Photo by Scott Schell

Snow, rain, snow, rain, rain, rain, SNOW!

That pretty much sums up November and early December for anybody in the Cascades and Olympics itching for their winter fix. If you’re like us, that means you’re also impatiently checking weather forecasts, pulling out and prepping your winter gear, buying yourself early holiday presents, cutting skins, or tinkering with the sled.

However, one of the most valuable ways to prepare for the season is to refresh your avalanche knowledge base. Below are some tips from our staff at NWAC to shift you back into the backcountry mindset.


Review Avalanche Course Materials

Avalanche courses are fire hoses of critical information but it’s difficult to retain all the information presented, especially if you were new to backcountry travel. [If you have yet to take an avalanche course a link to a list of programs for this winter is listed below]. 

For starters pull out the binder or resurface the online content used in your avalanche course (hint: the precourse emails sent by the provider have a lot of that info!). Read through your notes and review basic and advanced concepts. Think through how both your understanding of avalanches and your backcountry travels have changed since your course. 

Do you have a better grasp of avalanche terrain and where avalanche problems can be found in the areas you are travelling? Are you making the right observations and can minimize your risk based on what you observe? Do you remember what the acronym FACETS stands for? When was the last time you reviewed rescue skills or simply practiced with your beacon?

Avalanche course curriculum is the best place to start a review of all things avalanche at the start of the season. Especially when it’s raining.

Read Accident Reports

Accident reports are powerful tools to help you understand the factors that lead to avalanche accidents and fatalities. These are reports of avalanches that had serious outcomes for not just the victim(s) but also for partners, witnesses, rescuers, and families – not light reading material in any way whatsoever. At the same time, they are also a stark and necessary reminder of something easy to overlook in the stoke for the first powder runs of the year – backcountry travels will always entail risk. It’s up to each one of us to minimize this risk to ourselves, partners, and others with whom we share the mountains.

Avalanche forecasters publish these reports to provide the most accurate record possible of major avalanche accidents. The reports also help professionals and recreationists alike process and hopefully avoid similar accidents. This blog post from avalanche expert Colin Zacharias provides guidance on how to tease out important information from accident reports. 

Watch SAW Video Presentations 

NSAW 2018. Photo by Rick Meade.

Snow Avalanche Workshops (SAWs!) are held each fall around the county and the world.

The intent is to provide a pre-season opportunity to engage with the latest avalanche related research with a gathering of ski area and transportation sector avalanche control workers, guides and educators, public forecasters, and academics. Though some of the presentations are a bit heavy on the technical details, there has been a concerted effort to include material more relevant to recreational users as well. A list of regional SAW’s and links to video content from previous years can be found here.

Read and Listen is the hub for backcountry avalanche information in the United States. This website outlines all the avalanche centers in the United States and has a variety of online learning resources for beginners or experienced users. 

The Avalanche Review

The Avalanche Review is a quarterly publication from the American Avalanche Association containing the latest and greatest of avalanche related research, articles, and wisdom.

Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering

by Margaret Wheeler, Martin Volken, and Scott Schell

This book is geared towards intermediate-to-advanced backcountry skiers and covers trip planning, navigation, fitness, and avalanche safety information. Find the book here.

Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain

by Bruce Tremper

This book is considered by many to be a must-read for anyone entering avalanche terrain. It covers everything from how to evaluate a snowpack to how to conduct companion rescue. Find the book here.

Weather and Avalanche Podcasts

Cliff Mass

Atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass provides a weekly weather forecast for the Pacific Northwest, details current and future weather topics, and discusses related topics. Podcast is released every Friday at 9am.

The Avalanche Hour

Hosted by Caleb Merrill, this podcast highlights stories, knowledge, and news related to avalanches. There are a variety of guests brought on each season, some of which are from the Pacific Northwest!

Sign up for a class

No matter where you are in your avalanche education progression, there is a class or continuing education option out there for you. 

Become a Member

Photo by Scott Schell

Becoming a member might sound like a bold-faced effort for us to raise funds – and you’re not totally wrong. However, it’s also a great way to continue your education. NWAC members receive discounts to workshops, access to virtual Q&A sessions with forecasters, and receive member specific email updates. Throughout the season you can join virtually to meet NWAC forecasters and ask about anything from how the forecast is made to why they carry in their pack. Learn more about these and other perks of membership here. There’s also gear, giveaways, and discounts to sweeten the deal.

Related Reading

Plan it Like a Pro: Strengthening Your Mind for the Winter Backcountry