Snow Basics Course (SBC): Full Course Description 

Welcome to Mountain Education’s Original 3-day “Snow Basics Course!”
We are so thankful that you want to learn how to Play Safe & Stay Found while enjoying the snowy backcountry.

Here is all the course-specific information you’ll need to know prior to your weekend departure date. If you have the time and desire, under the school’s “Resources” tab across the top of every page you’ll find additional materials to prepare you for your exciting weekend!

Section One: General Info

The SBC is designed to introduce you to the joys of hiking and camping in the snow under the supervision and protection of our guide/instructor. We believe that if you learn how to deal with some of the difficult things in the mountains like cold, ice, storms, etc., you’ll have more confidence and security once out on your own. Thus, these courses are offered as soon as the snow starts flying in January and run ’till May.

We offer our Snow Basics Courses in California and Washington. They are taught right on the Pacific Crest Trail near Lake Tahoe, CA and Stevens Pass, WA!

Stevens Pass, Washington!

Over the last several years, we have offered our SBC on Stevens Pass to backcountry snow enthusiasts living in the Pacific Northwest. This particular course is unique in that it incorporates a wilderness safety presentation by a regional Search & Rescue team to reinforce to PCT thru hikers when not to be in the high country!

South Lake Tahoe, California!

We teach our SBC courses from two different locations (depending on snow conditions), Echo Summit (Desolation Wilderness) or Carson Pass (Mokelumne Wilderness), because they are spectacular in scenery so typical of the Sierra Nevada, yet so close to civilization, city centers, and major airports.


It is the intent of the Course to pour into you all that we know of “what works” regarding snow-hiking and related issues. So, from the time we meet in the trailhead parking lot, your instructor will be constantly showing, talking, guiding, and teaching. It is your responsibility to listen, think about it, and apply it under the instructor’s watchful eye during the weekend.

Pre-Trip Instruction:

Once you are approved to attend your course, you can begin reading or watching select pre-trip published articles and videos to help get you ready. There will be group emailings before your trip’s start date to everyone in your course to help you realize what we will be teaching you, how to prepare, and to answer questions about parking, weather, transportation and carpooling, and cancellations, should they occur.


  • You have been on a few backpacking trips in your past.
  • You have an idea what exposure and hypothermia are and how to avoid them.
  • You are in excellent fitness for all-day snowshoeing with no health concerns.
  • You are willing to learn all the details about snow camping!
  • Young men and women under 18 must be accompanied by their parents.

Dates: 2017


  • January 6-8
  • January 20-22
  • January 27-29
  • February 3-5
  • February 10-12
  • February 17-19 (closed)
  • February 24-26
  • March 3-5
  • March 10-12
  • March 17-19
  • March 24-26
  • March 31 – April 2
  • April 7-9 (closed)
  • April 14-16


  • February 17-19 (closed)
  • March 17-19 (closed due to weather)
  • April 7-9


After reading this Full Course Description and our Policies, Terms, and Conditions, you’re ready to begin registering to attend your course!

Step One – Apply. Choose a location and a date, then fill out the Course Application form online! After reviewing your application, we will sign you up for the course of your choice, if there is still room, and let you know by email. Next…

Step Two – Deposit. After your application is accepted, a non-refundable deposit of $150 must be received 60 days before your course date to confirm your enrollment.

Step Three – Payment. To finish registering for your wilderness skills course, the balance of $300 must be received by Mountain Education, Inc. 30 days before your course starts. Use the payment links we have on our Donations page. One button is for credit cards, the other is for PayPal.

More about our Admission Policies, click on the About/Administration tab.


$450. (Covers all instruction before and during your skills trip).

Section Two:  What to Bring

In General:
Come with all the food and equipment suggested here and in the SBC Gear List.
Note: Certain items that would be sufficient for an ultralight, dry-trail hike, like a tarp tent or trailrunners, are not allowed without Instructor approval.

The SBC Gear List is for reference only. This is what we carry after doing this for 41 years. Certain items you must bring like clothing shells to self-arrest in, a tent that will take a snow-load, sufficient insulation under your sleeping bag to keep you warm, snowshoes, a stove that you can use inside your tent, and so forth. If you do not have a lot of the equipment or clothing, we can rent to you the main items and you can layer-up the clothing from what you may have around the house.

Bring the USGS Topographic maps of the area we are going to (or an equivalent version in detail, color, and scope that covers the same area, i.e., Harrison or Halfmile maps).

