

  • Thomas Paul
    Reply

    Wow, it is a challenge course. I wish to visit Colorado one day. It is exciting place.

  • The Rimsky Project
    Reply

    I’ve actually never even been skiing but it’s on my bucket list. After reading your experience. I’d actually love to do a course like this if I can manage it! I’m trying to work on my sporty and adventurous side hehe. Thanks for all the info!

    • foxintheforest
      Reply

      You should DEFINITELY try skiing! I’d recommend starting in a resort first – and you won’t need this class for that :). I’m a huge proponent of getting in touch with your sporty/adventurous side! I’ve grown so much as a person by participating in outdoor sports. I wouldn’t be who I am today without those experiences!

  • Serena
    Reply

    Great post. I love that it isn’t simply a wanderlusty, destination focused one – it’s practical and could potentially be lifesaving!

  • Amber
    Reply

    Wow. Go you! I’m a hardcore hiker but the work to go into cross country snowboarding; that is intense! Great for you learning all about avalanche saftey too!you guys must have a ton of snow out there!

  • Reply

    I haven’t try snowboarding so far, but it’s something I would definitely want to learn to do someday. The Avalanche course it’s very important in my opinion, not only for people who snowboarding but also for everyone else who goes to the mountain in the winter. There is actually a very good movie made about it, you may have heard of it, it’s called “Know before you go”.

    • foxintheforest
      Reply

      Absolutely Bilyana! It’s just important to be aware of risks and know how to spot and analyze the dangers. I hope you get to try snowboarding one day. It takes a minute to figure out – but once you do you can pretty much get down any run!

  • Wamuyu
    Reply

    Wow… mad respect for you.

  • Jessica
    Reply

    Taking the course is such a good idea! The back country looks beautiful. Your photo of the digging pit really surprised me. You don’t really realize just how deep the snow is!

  • Anuradha Manjul
    Reply

    An interesting and very detailed article. Helpful for all beginners for sure.

  • Stephanie Frias
    Reply

    This was such as refreshing read…literally, we are melting over here in Coastal Ecuador right now. We are really dreaming of snow! I would love to take a class like this to become more informed about the risks of snow covered terrain, especially since we will be venturing to a few high altitude areas soon! I feel like I should at least google some basic knowledge before we head out!

  • Ryan
    Reply

    Awesome post…

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