How to Learn about Avalanche Safety
Know Before You Go
Skiing and riding in the backcountry is a bit like driving on the freeway: when you know the rules and have some skills and experience, it has some risk, but it tends to work out OK. When you lack those ingredients, it’s confusing, embarrassing, and dangerous at best, and nobody wants to ride with you. When you understand how to match your decisions to the current conditions, you can get out and safely have a great time on any day, regardless of the conditions. So how do you learn to make good decisions in the backcountry?
Groups offering avalanche safety training are plentiful in the West as well as the northern Appalachians; you can find a comprehensive list at Avalanche.org. In Utah, along with the Greatest Snow on Earthtm, we have some of the greatest avalanche education available anywhere. Opportunities to learn about travel in avalanche terrain for all budgets, schedules, ambition levels, and learning styles exist. Here’s a summary of where to go in Utah to get avy-savvy:
Know Before You Go
Attend a free one-hour Know Before You Go avalanche awareness talk. Available online, these presentations provide a valuable first introduction to avalanches, how and where they occur, and how to avoid them. The Know Before You Go website is full of resources and further information to gain an understanding of backcountry travel.
Read a book
From snow science to accident reports, here are some great books you can read to expand your avalanche skills.
- Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper: Authored by a retired Utah Avalanche Center Director and now in its 3rd edition, this is one of the best resources out there. A must-read for any backcountry traveler.
- Dragons in the Snow by Ed Powers: tells the stories of avalanche forecasters, weaving in tales of incidents that shaped their experiences and those of backcountry skiers.
- The Snowy Torrents by Knox Williams and Spencer Logan: This book takes an in-depth look at avalanche accidents, offering a great way to learn from mistakes that have already been made.
- The Avalanche Review (TAR): Published by the American Avalanche Association (A3), this journal features the best in avalanche writing and research. Past issues are available on the A3 website, and A3 is offering a free digital copy of the April issue for those who sign up. Consider joining A3 in order to get the print version throughout the season.
- Backcountry Access Field Book: This small addition to your kit provides a critical way to keep track of your own observations of the snowpack.
Take an Online Course
Learning about avalanches is the best way to travel in the backcountry safely. While online courses are not meant to replace on-the-mountain Avy 1 classes, they are a decent primer for beginners or experts in need of a refresher. Anyone who wants to learn more about avalanche safety skills and how to avoid slides will benefit. Here are our favorite free online courses.
- UAC’s Know Before You Go (KGYG) eLearning Program: Interactive learning content builds on the 5 KBYG points. You’ll come away familiar with essential avalanche safety gear and how to practice with it, as well as with an introduction to avalanche forecasts and travel.
- Backcountry Access (BCA) Video Series: This BCA video series includes everything from avalanche rescue and research, to success stories from the backcountry.
- New Zealand Online Avalanche Course: A rich collection of photos, videos, and text takes you through the basics of traveling in avalanche terrain, efficiently covering all the topics you’d encounter in an avalanche class. This course includes an interactive game that lets you test your ability to make navigation choices in complex terrain. This content is for a Southern Hemisphere audience, so flip south and north aspects in your head if you’re watching north of the equator.
Attend an In-Person Class
Check out a Backcountry 101 class from the Utah Avalanche Center. You will get an evening classroom session and a field day to introduce and practice the basics of avalanche characteristics, clues to instability, terrain selection, using the avalanche advisory, rescue, and human factors.
Listen to a live stream
Follow @utavy on Instagram to tune into our next live stream talk, and search for your local avalanche center to see if they’re doing the same. The UAC covers everything from “Know Before You Go” to terrain management and the state of the local snowpack.
Catch up on podcasts
A number of avalanche professionals and centers share lessons learned and other stories via podcasts. This is also a great way to take a deep dive into specific avalanche topics, digging into the details of subjects that don’t always lend themselves to simple explanations and responses. Following these regularly is a great way to learn from a wide range of experts from different regions, often with new and different perspectives.
Spend a day on the snow
The Utah Avalanche Center offers an Advanced Avalanche Skills class, with a classroom evening and a field day with an avalanche pro and other like-minded students. We will dig into whatever stability issues are present at the time of the class and challenge our stability-testing, route-finding, and decision-making skills and assumptions. This is your opportunity to pick the brains of forecasters, guides, and other avalanche professionals.
Learn to be your own forecaster
Take an AIARE or AAI (American Avalanche Institute) Level 1, 2, or 3 multi-day course starting with the basics and providing professional-level theory and practice. Available all over the western U.S., this is where most avalanche pros begin their study. Class schedules are listed here.
For a map with state-by-state listings, you can also check the Avalanche.org website.
Get a guided day of avalanche instruction
Contact Utah Mountain Adventures about a custom guided avalanche class from one of their experts. Your ski or split-snowboard instructor can show and teach you how to make informed stability route-finding decisions, from the basic to expert level, in the process of leading you on a backcountry ski tour.
Riding when you don’t understand the hazard isn’t much fun. Nobody wants to be the partner that can’t be counted on to make good decisions or make an effective rescue. The pros understand that the safest and highest-quality riding, day after day, comes from making terrain choices to match current conditions. It’s easy to learn about avalanches. Check out the Utah Avalanche Center’s education page for a complete listing of avalanche learning opportunities in Utah—including beacon clinics, training parks and workshops—from the UAC and other local providers.