How do I turn every outing into a learning experience?

The DEBRIEF is a rich opportunity to turn an end of the day review into a learning experience, even if everything goes according to plan. It is an opportunity to engage in a metacognitive procedure that helps illuminate what you understand and don’t understand. Reflection on this gap in understanding can help serve as a counter to the wicked learning environment of the backcountry where something going right or wrong isn’t neatly linked to the actions of day.

Debriefing is a way to intentionally cultivate expertise rather than haphazardly gaining experience.

The AIARE Framework provides a structured way to do this. When planning, you effectively make a prediction about the hazards and conditions you will encounter. While in the backcountry, you make observations about what you actually encounter. During DEBRIEF, you then summarize what you found and compare it to what you predicted.

More important than this comparison of what you got right and wrong, is to identify why you were right or why you missed what you did. Finally, using this reflection, create a strategy for how you are going to incorporate what you just learned into your next outing.

Summarize conditions

The first step is to summarize conditions as a group. The snowpack gives very few clues about instability, and observations gained represent a small data set given the terrain covered on a typical ride. One of the primary challenges to riders and forecasters is extrapolating the data across terrain to form an accurate assessment of conditions. Individuals interpret what we see differently. Discussion with members of your group will help you assemble a complete picture of current conditions in the areas you rode and observed. This step is a check and balance to ensure both perception and understanding is occurring.

Building consensus in your assessment of conditions between group members is important and contributes to a broader understanding of the nature and distribution of the avalanche hazard. This will inform future opinions and help develop intuition used in the decision-making process.


What conditions did we find?

How did the weather affect conditions?

What is the primary avalanche concern?

Is the danger increasing or decreasing?

Did our group correctly anticipate the conditions we actually found?

Was there anything unexpected?

Review today’s decisions

The second step is to Review decisions and improve the plan. This crucial step translates the events of the day into a building block of life-long learning. Most trips in the backcountry will be incident free. The debrief process removes the reliance on mistakes to provide the only learning experience.

Compare what you expected to happen to what you observed happened, be that with the conditions, the group, or the terrain encountered. Apply this same analysis to your group’s decisions. Were the group’s decisions in line with what you lined out at the beginning of the day? Discuss why they were or were not.

Near misses, when something could have happened but luckily didn’t, can be insightful instructional experiences on risk management. Debrief near misses as you would an actual accident. Analyze the conditions present, and what was missed in your assessment. Analyze the decisions that led up to the experience. Use the debrief process to address stress among group members and create support where needed.


How did our group communicate and make decisions? Was it consistent with our plan?

Did we adhere to the social contract of Teamwork?

Did we use terrain consistent with our plan?

Was there anything unexpected?

Where were we most at risk?

Improve today’s plan

More importantly than the compare and contrast is to try to identify why your group was correct or incorrect in your expectations, then seek to understand why you correctly or incorrectly anticipated it.

This is the key step in countering a feedback-poor learning environment and a reliance on mistakes or error to provide the only opportunity for learning. Using this information your group can then identify how to improve the actions to be taken next time.


What did we get right? What did we miss?

Why did we get it right? Why did we miss it?

What can we continue to do next time so we get it right?

What will we do differently next time so we don’t miss it?

Submit Observations

Information sharing is a cultural tenant of backcountry travel for both professional and recreational users. Your trip into the backcountry creates the opportunity to confirm the advisory’s forecast of conditions and anticipated weather. You can help improve subsequent forecasts by submitting your observations to your local avalanche center. Just as you may have relied on the information of others from previous days, so will others rely on your information in the days to come.

Reports of avalanches and patterns of avalanche activity are the most important information to share with forecast centers. Report specific information including location, size and if was human triggered, along with any photos. Use photos and specific locations whenever possible to describe avalanche activity. General weather conditions are also very useful information. Winds, temperatures, precipitation type and rates, and cloud cover and the timing of changes are all relevant information.

Share in language that is easy to understand. Don’t worry about trying to sound technically correct. If you didn’t have a thermometer but you were moving in a t-shirt and there was water dripping from trees, you can say temps were above freezing. If it was snowing since you took your last break an hour before and you have an inch of snow on the brim of your hat, you can share that it was snowing an inch and hour in the middle of the afternoon.

However you share, make sure sharing information is a part of your end of day routine.