Choosing a Recreational Avalanche Course
April 11, 2001 (Third Revision)
© 2001 by Jim Frankenfield; reprinting of the entire article
with an acknowledgment including the website URL, this copyright
notice, and the revision number is welcome, for any other use (including
reprinting of excerpts or any edited version) please
So you're interested in taking an avalanche course, and you've just
searched the web for a course. And you found hundreds. Even narrowing
it down by region and dates you have several options, perhaps a dozen.
So how do you choose? What qualifications do you look for? Are there
any standards and, if so, how well established are they?
These are good questions, but unfortunately straight answers are
hard to find. And the matter of choosing the best course (for you)
is important. It turns out that many if not most people involved in
recreational avalanche incidents in North America had previously taken
some level of training. Maybe the instructional methodologies were
incompatible with their learning style, maybe the course emphasis
was off base, or maybe something else was wrong. Whatever the case,
their training didn't serve them as well as it could have. Your safety
should be important enough to choose and invest in the best course
for your needs. Do your homework before enrolling!
Lets take a look at the issue of curriculums first and then general
instructor qualifications. But first lets make sure we know what we're
talking about so we don't compare apples and oranges.
It's easy to get confused by a few terms which are used in different
contexts in Canada than in the US. In Canada the terms Level I and
Level II pertain to week long professional training courses offered
by the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA). These are not recreational,
the recreational programs are called RAC Basic and Advanced. Canadian
RAC (Recreational Avalanche Courses) courses usually use materials
prepared by the CAA but they are not offered by the association directly.
They are offered by various providers in the private sector. In the
US the terms Level I and Level II are used for recreational courses,
typically lasting a weekend or three days. There is no standard or
commonly recognized professional training program in the US such as
the CAA Level I and II. The American Avalanche Association (AAA) does
not offer any training directly, everything is done in the private
sector. (The AAA recently changed it name, and you may still see references
to the AAAP, American Association of Avalanche Professionals, which
was the previous name.)
In some instances I've used the terms "Canadian Level I/II"
or "American Level I/II" to help clarify. Where the terms
have not been clarified it will hopefully be clear from the context
which is referred to.
The CAA curriculums (Canada)
Professional - The Canadian
Avalanche Association has traditionally taught Level
I and Level II courses for professionals. Each of these is a week
long and the intent is to prepare those interested in working in field
professionally. For those interested in working in Canada in a professional
capacity the standard is the CAA Level I. There is no equivalent
to this in the US. Some people have been told "sure, we all know
each other and my course will be accepted in Canada". This is not true
except perhaps in a few very limited cases. The CAA Level I course is
organized around the standards used in Canada for the exchange of information
among the professional community. I have been asked about this with
increasing frequency and my unequivocal answer is that if you want to
work in Canada go take the CAA course. Note that the professional Level
I course has a heavy emphasis on observations and on data recording.
It assumes a recreational course as a prerequisite.
Recreational - Despite the fact that the Level I is not oriented
towards recreation many students were falling into that category. So
the Recreational Avalanche
Course (RAC) program was introduced by the CAA. The RAC program
sets standards for class content and class size. Prepared instructor
and student notebooks are sold through the CAA, ensuring consistent
curriculum materials. Instructors can obtain and use the CAA RAC teaching
materials by completing the Level
I professional training course and agreeing to adhere to the standards
outlined. Instructors are not reviewed, certified, or endorsed by
the CAA. They also have a great deal of latitude in how they teach
and run their programs. So the key content of basic and advanced courses
should be standard but all courses and instructors are not 100% the
One growing concern I hear more and more often is that almost anyone
can complete the CAA Level I and begin instructing RAC courses. Indeed,
students are showing up at the Level I (Professional) courses with the
stated goal of "making a lot of money teaching weekend RAC courses".
