The ski season is only a few months old and already 25 people in U.S. have died in avalanches, with dozens more caught or buried. With solid snowpacks now covering most target ranges across the country, and pandemic hordes of both new and experienced backcountry users still seeking social distance and fresh snow, that number is sure to increase. On average, 27 people die in avalanches every year in the U.S.
No matter whether it’s hiking, snowshoeing, ice climbing, snowmobiling or backcountry skiing, experts agree the best way to stay safe in the backcountry is not just carrying the basic safety gear: a shovel, probe and beacon. And it’s not an airbag backpack—though it can improve the odds of surviving a slide by up to 50 percent.
The most important survival tool is knowledge. Both the skill to use the tools in an avalanche accident, but even more, the understanding to identify, avoid and manage avalanche danger. Usually this is all taught during in-person avalanche courses. But the increased interest is filling courses, while COVID restrictions are making them hard to hold and attend. Filling the gap are many online options, both free and paid.
They’re not as good as following a pro, but they’re better than going without. Here are our favorites.
Avalanche education and research has always been a core focus for the backcountry safety gear manufacturer. Its library of educational videos covers everything from accessing forecasts to transceiver training, better shoveling technique to how airbag backpacks work. And it’s one of the few places with snowmobile-specific education online.
The national avalanche center north of the border is internationally recognized for its work on simplifying the decision-making process in the backcountry. Its online education tutorials works like a course, progressing from the basics through rescues and terrain evaluation. It marries with their decision-making tool the Avaluator Trip Planner.
Outdoor Adventure Club
The online outdoor skills school uses live Zoom lessons to teach a variety of courses including avalanche education. Taught by professional guides, they include time for Q&A. Payment is either by subscription, which includes access to all of the platforms courses for six months for $100, or by individual lesson for $20 each.
[From $20; outdooradventureclub.com]
Salomon Mountain Academy
Start with the Snow Safety Essentials and then follow up with Deeper into the Backcountry. The in-depth courses include readings and dozens of videos, as well as test questions and practice scenarios to reinforce learning. The on demand courses cost $29 each and Salomon includes vouchers for them with its Quest and MTN products.
In a normal winter Arc’teryx hosts a series of in-person clinics and courses as part of its Backcountry Academy in Jackson Hole. This year the festival goes online. They designed A Comprehensive Guide to Avalanche Safety as both an introduction to backcountry skiing and a refresher for more experienced sliders. Taught by professional guides, the $249 course has several hours of videos and questions to turn learning into memory.
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