Backcountry Tips & Tricks, Part 1: Education
Snow covered peaks and smooth descents down untouched slopes in the backcountry is a practically irresistible pull for anyone skier or snowboarder, especially those looking to avoid resort traffic and exceedingly long lift lines. Yet the switch from resort to backcountry can be intimidating — there’s new gear, extreme elements, avalanche danger, and an added challenge of finding backcountry partners — that said, the feeling of earning your turns and riding untracked powder is worth any initial hurdles.
To help with the leap from lift to human-powered access, Bluebird’s education team compiled a 3-part series of backcountry tips for beginners. Starting with education, this blog focuses on advice about all things avalanche education and making the most of your first avalanche course. Report back for part 2 and 3 of the series where we dive into gear and personal care in the backcountry.
All Things Education
Every outdoor activity carries inherent risks. While we all hope we’ll never encounter an avalanche, hope is not enough preparation when traveling in areas with possibility of avalanches. It is imperative that you can identify avalanche terrain, get educated on how avalanches work, and understand what to do if you encounter or are caught in an avalanche. Here’s advice from experienced backcountry skiers and avalanche educators on how to get started with your avalanche education:
Before Your First Avalanche Course
- Start with the basics – Take an introduction to backcountry touring course before diving into your first avalanche course. There is a ton of information included in an avalanche course — becoming familiar with your gear and knowing how to travel in the snow will help you be more comfortable and thus able to absorb more information in your first avalanche course.
- Know your options – there are many avalanche course providers that use curriculum from the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) or other curriculum developers, approved by the American Avalanche Association (A3). While A3 oversees all avalanche education taught in the US, AIARE is regarded as the gold-star by many. They offer courses across the world with various providers, such as Bluebird Backcountry — one of the nation’s leading AIARE providers, and the only ski area in the world designed for backcountry education.
- Prepare for your course – follow these steps to get the most out of your avalanche course:
- Do the pre-course reading and work – it will help you better understand the in-person content and not be too overwhelmed with new vocabulary.
- Pack a warm beverage – Bring a thermos with coffee, tea, or warm water for the field portion of your class. This will keep you warm and motivated to learn!
- Bring snacks to share – Pack enough snacks for yourself, plus some to share. It’s always nice when someone offers you gummy bears while on the skin track.
- Pack an extra layer – you’ll likely be standing around a fair amount and talking, so bring an extra down jacket to keep warm.
During Your Course
- Connect with your fellow students – avalanche courses are a great place to find future touring partners. Get your peers numbers and stay connected, it’s a bonus to already know that new touring partners have avalanche education equivalent to your knowledge/experience.
- Ask questions – no question is a dumb question. It’s likely that if you are confused about something, there’s another person in your class confused as well. Speak up and get clarity on the information you need in order to get the most out of your lesson.
- Use the field book – the AIARE field book is an incredible resource. Make sure to use it during your course, then return to it on future personal tours as a tool for planning, managing terrain, and riding safely.
After Your First Avalanche Course
- Keep practicing outside the classroom – these skills are perishable if not used. Continue to use the rescue, trip planning, and navigation tools you learn in avalanche courses by getting together with friends at a beacon park, having set times for tour planning conversations, and reading Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain.
- Start small – begin by planning simple tours in terrain you know and are comfortable in. Practice your skills by touring uphill at a resort, or better yet, come to Bluebird and explore avalanche-managed terrain and refine your tour planning, navigation, and decision-making skills in the perfect environment (that includes real fun terrain).
- Refresh your skills each season – start with the AIARE course progression (Level 1, Avalanche Rescue, Level 2) by taking one course a season, then keep refining your skills at the beginning of each season by taking an avalanche refresher course.
- Track the season’s conditions – whether you tour 5 times per season or spend the whole winter in the backcountry, tracking the season’s snowpack and avalanche activity is critical for informed backcountry travel. Use your local avalanche forecasting center to read the forecast with your daily coffee, and reference the observations and forecast discussion to know what’s happening in your zone. You can also subscribe to many forecasting center’s bulletins — this ensures you get an email with the forecast each morning.
- Find a good mentor – the backcountry touring community can be hard to enter, but there are many seasoned riders who are apt to mentor newbies and help you build a backcountry tool kit. There are forums and mentorship programs, and Bluebird has a Ski with a Mentor lesson that facilitates learning and relationship building.
Avalanche education is a life-long process. If you’re new to the backcountry world, start by signing up for a recreation level 1 course. Follow the steps outlined above to set yourself up for a great course, rewarding relationship with the ski track, and a fellow community of snow-lovers. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series discussing gear tips and tricks!