Many of these people have neither significant field experience nor formal
snow science studies. The Level I course does not ensure that somebody
has the experience or the teaching skills to teach a RAC course. However,
it is the only objective standard that can realistically be used at
A second concern I am beginning to hear voiced is that the current
curriculum is too limited. Many people feel that the programs being
developed by instructors in the US (under voluntary guidelines but without
any centralized control) are more comprehensive. (See below for more
on such curriculums.)
The CAA RAC curriculum is based on 2 days, or 16 hours, for the basic
course and 30 hours for the advanced course. (Actual classroom and field
There has been mention of course materials being passed on for use
by instructors not working under a CAA agreement and of courses exceeding
the class size specified in that agreement. If you are taking a CAA
RAC course you should make sure your instructor is listed
by the CAA and that they are following the parameters of the CAA
agreement (which is no longer posted online, unfortunately). This is
a minimum, as discussed above it is still not a guarantee of competency
The AAA Guidelines (United States)
There are established guidelines but there are no real standards.
In the end it is up to the consumer to compare courses and instructors
with limited assistance in the way of useful guidelines from the professional
community. It is not uncommon for advice which is provided to be driven
by politics, personal alliances/conflicts, or business bottom line.
This only aggravates the situation.
There are "Level
I" and "Level
II" guidelines from the AAA (American Avalanche Association).
These reflect a great deal of discussion among professional avalanche
educators. While they are not true standards and do not provide a
curriculum or teaching materials they should help promote some consistency
between courses taught by different people. Look for courses taught
by people familiar with these guidelines who make an effort to follow
them. The basic or American Level I course guidelines were originally
based on a three day course or a minimum of 24 hours. Note that this
is significantly more than the 16 hours assumed for the CAA Level
I. Many weekend two day courses which claim to be American Level I
do not have 24 hours of instruction. Such courses will be hard pressed
to do justice to all of the topics in the guidelines.
The Advanced or Level II course in the US is more variable than the
Level I. The guidelines are less specific and different courses have
different emphases. Courses oriented towards guide training tend to
be heavy on data observation and recording, which differs from the
emphasis of the Canadian Advanced RAC and the emphasis found in some
US courses which are recreation oriented. Some Level II classes spend
time with research instruments such as ram penetrometers which are
rarely used by guides or recreational parties.
There are now a variety of "Level III" courses being promoted.
A comparison of the descriptions should indicate to just about anyone
that these are all over the board, from research oriented to data
recording oriented to the guiding orientation of the AMGA required
Level III. There is no standard whatsoever for Level III.
There is now an initiative underway by the AAA (formerly the AAAP)
to certify or qualify instructors. The problem with this is that there
is no objective requirement that makes sense in the US. There is no
professional training such as the CAA Levels I and II. There is already
a lack of objectivity in the approval of new members for the AAA -
members don't meet requirements, they get voted in. The shortcomings,
and the potential for abuse, of this system should be obvious. This
initiative has arisen at least partially out of the misconception
in the US that the CAA certifies or qualifies instructors when in
reality they have a very simplistic objective requirement. (As discussed
above, there is much concern over how sufficient the CAA requirement
is. But at least it is objective.) The future of this AAA initiative
is uncertain at this time.
One of the positive things about having guidelines now established
in the US is that it has provided a framework for those individuals
motivated enough to begin producing and refining their own materials
and even full curriculums. The philosophy that a competitive private
sector will produce quality goods is a cornerstone of the American
way. But without guidelines things can go astray, so we now have a
common framework to follow. And that framework is publicly available
to students so that they can evaluate what they are being promised
and what they are receiving.
One example of a full curriculum, Levels 1 through 3, being established
They have distinguished between a professional-track course and a
recreational-track course beginning at Level 2. This is a good thing
which needs to be done. The AMGA requires a Level 2 course for entry
into their guide training programs, but they have never specified
(for instructors or students) just what the expectations and needs
are. AIARE appears to include primarily AMGA/UIAGM guides at this
time, and these are the people that should be setting clearer expectations
for a professional training track.
