Wearing a fancy new airbag backpack isn’t going to guarantee your safety in avalanche terrain. A better bet is to understand the conditions that cause avalanches, and for that you should take a course. The American Avalanche Institute’s three-day Level 1 Avalanche course ($274) teaches students to mind the red flags—heavy snowfall, collapsing or cracking snowpack, visible avalanche activity—and to recognize safe and unsafe terrain accordingly. Sometimes the most important red flag is the group itself, according to AAI’s Sarah Carpenter. “If you’ve got a group that’s tired and hungry, that’s just as much of a red flag as a foot of snow in 24 hours,” says Carpenter. That group might take a shortcut through avalanche prone terrain just to get home sooner, and end up getting buried. The course begins in the classroom and then moves to the field for practice with transceivers and organizing rescues. The second and third days are spent in the field recognizing avalanche terrain and digging pits in the snow to analyze the snowpack. AAI’s courses are held only in Jackson Hole, Bozeman, and Salt Lake, so combine one with a ski vacation. Your buddies, even the tired and hungry ones, will thank you.