DSCF1074Do not bring black and white maps or photo-copies of the topos as we will teach you how to recognize the color-referenced creeks, lakes and treelines which will aid in your navigation over-snow. Likewise, do not bring your maps on a smartphone—you need to see many miles ahead in order to plot a course.

Tahoe/Desolation Wilderness:  Echo Lake, Pyramid Peak, Emerald Bay, and Rockbound Valley. If you can “Make your own map,” this is the area:

Carson Pass/Mokelumne Wilderness:  Carson Pass and Caples Lake. If you can “Make your own map,” this is the area:

Stevens Pass, Washington:  USGS maps: Stevens Pass, Scenic, Captain Point, and Labyrinth Mountain (or the corners of each map if you are able to “Make your own map.”

Come with two quarts of water per person to start as snowshoeing makes you very thirsty! Have some snacks readily accessible in an outside pocket of your pack for the way in. You will not need a bear canister for your food.

Important Snow-specific Additions/Changes to the Summer Mentality:

  • Additional layers for the cold (i.e.: long-johns, down parka*, wind shell, gloves or mittens, balaclava, extra socks, down booties*, etc.), a hat with brim/visor for the sun, and an extra bandana for your neck and another for tent spills.
  • You will be practicing falling and sliding on snow and ice, so do not bring fragile external shells.
  • Bring an extra set of gloves for rotation when your sweat builds up while snowshoeing or cave digging.
  • Tall gaiters are a must, especially if we’ve had recent powder or are expecting a storm during the trip. (Pants with internal gaiters will suffice).

*This is especially important for those who get cold easily and/or the weather becomes nasty.
Snow Basics Gear List

Bring enough food and fuel for an extra day. Bring larger servings of food (you will be getting lots of exercise!) that are high in calorie and fat content. (Note:  Some students will not feel “really hungry” while we are out because this is a “short” trip and you utilize stored calories first. On longer trips exceeding 4 or more days, when those calorie stores are depleted, you’ll need the extra food!)


  • Snowshoes,
  • Ice axe*,
  • Rescue shovel (like This Rescue Shovel) (see Rentals)
  • Two hiking poles with snow baskets*,
  • Dark glasses that are UVA + B protected, polarized, and fit closely to your face,
  • Sunscreen,
  • Skin lotion (for dry skin),
  • “chapstick” or lip balm,
  • Snow boots that will work with snowshoes (for example, insulated hiking boots, “Sorels,” or Snowboarding boots),
  • Snow-stable stove and pot set (do not bring alcohol stoves as you will be learning how to safely cook within your tent),
  • A way of keeping several quarts of water in your tent (i.e., water bag),
  • A thicker-than-summer sleeping pad (two summer pads or a down airmat), and
  • A tent that won’t collapse under a snow or high wind load (poles that cross at the top and enough of them so that the roof’s fabric panels are small). For the sake of this trip and your safety, warmth, and security, bring at least a 3-season tent (see Rentals).

* One option is to carry and use one of each, a regular hiking pole with a snow basket and a Black Diamond “Whippet” pole for self-arrest training. If you do not want to buy a Whippet and have an ice axe already, the axe should be long enough to reach from the point of your shoulder diagonally across your chest to your pelvic bone (anterior illiac crest).

Toilet paper buried in the snow will resurface in the spring, so either plan to pack it out or burn it upon use. “Wet Wipes” are priceless, too, so consider bringing a package, but plan on packing those out. Therefore, include an empty ziplock bag with your toiletries for this garbage.

Mountain Education rents certain pieces of equipment which it has tested and endorses at the following rates:

  • Ice Axes: $10/day
  • MSR Lightning Ascent Snow Shoes: $20/day
  • Mountain Hardwear 4-season, 1 or 2-man, EV-2 tent: $45/day
  • Mountain Hardwear 4-season, 3-man, Trango 3 tent: $50/day,
  • Life-link Shovels: $10/day
  • Black Diamond “Whippet” Self-Arrest adjustable poles: $10/day

Please add an 8% sales tax to rental totals.

REI and similar Outdoor stores sometime rent sleeping bags, snowshoes and boots, poles, stoves, shovels, beacons, and pads, to name a few. Check your local store for availability.

  • South Lake Tahoe:  There are two other stores that can provide some of these, The Powder House (530-542-6222) and Vertical Sports (530-541-9294). Please call ahead.

