Choosing an Avalanche Course

There are countless avalanche courses on the market, and as with most things, some are higher quality than others. How do you know which one is right for you—and which ones are worth the investment of time and money? Here’s what to consider.

Course scope & outcomes

An avalanche course should have clearly defined goals. The most important one? That you come away from the course knowing how to apply what you’ve learned in your own backcountry travels. Introductory courses should stand alone and increase your confidence in your ability to make decisions. More advanced courses should build on those skills. If a provider can’t tell you what the outcomes of the course will be, keep looking.

Topics covered 

Many introductory courses provide plenty of information about avalanches and snow science, but they’re missing an important piece of the puzzle: how to apply that knowledge to make decisions in the field. In addition to understanding the basics of how and where avalanches happen, an avalanche course at any level should include a framework for processing information and using it to make real-time decisions. 

Field time

Virtual learning is great, and some things—like interpreting avalanche forecasts and understanding weather patterns—are well suited to learning in a classroom. But the bottom line is that there are some topics, like rescue techniques and terrain management, that you can’t effectively learn without spending time on the snow. Avalanche courses that are 100% online and don’t include field time can’t give you the full picture.

Qualified instructors

You probably wouldn’t sign up for a drivers’ ed course or take a sailing lesson from someone without experience and a certification—when it could mean life or death, why settle for anything but the best? Avalanche education should be held to the same standard. Providers should have met the minimum standards to be listed as AIARE providers, and instructors should have years of backcountry experience, plus a guiding certification or membership in a professional organization.

Price

“Do I really need to invest $550, or can I get away with this online-only course?” You get what you pay for. While some avalanche education is usually better than none (we certainly won’t discourage you from listening to a free lecture at the local gear shop), there’s no replacement for the real thing. Think of it this way: your avalanche education is a piece of essential backcountry gear. You’d probably drop more on a new pack or pair of boots—but this gear will help keep you alive, so don’t skimp. Your life, and your partners’ lives, are on the line.

Your own ability and experience

It’s tough to learn something new when you’re struggling to keep up with the group or worrying about whether you’ll be able to make it back to the car. To get the most out of your course, talk with your provider first. Be frank about your experience and fitness levels to understand if the course they’re offering will be a good fit for you.

The Bottom Line: AIARE is committed to developing a nationally recognized curriculum that can be delivered by qualified instructors and committed course providers across the USA. These courses have clearly defined goals, meet curriculum guidelines set by national and international avalanche associations, use common resources, and provide a clear progression through a series of integrated courses for everyone from backcountry newcomers to aspiring professionals. 

Ready to choose a course? Find a provider here.