Another example of instructor-developed materials are my
own. I have both student and instructor materials in progress,
with a list
of lesson plan and objectives publicly posted. The Southeast
Alaska Avalanche Center is also planning to post their course
materials on their website. Hopefully others will follow.
Instructor Qualifications and Course Particulars
Things to evaluate include:
- Does the instructor know the material you want to learn?
- Are they able to approach it from a recreational perspective?
- What are their communication and education skills?
- What is the student to instructor ratio, and the total group size?
- Does the instructor invest time and money each year in their own professional development?
- Is the instructor actively involved in developing the materials they use? Or do they teach "off-the-cuff", or from somebody elses materials?
You will find many suggestions on affiliations or backgrounds to
look for such as the AAA (formerly the AAAP), AMGA, experience doing
control work, etc. If you look into this you will find that none of
these things guarantee an acceptable answer to the above questions.
There are people who have done control work in a well-defined area
and know about the snowpack but who have little experience in varied
backcountry terrain. There are numerous courses which ignore or gloss
over human factors such as group dynamics and leadership. Anyone who
has spent (served?) time at a university has seen the difference between
experts who are poor educators/communicators and those who can teach
well. An advanced course typically includes content which is inherently
technical in nature and your instructor needs to be able to explain
this material. There are people who have an incredible amount of intuitive
knowledge acquired from years of experience, but some can communicate
this knowledge and some cannot.
One "qualification" that appears fairly frequently is a
particular course, usually the CAA Level I in Canada and often the
American Avalanche Institute Level II in the US. While both are worthwhile
courses neither are intended to produce competent recreational avalanche
instructors. An instructor who has no further experience will only
be passing on to you what they learned, and often what you can read.
This training "qualification" is good only as a starting
point for a process of professional development which has occurred
over at least several years, and continues to occur. This process
of professional development should include field time every winter,
in regions with significant snowpack features such as persistent weak
Ask a potential instructor many questions. Consider their replies,
and also if a question seems to make them uncomfortable. Ask what
they see as the most important current issue in avalanche education
at your level of interest. For an advanced course ask what research
results from the past couple years they see as most important in the
applied world outdoors. Their level of comfort with this question
says a lot about how current they are staying. Whether or not they
take the time to answer numerous questions also says something.
Another factor is group size. The CAA RAC standard is a student
to instructor ratio of no more than eight. A few instructors/schools
use a maximum of six. But total class size is also relevant. 24 students
and 4 instructors provides a much different learning environment than
6 students and 1 instructor. The AAA guidelines seem to feel that
student to instructor ratio is only important in the field and not
indoors. This seems to me to assume that indoor class segments are
largely lecture oriented with some opportunity for questions. I feel
that interactive, participatory exercises in the classroom require
a ratio of students to instructors which is no higher than what is
acceptable in the field.
Finally, look at the amount of time inside and outside. Some people
refer to the amount of time spent outside as though more is better
right up to 100%. There are topics which are better covered indoors
where people can focus on the content rather than on being cold. In
my courses I find that about 30-40% of the time (including the evenings)
are spent indoors on things like identifying terrain on maps, watching
videos, and going over the days findings from the field. This is consistent
with the percentages given in both the Canadian standards and the
Some people may take issue with some of my points and suggestions.
If that is the case please let me know. If there is anything factually
incorrect I will gladly correct it. I may also add comments and dissenting
points of view here or on a companion page if they are worthy of that.
Or I will gladly link from here to any other points of view posted
elsewhere. (As of April 2001 I have received only positive feedback
on this article, which is both surprising and reassuring. While more
positive feedback is always appreciated I remain open to constructive
criticism or alternate points of view as well.)
This is the third revision of this information and the situation
continues to change (mostly for the better). Each revision has been
made based on personal conversations with avalanche professionals
in the US and Canada as well on feedback via e-mail from various avalanche
educators. All comments have been considered carefully and incorporated
as deemed appropriate. To everyone who has taken the time to discuss
the issues or to send e-mail, thank you!
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