Section Three: What to Prepare forFL000014

Transportation Details:

South Lake Tahoe, CA:
You will need a California/Oregon Sno-Park Permit for the dash of your car for the three days you will be parked there (one per day). For the Tahoe SBC, they can be purchased at the Chevron gas station in the town of Meyers just east of Echo Pass (530-577-1127; opens at 0600), Lake of the Sky Outfitters (530-541-1027), any of the Sunrise Ski Shops in town (530-577-3136), or at the Tahoe Visitors Center (530-542-4637).

From South Lake Tahoe, follow US-50 west through Meyers to Echo Summit. As you crest the summit, note your car’s mileage for you only need go 1 mile further west to turn right onto Johnson Pass Road, following signs to Echo Lake Resort. One mile up this summer-paved and winter-plowed road and you will reach a sign on the right to the Sno-Park Parking Lot. Find a spot in front. Arrive by 10:00am. We will leave the parking lot and begin our hike by 11:00am.

Snow Park Permits
Echo Lake

Carson Pass

Stevens Pass, Washington:

Most of the students attending this special SBC will be coming in from Portland, Seattle, or somewhere between. Please use the pre-course group emailings that come after you apply to contact fellow students for carpooling possibilities, if desired.

This, special SBC starts at 6pm the night prior for a presentation on late-season NoBo PCT hiking risks given by local Search & Rescue personnel. Do not miss this as these are the guys who will be rescuing you in case your thru hike runs late, past mid-September, and new, powder snow covers the trail and you can’t move.

The main part of the course officially starts at 10am the next day in the Trailhead parking lot. The details of both the SAR presentation and where to meet (which parking lot at the Stevens Pass Ski Area) will be announced by email before the course starts.

If the weather is already bad, yet you have and know how to drive with chains or have a 4-wheel drive with snow tires, stay in touch via cell phone (call Ned at 530-721-1551) so that we remain in the parking lot waiting for you. If you don’t have a 4-wheel drive, you’ll need chains and know how to install them. This is all part of foul weather training. Carpooling is encouraged and facilitated by pre-trip group email.

Some students drive great distances while others fly into nearby airports and rent cars to drive to the trailhead. If students planning to fly coordinate their arrival times with fellow students, they can arrange to share car rental costs and save a few dollars. Pre-trip email discussions help everyone understand the trip, “fine-tune” their food and gear, and prepare for their arrival at and departure from the trailhead.

Pre-trip lodging in town is usually a good idea, especially to get used to the altitude and help you get to the trailhead on time the next morning!
South Lake Tahoe:

  • Most Tahoe students use the local Motel 6 in South Lake Tahoe, but there are many quaint, little motels and cabins in town from which to choose that may be as inexpensive. Don’t rule out the Casinos (Harrah’s, Harvey’s, Mont Blue) as they have good rooms and buffet-style meals for hungry hikers!IMAG0112

Skykomish, Washington:

  • Cascadia Inn, Skykomish:
  • The Dinsmore’s Hiker Haven, Baring:

Section Four: Course Itinerary

All of the Snow Basics Courses operate the same way, no matter where they are offered. The object is to bring to you all of the learning opportunities needed to safely, confidently, and efficiently snow-hike and camp for your next snow-bound journey. We do this by:

  • Pre-trip instruction via group and direct email to help you prepare for your weekend’s instruction,
  • Trailhead pre-hike Course Intro, instructions, and guidelines,
  • Frequent in-hike stops to seize any instructional moments you need to learn/realize,
  • Candid discussions during most meals on any topic you want,
  • Scheduled clinics to teach specific skills like Self-Arrest or Over-Snow Navigation, and
  • All those little new situations like Sanitation, In-Tent Cooking, and Staying Warm.

All students meet in the designated Trailhead Parking Lot at 10:00 am on the first morning where we cover group introductions, some paperwork, consolidate and re-pack our packs, learn how to put on snowshoes, and so forth. (Washington SBCs do this at the Cascadia. If you cannot meet there, please let us know ahead of time).

Whether arriving at the trailhead as an individual or in a group, expect to snowshoe moderately all day with frequent breaks for food, water, and rest until we get to basecamp the latter part of the afternoon. We will travel as a group and close enough together to be able to hear everyone. There will, also, be frequent stops for teachings and discussion. If there is deep powder and we need to learn how to “break trail,” expect to be asked to rotate leading the group briefly, packing down snow, as we move along toward camp. We stay together so everyone can hear each other and your instructor’s constant advice and instruction.

