The Best Avalanche Beacon Review

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Comparing beacons in Mt. Rainier National Park.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
What is the best avalanche beacon for the backcountry? To find out we took thirteen of the top models and put them through rigorous head-to-head tests in the Cascades, Sierra, and Alaska. We had novices test them to see which is easiest to use and learn and then also put them in the hands of expert mountain guides and AIARE instructors who teach avalanche safety courses.

Read the full review below >

Review by: Ian Nicholson and Chris McNamara January 6, 2014

Top Ranked Avalanche Beacons Displaying 1 - 5 of 13 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
Mammut Pulse Barryvox
Mammut Pulse Barryvox
Read the Review
Ortovox S1+
Ortovox S1+
Read the Review
Pieps DSP Pro
Pieps DSP Pro
Read the Review
Arva Neo
Arva Neo
Read the Review
Arva Pro W
Arva Pro W
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award  Top Pick Award  Top Pick Award  Top Pick Award   
Street Price Varies $350 - $490
Compare at 5 sellers
$489
Compare at 2 sellers
Varies $312 - $375
Compare at 3 sellers
$350Varies $315 - $460
Compare at 3 sellers
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Editors' Rating
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User Rating Be the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate it
Pros Best range for a digital beacon, tons of features and user optionsEasy to use, long range, may be the wave of the future.Lots of features, good range, fast processor, Best Battery life in our review, excellent flagging featureExcellent Range, Lightning fast, Well labeled buttons and easy to use interfaceTons of features, Long range
Cons Expensive, fast processing but not the fastest.More experienced users will have to slightly retrain themselves, expensive.Battery life is only displayed in thirds and not a percentage.Flagging options were marginally more confusing at firstOne of the more complex interfaces, Slightly slower than top beacons in the fine search
Best Uses A fantastic beacon for intermediate through the most advanced professionalsA great beacon for most noice to intermediate users through the most demanding avalanche professional.Proffesionals, ski guides, trip leaders and advanced backcountry travelersAnyone from novice to expertProffesionals, ski guides, trip leaders and advanced backcountry travelers
Date Reviewed Jan 07, 2014Jan 03, 2014Jan 07, 2014Jan 07, 2014Dec 05, 2013
Weighted Scores Mammut Pulse Barryvox Ortovox S1+ Pieps DSP Pro Arva Neo Arva Pro W
Range - 15%
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Speed - 20%
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Single Victim Search - 20%
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Fine Search - 15%
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Multiple Burials - 15%
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Features - 15%
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Product Specs Mammut Pulse Barryvox Ortovox S1+ Pieps DSP Pro Arva Neo Arva Pro W
Weight 7.4 oz/210g 9.2oz/260g 7.0oz/200g 8.1oz/230g 9.2oz/ 260g
Number of Antennae 3 3 3 3 3
Manufacturer's Range 60m 50m 60m 60m 60m
Flagging Feature? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Battery Life (send) 200 hrs 250 hrs 400 hrs 250 hrs 250 hrs
Digital/Analogue Both Digital Digital Digital Both
Cost $490 $490 $375 $350 $350

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


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Mammut Pulse Barryvox
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Pieps DSP Sport
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Ortovox S1+
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Pieps DSP Pro
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Arva Neo
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Mammut Barryvox Element
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Pieps DSP
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Arva Pro W
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Ortovox 3+
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Arva Evo3+
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Backcountry Access Tracker DTS
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Ortovox Zoom+
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Ortovox F1
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PIEPS Freeride
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Another round of side-by-side testing and beacon comparisons.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
How To Choose The Best Avalanche Beacon
Below we break down the criteria we used for evaluation as well as presenting a few key pieces of information regarding avalanche beacons. Besides real world applications, we also preformed a series of side by side tests to compare range, processor speed, flagging features, battery life and more. We break down the different models and their advantages and disadvantages. We also report our overall favorite and Editors Choice, what we feel is the Best Value as well as a handful of our other Top Picks for specific reasons and user groups from novice to professional.

Ever wonder how do avalanche beacons work? Check out our How To Choose the Best Avalanche Beacon article on beacon fundamentals, current technology, in addition to buying advice on key features and important factors to consider when purchasing this key piece of life saving back-country equipment.

If you are heading into the backcountry also be sure to check out our Avalanche Airbag Review, Airbag packs aren't quite as essential as an avalanche beacon but greatly increase your chances of surviving an avalanche.

