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Are you a backcountry skiier or splitboarder?  Have you experienced an uncomfortable situation in avalanche terrain? Do you want more education to be able to help discuss and navigate a backcountry ski tour?  Are you thinking about taking an avalanche course?

Whatever your background is, an AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Course is a great place to build a foundation for understanding the avalanche phenomena and learn how to make better decisions in avalanche terrain.  The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) was the first group to formalize a nationwide curriculum for avalanche education in the United States.  AIARE continues to set the standard for avalanche education in the US, providing a modern, up-to-date curriculum, qualifying instructors through professional level courses, and ultimately saving lives through avalanche education.  When you sign up for an AIARE avalanche course you know that your course providers, instructors and materials are all held to the same high standards. 

An AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Course will start you on the beginning of your formal avalanche education as well as provide you with the 5 following areas for development on your own backcountry avalanche terrain progression.  

A Backcountry Babe shredding in Silverton, Colorado


1. How to Make Tough Decisions — To Ski the Line or Not to Ski the Line?

It can be hard to know if a line is safe. When perched at the top of a a beautiful backcountry run, loaded with snow, after having hiked hours to get there is a bad time to start making decisions.  Ideally, your decision making process has begun WAY before you get to the top of the line.   You want to start with a solid AIARE level 1 course under your belt, reading the day’s forecast, and writing a tour plan before you even start driving to the trailhead.  Then once you arrive at the top of a tempting but risky line, you’ll be prepared with relevant avalanche info, your clear tour plan, your open/closed terrain list, and strong team communication on your side.  At that point you can evaluate current, live conditions as additional information to an already well built plan.  

An AIARE Level 1 course will lay the groundwork for making better decisions in the backcountry. You’ll learn how weather, snowpack and terrain work together to create avalanches.  You’ll learn about what factors trigger avalanches.  You’ll build toolkits to avoid common traps.  You’ll learn communication and team building strategies.  The next time you are at the top of a untracked couloir with 12 inches of fresh snow, you’ll be able to piece together why or why not it’s right to ski.

It still won’t always be an easy decision, as risk is involved with anything we do, but it will be easier to lay out the pieces to the puzzle: terrain, snowpack, weather, and human factors.  Perhaps the day is throwing up red flags in all of these categories. You’ll even discuss what to do in this situation when you find there are no good options… bowling anyone?

2. How to Read an Avalanche Forecast

Depending on where you live, this is likely a daily avalanche forecast.  Here is a map of forecast areas in the US and find yours here:   In your AIARE course your instructors will show you how to use these forecasts to help plan your own tours. In courses, I suggest that students put their local forecast on their regular morning reading list with coffee in hand whether they are skiing that day or not. Following the forecast throughout the entire season is one of the best ways to keep yourself up to date on the snowpack and the current hazards.  In Colorado it’s often the early snow in October or December that becomes our ‘problem’ layer so it’s good to know where it is, under what conditions it is formed and ultimately how to avoid it.

3. How to Plan a Trip in the Backcountry

Tour planning is a big part of making smart decisions in the backcountry and it’s a constantly evolving element to backcountry travel.  In this course you are introduced to travel planning including a break down of what it entails and how to create your own with a group of peers.   Your Backcountry Babes instructors (if you take a course with us) will likely show you some handy apps and websites to better plan your route and gather more information like elevation gain, recent aerial footage or how to easily share mobile maps with your peers.  Tour planning is constantly evolving as new technology arrives and the new Level 2 Avalanche Course dives further into this important process.  

Trip planning at its finest: blue book, forecast and AIARE Level 1 student manual


4. How to Identify and Manage Avalanche Terrain in the Backcountry

Choosing appropriate terrain is the easiest thing for you to control while out in the backcountry.  You’ll learn how to navigate ridge lines or stay clear of avalanche paths to keep you and your friends safer from hazards.  In addition to this, you’ll learn that 20 degree slopes can provide a fun filled day of powder skiing without any of the avalanche stress.  You don’t always have to go bowling on a high hazard day!

A Backcountry Babes course practicing strategic shoveling for avalanche rescue


5. How to use your Beacon, Probe and Shovel

An AIARE Level 1 course will teach you the basics of using your beacon, probe and shovel.  You’ll learn how to use your beacon swiftly and effectively with a pattern search, use your probe to pinpoint location, and effective shoveling strategies.  You’ll spend about 4 hours on learning and practicing companion rescue.

To learn more in-depth rescue skills, there is now a separate, stand alone, 8 hour AIARE Rescue Course that goes above and beyond what you learn in your AIARE Level 1.  You’ll learn about multiple burials, have more practice time, and refresh your skills for the season.  AIARE Rescue is a prerequisite for the Level 2 and for any of the Professional level classes.  This course is designed to be taken every few years to stay up to date on rescue techniques as the field is rapidly changing with new equipment and research.  

Whatever your reason for signing up for an AIARE Level 1 course, it’s worth the investment.  The course reaches far beyond avalanche terrain, honing your overall decision making skills and teaching you how to better unravel a tough decision. Most students report that they learned even more than they expected they would in a Backcountry Babes AIARE Level 1 avalanche course. 

Backcountry Babes offers AIARE Level 1 courses throughout the United States including Colorado, California, Utah, New Hampshire and Alaska.  If you are interested in taking a co-ed course with us or an all women’s course, we would love to have you! Check out our upcoming classes for more information.  We hope to see you in a course this winter!  

Written by Eryka Thorley, Backcountry Babes instructor, ski patroller, international traveler, mom, and all-around Babe.