Avalanche Course, Backcountry Skiing Course or Guided Skiing?

As a program coordinator for Oregon Ski Guides, I answer a lot of phone calls and emails about our ski programs and avalanche courses. Many folks call in and assume that our Avalanche Courses teach people how to backcountry ski, and others assume our backcountry ski courses teach people avalanche safety skills. Neither perception is accurate, and I thought it might be worth talking about the differences between the two types of courses so that our clients can sign up for the most appropriate program.


There seems to be a consistent theme out there that every backcountry skier should start with taking a Level I Avalanche Course. I don’t entirely agree with this philosophy, although it won’t necessarily hurt. However, a better approach to taking an avalanche course would be to get some experience out in the field going backcountry skiing with friends or more experienced people to learn some of the basics of backcountry travel. A basic understanding of gear, clothing layering and reading terrain will go a long way towards creating some sort of framework to apply the learned skills in an avalanche course. Even if you are unable to to go backcountry skiing, it is worth spending some time getting to know your own gear set by skinning at your local ski area before they open for instance. If you are able to get out before your avalanche course, you’ll get a lot more out of the course and be able to take more skills away for use later. In an avalanche course, you will do very little skiing, and spend a lot of time learning new skills. It is critical that this is understood before signing up for any avalanche course.


Backcountry Ski Courses are designed for people who want to learn how to skin, uphill trackset, and use their gear. An emphasis is placed on getting out, learning how to you use your equipment and finding the best snow conditions in the area. Sound fun? It is! This is actually what most people want out of day or two with a guide. Secondary to these skills, you will have some basic instruction on how to use your beacon, shovel and probe. This will be a cursory instruction on these skills, just enough to get started.Your guide will typically be happy to discuss the terrain with you, so you may be able to pick up a few tidbits on terrain selection and what is going on in the snowpack. Compared to an avalanche course, you’ll get a lot more ski time and be able to get into terrain that you wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable in on your own.


Guided Skiing- just the thought of it makes some people bristle! I have heard the phrase “there isn’t enough room in the American ego for a ski guide”. While this makes me chuckle, I can definitely understand where people are coming from. However, I would counter, that a day going out with a guide is well spent. It will allow you to brush up on some skills, learn a few new ones, and find the best snow in the area. This can be great if you don’t have time to plan a full tour, or if you are wondering about difficult avalanche conditions. On a private basis, you can cover a lot of material in one day, much more so than in a structured class with many people in it. Guided skiing will help you get the most out of the day, and you can leave the planning to the guide! Just go out, have fun, and learn a few new things!


In summary, there are a lot of programs to choose from. Hopefully, I have illuminated some of the differences between different types of instructional experiences. If you contact us, feel free to share your goals with us and tell us what you want to do. We’ll be able to steer you in the right direction and get you into a program that meets your needs.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: