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How to Pack for an Avalanche Education Course

Packing for an avalanche education class doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are some tips and tricks to get you started.

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Knowledge about avalanche safety is arguably the most important thing you can equip yourself with when headed outside of resort boundaries. But it’s not the only thing you’ll need in the backcountry. When I signed up for Irwin Guide’s Avalanche Rec 1 Course in February 2020, I checked in with my instructor Chris Martin to make sure I packed the essentials. Here’s what he recommends.

Alpine Touring Set Up

John Dicuollo skiing near Marble, Colo.
Skis that can go up can also come down.Photo credit: Oliver Sutro

Having the right boots, bindings, skins, and skis might seem obvious, but it’s actually an area that many first-timers get wrong. Martin says that one of the most common issues students have is binding-boot compatibility.

“There is a huge variety of tech bindings now on the market, so students need to make sure their ski boots and tech bindings have been adjusted appropriately before the start of their course.” Check ahead of time to make sure your bindings and boots are compatible and don’t assume your instructor knows how to adjust your equipment.

Beyond the boots and bindings, the skis you use can have a huge impact on your learning experience. You’ll be moving around a lot in the field, so choose a lightweight ski you can maneuver easily.

What I packed: The Black Diamond Helio 105 Carbon Ski

Black Diamond Helio 105 Carbon
Black Diamond Helio 105 Carbon Ski.Photo courtesy of Black Diamond

These ultralight skis from Black Diamond made for fast and fluid ascents but also rode smoothly on all my descents.

Avalanche Safety Gear

Beacon check at Alta Lake, Colo.
A standard safety check with avalanche transceivers.Photo credit: Keri Bascetta

Arguably the most important equipment you’ll need for any course is the basic safety gear: a beacon, shovel, and probe. These non-negotiables are an essential investment that could be the difference between life and death in the case of an avalanche, and you’ll likely have the opportunity to practice with them during your class. 

Martin recommends finding a modern beacon that is intuitive to use, and a shovel and probe that are light, strong, durable and functional. Avoid plastic, which breaks easily, and look for equipment made with metal, preferably aluminum.

What I Packed: Black Diamond Guide BT Set

Black Diamond Guide BT set
Everything you need.Photo courtesy of Black Diamond

The Black Diamond Guide BT Set includes the DSP BT Pro beacon with a 60m search range, an extendable and compact Evac 7 shovel, and a Quickdraw Tour 320 probe.

Backcountry Ski Pack

Jeff Colt and a backpack
Pack mandatory, mustache optional.Photo credit: Oliver Sutro

A good ski pack can ultimately make or break your avalanche safety class. You’ll be putting it on and taking it off often every time you stop to take notes, practice avalanche rescue, and dig snow pits. Irwin Guides recommends their students find a durable pack between 30 and 45 liters that can fit your safety equipment, extra layers, water, and snacks. 

Pro tip: find a backpack that has a separate compartment just for your shovel and probe for fast deployment.

What I Packed: The Pieps Track 30

Pieps Track 30 Backpack
The Pieps Track 30 in red.Photo courtesy of Pieps

Ideal for day tours, the Pieps Track 30 pack includes two internal compartments, a microfiber goggle pocket, an attachable helmet carry, and an A-frame ski carrier system.

Layers, Layers, Layers

Top of a hike near Alta Lakes Observatory
Stopping to adjust some layers on a tour outside of Telluride, Colo.Photo credit: Keri Bascetta

The secret to dressing for the backcountry is all about packing layers, especially during a class when you’ll be stopping and going in the field all day. For starters, you’ll want sweat-wicking base layers, an insulated midlayer, and a weatherproof outer shell layer. Avoid cotton, which absorbs moisture and is poor at regulating body temperature. Instead, stick to synthetic or wool, which are both quick-drying and light. 

Start each day with fewer layers for the hike up, which when you’ll be moving and sweating more. Have your outer shell at the top of your pack for easy access when transitioning to ski mode.

What I Packed: VOORMI River Run Hoodie 

VOORMI River Run Midlayer
The VOORMI River Run Hoodie for women.Photo courtesy of VOORMI

Made from precision blended merino wool, this lightweight base layer from VOORMI helped regulate my temperature throughout the class, keeping me both cool and insulated through multiple weather changes.

Eye, Head and Hand Protection

Skylar Kraatz skiing Marble backcountry
The author keeping her eyes and fingers protected.Photo credit: Oliver Sutro

Beyond the layers, don’t forget to pack clothing for your eyes, head, and hands. Martin advises bringing extra options of most accessories, especially gloves. “You’ll want a light pair of gloves or mittens for the skin up, and since that can lead to sweaty hands, it’s good to have an extra dry pair for the ski down.” 

For head protection, you’ll want both a beanie and baseball cap in addition to your helmet, plus goggles and sunglasses for your eyes. Neck gators and buffs are also recommended. The weather in the backcountry can sometimes be unpredictable and avalanche classes have a constant stop-go nature, so remembering to have multiple options is key to staying comfortable.

What I packed: Maui Jim Alekona Polarized Sunglasses

Maui Jim Alekona sunglasses
Maui Jim Alekona Polarized Sunglasses.Photo courtesy of Maui Jim

The Alekonas are lightweight and scratch-resistant. I especially loved the collapsible case which fit perfectly into my pack.

Food and Water

When preparing food and drink for a course, you’ll want to avoid packing anything that can squish or freeze. The best snacks energizing, lightweight, and contains carbohydrates to help regulate your blood pressure. Many backcountry classes won’t necessarily stop and break for lunch, so you’ll also want snacks that are easy to grab throughout the day.

As far as liquids go, Martin recommends packing water in a sturdy bottle. “Avoid bladders and hoses that can freeze in your pack, especially on colder days.” Bonus points if the water bottle has a wide mouth so you top it off with snow during the class. You’ll want at least one liter of water, preferably two, depending on how long you’ll be out in the field.

What I packed: Kate’s Real Food Organic Bars

Kate's Real Food with updated packaging
Kate’s Real Food organic snack bars in the woods.Photo courtesy of Kate’s Real Food

Kate’s Real Food provides healthy alternatives to energy bars are made with organic, gluten-free oats and use all-natural honey as a sweetener. They also won’t freeze and taste delicious! 

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