A Note On Wearing An Avalanche Beacon
Statics
Statistically 38 people will die from avalanches in North America every year and 185 people worldwide. In North America, roughly 1/3 of those deaths are a result of trauma and the other 2/3's are a result of asphyxiation. Wearing an avalanche beacon doesn't guarantee survival in an avalanche and the fact that you're wearing one should not persuade you to ski, snowboard, or snowmobile something you otherwise wouldn't.
This graph excludes victims who die of trauma and emphasizes the impor...
This graph excludes victims who die of trauma and emphasizes the importance of proper training and practice to gain faster speed and proficiency. Times include beacon work, probing and shoveling.
Credit: AIARE (American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education)
Practice Makes Perfect
No matter how fancy a product you decide to purchase, training and practice are essential. The above graph emphasizes the importance of proficiency with the rescuers beacon. Experienced backcountry enthusiasts and avalanche professionals can find multiple beacons in under six minutes, while the unpracticed novice can easily take 35 minutes or more. While the statistic of the average rescue time is heavily debated, from the moment the person is caught in the slide, to the time victim's airway is exposed on the surface, is somewhere around 20 minutes. Wouldn't you rather, you and your partners be on the faster side of that average? We recommend taking an AIARE (American Avalanche of Research and Education) or American Avalanche Institute (AAI) avalanche course.

Wearing an Avalanche Beacon
There are two locations on your body that are considered acceptable to wear one. The first is in your beacon's harness, this puts it in the largest "target area" on your body and it's slightly more protected from impact. While wearing the beacon in it's harness, it is not acceptable to wear it on the outside of the outer most layer of clothing (i.e. underneath at least one more layer of clothing) because the odds of it getting ripped off your body are too high. The other acceptable location is in your pants on the inside of a zippered sewn in pocket. Laminated pockets are not okay because there have been cases of these pockets being torn off during an avalanche.
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Ian Nicholson showing one of two appropriate ways to wear an avalanche beacon. Here a Ortovox Zoom+ is worn on in an hanging/inside, zippered pants pocket, the other way is in the beacon's harness system, as long as its not on the outside.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Don't keep your cell phone, radio, or Go-Pro within 30cm of your unit regardless if its on or off. There have been at least two high profile deaths in the last three years because a cell phone interfered with their wearers beacon. At least one of these cell phones was off. Recently there have been some reports of people with heated gloves and boots causing interference.

Criteria For Evaluation
Range Comparisons
A Note On Range
A manufactures given maximum range is always with the searching beacon and the "victim beacon" in perfect orientation or perfect "coupling". While this is a standard among manufacturers and is the same format for our OutdoorGearLab Range test, it is important to note, that it is unlikely you will get that much range in a real world setting because odds of getting that perfect alinement are so slim. Almost all of the products we tested have a manufactures maximum range between a 40-60 meter maximum range. So if a optimal or perfect case situation range is 50 meters, its worst case situation range is half, which for our example beacon that has a maximum range of 50m, it's worst case is 25m. Because most have between 40-60m of maximum range, it means they have 20-30 meters of range worst case. This is why AIARE and other avalanche educational organizations teach the rescuer to search with a 30m wide search strip width; or 15m meters of range on either side of you, so you could pick up the signal even with the poorest coupling and a beacon with the lowest possible range, including the extremely popular first generation Tracker DTS.
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Side-by-side range comparisons, with a Pieps DSP Pro in the foreground of the photo.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
Manufacturers maximum distance ratings
While the manufacture's range was fairly accurate a lot of the time, and is a good starting point to compare from, it is almost always a bit further than we could pick up.

A Note on the distance numbers
The units(IE numbers) that describe distance along the flux line that we follow to find our victim in most cases are not actually meters. For example when we picked up a signal with a Tracker 2 while it is reading 47 meters, we were actually around 42 meters away. In our tests the only product we think that the number unit was accurately a meter is the Mammut Element Barryvox and the Mammut Pulse Barryvox. With most displaying a greater number of units than they were distance away in meters. The Pieps were the most notorious at this, nearly always having the greatest number for the same distance when compared to other contenders.

OutdoorGearLab Range Tests
We tested all of the contenders' ranges on a high school football field with marked five yard lines. We preformed the test by starting out of range with as optimal coupling as we could get, with the beacon we were searching for starting 85m away while sitting on the ground. Our test product was at waist level in a typical searching position. We did our best to mark the place we first picked up the signal and measured from the nearest five yard line and then convert yards to meters when presenting our results. In the end those with the longest range are the ones that were entirely analog or had an analog function. These included the Ortovox F1 (76m), the Mammut Pulse Barryvox (72m) and the Arva Pro W(62m). Both the Mammut Pulse and the Arva Pro W could pick up a beacon 13-19 meters further away than when they were in digital mode. While we agree this is a cool feature, few people know how to accurately use the analog function effectively enough that it speeds up their rescue. Because we feel it doesn't aid most peoples search as effectively, we primarily reported each products maximum digital range in our tests.

