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How to Prepare for Avalanches Before You Go Skiing

By Halsted “Hacksaw” Morris, President of the American Avalanche Association

As winter approaches, it’s time to get ready.

Getting your ski/boarding equipment ready always seems to take high priority with most folks. But, if you ride the backcountry it’s also time for a refresher on your avalanche-related skills. 

If you have never taken a formal avalanche safety course, it’s time to sign-up and do some pre-course homework. Taking the time to do some pre-course studying will mean that you will get a lot more out of taking the avalanche course. 

PHOTO: Halsted “Hacksaw” Morris

There are two avalanche related “textbooks,” that I recommend. The first is Bruce Tremper’s Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain and the second is Edward R. LaChapelle’s Secrets of the Snow: Visual Clues to Avalanche and Ski Conditions. Both are great books and Tremper’s book is about the most up to-date and easiest to read. LaChapelle’s is harder to find but well worth the effort. Each book will complete your library for refresher reading. 

Use Your Resources

Finding an avalanche course provider is a lot easier than you think. Avalanche.org lists a number of course providers that have met the American Avalanche Association’s recreational course providers guidelines. You can also poke around the internet to find courses near you.

If you have previously taken an avalanche safety course, think about taking a refresher course (at least the one-day basic rescue course) or at least attending an avalanche awareness presentation. You want to start “thinking avalanche,” well before heading out on an actual tour. This begins with subscribing to the daily avalanche and weather forecast from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). They are a state agency and their forecasts are FREE!

By reading the CAIC daily forecasts all winter, you become aware of trends happening with the snowpack. Remember what happens early in the season could well affect the snowpack later in the winter. 

You may be surprised to learn the variety of ways you can keep your avalanche safety skills sharp. | PHOTO: Halsted “Hacksaw” Morris

DIY Safety Preparation

There are a couple of other things that you can do to prep for going on your first tours. The first is to pull out your avalanche rescue transceiver and change out the batteries. Then gather your touring partners and go to a park for a little hide-and-find transceiver practice. If you lack on available partners think about using the “NerfBall practice method.” You can also learn how to practice here.

There is also one more preseason skill that you can work on without being in the mountains. One of the most valuable pieces of equipment you can carry is a slope inclinometer, which is used to measure slope angles. Avalanche research has shown that most avalanches happen on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. Being able to judge a given slope angle is a skill that you really want to develop. Slope inclinometers are fairly inexpensive, and readily available at most outdoor stores. 

Slope inclinometers are invaluable in the backcountry. | PHOTO: Halsted “Hacksaw” Morris

Start with measuring your garage roof. My garage roof is 28 degrees. Every time I pull out of the garage to go touring I take a couple of seconds to look at that slope angle. That way I burn that slope angle into my mind’s eye. The idea is you start thinking about the slope angles well before you get into avalanche terrain. Once again, you can practice with your touring partners. Make it a game of guess the angle of some slope in a park or of building roofs. 

There is still plenty of time to get out there and practice and study to be ready to go into the backcountry. Seriously think about enrolling in an avalanche course that will serve you well. Have a safe winter.

See more alpine touring insight in our Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Skiing

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