Know the forecast

Always check the avalanche danger before you hit the backcountry. You can look up the forecast for the area you'll be traveling in at http://colorado.gov/avalanche , or if you're skiing or snowshoeing nearby -- in the Colorado Avalanche Information Center's Front Range zone -- call 303-275-5360 to hear a recording of the day's forecast.

T he University of Colorado's Outdoor Program makes backcountry safety a bargain for recreation center members: $50 for a course in avy basics.

"Realistically, if you're going in the backcountry at all, being aware of avalanche risk is huge," said Annaliese Seidel, assistant coordinator for the outdoor program.

That's why it's important for both skiers and snowshoers.

"Here in Colorado, avalanches can happen any season, after any snowfall, so it's really important to get some education. And that's one of the reasons we offer it for this discounted price."

Avalanche courses can easily top $100 -- or $300.

CU offers Avalanche Level 1 throughout the winter, which includes classroom instruction on snowpack structure and stability, evaluating terrain, traveling safely and more, plus an optional class in the field on the old (closed) ski-resort slopes in Rocky Mountain National Park.

"Most of the students I run into say, 'I've skied the resorts, and this backcountry thing looks cool,'" Seidel said. "'But can I do it safely, and can you teach me how to do that?' So that's what we're going for."

All of the courses are lead by students who are at least Level-1 certified, but not necessarily certified by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education as instructors, which is a different certification.

The added bonus, Seidel said, is the social aspect of the course.

"It's a great way to meet other people who are into this," she said. "You know that they're safe because they've taken the course as well."

The outdoor program's first course this semester is Jan. 25 to 27.

Info: http://colorado.edu/recreation/outdoorprogram/programs/rockice.html

Want more choices? Check out these nearby avy-education providers that use AIARE-certified instructors:

Colorado Mountain School

CMS offers a range of avy courses, from free clinics around Boulder on avy basics to AIARE Level Two courses, which require four days out in the field in Rocky Mountain National Park studying snow science, forecasting, snow stability and more.

And if you've had plenty of avy education and just need a refresher -- good idea -- CMS has one-day refresher courses for $170 through March.

Info: totalclimbing.com

Alpine World Ascents

Alpine World Ascents offers plenty of avy courses taught by AIARE-certified instructors near Boulder, from basics to an intro to backcountry touring and avalanche awareness class for $145-$400 per person.

Info: alpineworldascents.com

Eldora Mountain Resort

Eldora's avalanche school will offer two AIARE Level One courses this winter, from Jan. 23-27 and Feb. 27-Mar. 3, for $295. Each session includes two classroom days and two fields days.

Info: eldora.com/programs.avalanche.html