Upon arrival in the location of our basecamp, you will be taught:

  • Wise places to pitch your tents,
  • How to anchor tents in snow,
  • How to deal with wind and snowfall while making camp.

After our tents are pitched and securely anchored for expected weather and while there is still enough light to see, we will:

  • Organize Camp: “kitchen” construction and latrine location,
  • Discuss sanitation, exploration, safety rules, and water needs, then have our first Clinic,
  • “How to Find and Get Water without Falling In!”

When this clinic is done and water bottles and bags are full, we will sit around the “Kitchen Table” with our stoves roaring and enjoy dinner and each other’s company! If it is snowing, if it is late, or everyone is tired, we will cover one more detail:

  • In-Tent cooking

(Note: When the weather be snowing, our priorities will be to stay in our tents in order to remain warm and dry. “Wet-Packing” is not allowed during winter courses as it often contributes to worse situations like hypothermia, exposure, frostbite, and the like. We will try to teach you as much as intended, but we may have to change the Course Itinerary per weather and group abilities!)

The next morning, expect the usual, personal “morning duties” about your camp followed by breakfast in the Kitchen or in your tent, as you prefer, and then we’ll pack up our day packs for a day-hike. During this day, we will teach the following:

  • Walking Balanced with poles on snow,
  • Ascent/Descent Techniques with snowshoes, then with boots only,87760013
  • The appropriate use of Hiking-Crampons vs. Microspikes,
  • Route Selection: Avalanche Awareness & Avoidance,
  • Finding & Following the Trail beneath the snowpack,
  • Map Orientation by Landmark Recognition,
  • Map & Compass vs. GPS,
  • Risk Identification & Assessment,
  • Snow Hazards above, on, and below the surface,
  • Creek & Lake crossings,
  • Weather Awareness & Assessment,
  • Snowpack Stability Study: the Snow Pit (bring your shovels!),
  • Hydration, Exposure, Snow-Blindness, Hyper/Hypothermia, and Exhaustion/Fatigue,
  • Emergency Shelter Construction: the Snow Trench & Snow Cave,
  • How to keep water and clothes from freezing at night, and
  • Tips to stay warm at night for a better night’s sleep!

Dinner discussion and sleep remain for the day!

Our last day begins with Breakfast, of course, and then we will conduct our last, detailed skills clinic:

  • Self-Arrest (bring gloves, axe or Whippet, shells, tall gaiters, glasses, snacks, and water).

Typically, this clinic takes the whole morning, is full of laughter, and involves some sitting in the snow and watching everyone get their one-on-one instruction in this invaluable, life-saving skill. When we are all done, we’ll head back to basecamp, catch a little lunch, and pack up to head back to the cars by 4pm.

Rules of the Trail:
Snow travel is exhilarating and beautiful, but can be hazardous. Therefore, each student must adhere to the following for individual and group safety concerns:

  • No unapproved fires.
  • No unapproved wandering.
  • Always tell someone where you are going and why whenever you leave basecamp (bathroom, water collection, etc.).
  • When traveling, everyone stays together and along a specifically designated route with your Instructors in front and back of your group.
  • For your individual safety and that of your group, conduct yourself as directed by your Guide or Instructor. Willful disrespect or insubordination to direction will result in immediate expulsion from the Course.
  • If any student is in need of assistance, say they are just too tired, it is everyone’s responsibility to lend a helping hand and/or notify the instructor.

Mountain Education is not responsible for accident, injury, or death to students who will not take direction or adhere to the rules of individual and group safe conduct as taught preceding and during the Course.

Instructor Note:
Certain lightweight or summer-typical gear or clothing items must be excluded from this Course:

  • Inappropriate Tents, because of high winds and heavy snow fall (if there is bad weather),
  • Inappropriate Footwear, because you cannot get wet or cold feet,
  • Insufficient Pads & Bags, because you cannot get cold at night, and
  • Alcohol Stoves, because, should the weather turn nasty, you’ll have to cook inside your tent.

Courses in April may allow attending thru hikers to use their summer, lightweight gear (with a few additions for powder, storms, and the self-arrest clinic) since these students usually head straight from the weekend’s training to the Mexican border to start their thru hikes. Instructor approval required.


Snow Basics Courses
Snow Basics Gear List
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