After countless tests and comparisons, the products with the longest range are the Mammut Pulse Barryvox, Mammut Element Barryvox and Arva Neo. They could sometimes receive signals just below 60 meters and were our top performers in this category. Just barely behind in our maximum range tests were the Ortovox S1+, the Pieps DSP Pro and the Arva Pro W all of these models had ranges on either side of 50 meters. Next, it was just below a 10 meter gap before the next round, which included the BCA Tracker 2, Ortovox 3+ and the Pieps DSP Sport.
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OutdoorGearLab's real world beacon test range results. Its worth noting that the Mammut Pulse Barryvox and Arva Pro W's range while in analog mode is not reported here and these beacons analog modes added approximately 12-19 more meters of Range. Tests were preformed on a lined football field and all ranges are measured off of the five yard marks to the best of our ability and then converted to meters.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Speed
Our "Speed" category is straight up, how fast we could find a victim with a given beacon start to finish. While speed takes into account several other categories we used for our criteria for evaluation, speed has some of its own, with the most important being processor speed, dealing with both a single burial as well as how bogged down it gets with multiples. To test "speed", we compared all fourteen products side by side over several days with well over 200 beacon search tests preformed. We also let everyone from relative novices to seasoned avalanche instructors test them to give us a more broad range insight into each contenders performance. In the end the fastest performers weren't always the most expensive, nor the most feature rich option, in fact, we found several of the more complex models to be slightly slower than their more basic counter parts.

The models we found to be the most lightning quick because of their processor speed were the BCA Tracker 2, the Arva Neo, Otyovox 3+, the Pieps DSP Sport]] and the Pieps DSP Pro. The Ortovox S1+, Mammut Pulse Barryvox and Element Barryvox and Ortovox Zoom+ were very very close, but just a touch slower overall. This is were we were a little more disappointed with some of the simpler options like the Arva Evo3+ and the original Tracker DTS. They did okay, but not as quick as other "simple" beacons.
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Side-by-side beacon comparison in Mt. Rainier National Park.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
Ease Of Finding A Single Victim
This is the most basic but most important difference consideration when choosing a avalanche beacon and in our scoring we weighted this category the most heavily. One of the biggest differences comes in how they deal with signal spikes. All the three antennae models did great, while the older or more price pointed double or single antenna designs like the Pieps Freeride, Ortovox F1 or the older Tracker DTS certainly had their short comings.
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Ian Nicholson testing an Ortovox 3+ in the fine search.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Interface and Controls
How easy and intuitive the controls and interface, combined with its intuitiveness had a direct correlation with how fast rescuers found beacons both expert and novice alike. Along with the user interface are the actual controls that help you navigate through menus, go from send to search, and flag buried beacon.

Our favorite controls for "simple" models was the BCA Tracker 2 and the Ortovox Zoom+. They both have simple and intuitive controls that are easy to understand and operate. While they don't have any of the more complex features like a flagging feature, or options on various functions, both are hands down the easiest to use. For the mid level complexity models, referring to models that had a search and send feature and flagging/marking function, the Arva Neo, Ortovox 3+ and the Pieps DSP Sport which were all surprisingly easy to understand and intuitive to use. Among the most complex models we really like the user interface and controls of both the Ortovox S1+ and the Mammut Pulse Barryvox. This is one area where one of our top scorers the Arva Pro W didn't score as well. Even compared with other complex, feature rich products the Pro W was a little harder to use and the menu wasn't as intuitive and took a little longer before we got the hang of it.
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Showing the main menu of the Ortovox S1+. While there are a lot of features, we felt the menu on the S1+ was fairly easy to use and understand.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Ease Of Use In Fine Search
The fine search is the final phase of the total search and involves the final approach and bracketing stages. It is important to slow down during this stage, but this is also the phase of the search where you can see the greatest difference between products as far as processing power. They don't all have the same precision and some were slightly better at getting the victim more in the center of our brackets than others. This is were the Mammut Pulse Barryvox and Element performed near the top again, along With the BCA Tracker 2, Pieps DSP Pro, Pieps DSP Sport, and Arva Neo, which had top scores as well. After our tests we thought the Ortovox 3+ and the Arva Evo3+ were slightly less precise at having our victim in the center of our brackets compared with some of the other top scoring options.
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Showing the steps of the fine search. At 10m the beacon should be keep at ground level. Below 2m the beacon should be kept in the same orientation while bracketing.
Credit: AIARE

Ease Of Use In Multiple Burial Situations
Multiple burial situations are likely where the competition differed the greatest. But because it is more important to find, probe and dig up a single victim rather than just flagging/marking multiple victims without digging them up. We more heavily weighted "Speed" and "Ease of finding a single victim", in our scoring, but with that said, multiple burials are is still a factor to consider. We preformed our side by side comparisons tests with two, three and four buried beacons to see how well each one stacked up and resisted getting bogged down. Something to keep in mind with any beacon regarding multiple burial situations is that they are always harder and take even more practice than with single burials. After dozens of tests and comparisons the undisputed best products for multiple burials are the Mammut Pulse Barryvox and the Ortovox S1+. Both of these could handle a lot of signals well, even if two were buried close together the S1+ and the Pulse were up to the challenge. Both the S1+ and the Pulse allowed their user to scroll between previously "flagged" beacons. Other products that preformed as well with just two or three beacons and nearly as well with four or more beacons are the Pieps DSP Pro, Arva Neo, Ortovox 3+ and Arva Pro W. All of these products could process handle four signals, just not as solidly as the S1+ or the Pulse. The Neo, DSP Pro, Pro W and 3+ all had functional and intuitive flagging/marking functions and preformed fantastically with up to three beacons. Worth noting is the DSP Pro and the Arva Pro can also unmask previously marked beacons.
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Comparing beacons back-to-back during the bracketing stage of the fine search.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Other Features
Revert to Transmit Mode
Some of the models we tested had a "Revert to Transmit" feature. This feature has the unit automatically switch from search mode to send mode if there has not been any user interaction like pressing a button or major movement during a designated time period. The idea behind this feature is if the rescuer is searching and their beacon is in "search mode" and they are hit by a second avalanche, it will switch over in hopes that they could be located. The models that we tested that have a "Revert To Transmit" mode are the Ortovox S1, Ortovox 3+, Arva Pro W, Arva Neo and the Mammut Pulse Barryvox. The new Pieps Sport and Peips DSP Pro have this feature but you can't set it up in the field and must set it up at home by plugging the Pieps data cable into its headphone jack. We really liked beacons that gave the user the option to turn this function on, or off and gave higher scores for beacons that took it one step further by allowing the user to select the amount of time to pass before the beacon reverted to sending. Beacons that had this feature where the Arva Pro W, Arva Neo, Barryvox Pulse and Ortovox S1+.

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Testing the Mammut Pulse Barryvox during the bracketing stage of the fine search.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
The Plus/Minus Of Revert To Transmit Mode
The revert to transmit mode is sometimes a little controversial feature, that's importance is sometimes over emphasized and some manufactures including Pieps don't recommend it and intentionally manufacture their beacons without it. Why wouldn't you want your beacon to automatically switch back from searching to sending in the event you are hit by a second avalanche you might ask? The answer is; because if you are searching for someone your beacon is likely in your hand and if the searcher is hit by a second avalanche there is almost 0% chance that the search will be able to hang onto it. The elastic leash attaching the beacon to the wearers chest harness is also almost certain to snap, so while we took this feature into consideration when weighting all of the products we tested, we don't think the revert to transmit feature is a very big factor.

Built In Compass For Fine Search
Another cool feature that some models have is a built in compass, this feature proved especially helpful in the "fine search". It would basically tell you if you had gone to far and to turn around, unlike with the Pieps or Tracker beacons, the arrow would still tell you to go straight ahead with the only indication that you needed to turn around being the numbers. Products that have this compass feature are the Mammut Barryvox Pulse, Arva Link and Ortovox S1+.

Proprietary Beacon technology
The W-link Frequency
The W-link frequency was developed in conjunction with both Mammut and Arva to create their Pulse and Pro W models respectively. We do expect to see more beacons using W-link frequency technology in the future. The W-link is a separate frequency that broadcasts in conjunction with the standard 457 kHz. The W-link allows the beacon to transmit additional information to assist other W-Link enabled beacons and more accurately pinpoint other W-Link beacons. This is the frequency the the Mammut Pulse Barryvox transmits its "Pulse" feature movement information.

Smart Antenna Technology
A feature originally devolved by Ortovox that we also expect to see other manufacturers devolve in the future is their Smart Antenna Technology. How it works is basically any unit using this type of technology figures out which of the antennas is at the best orientation to broadcast from. For example with most other products if the primary transmitting antenna is orientated vertically the range at which other beacons will be able to pick up the buried beacon are dramatically reduced and could potentially be close to only 50% of maximum range. However with the Smart Antenna or similar technology which instead of it uses gravity to figure out which is the best antenna to transmit on. Basically the smart antenna technology helps beacons be found more easily by optimizing antenna position, rather than what most people would expect, that it helps a beacon search better, which is not true.

Isotech Technology
With most triple antennas models, only two of the antennas are being used to search for a signal, and the most of the time, one of the two antenna's is being implemented far less than the other. This effects the beacons maximum range and thus the search strip width that should be used. The Arva Neo is one of the first to equally power both of it's antennas. What this means is the Neo essentially has no worst case orientation and maintains close to its maximum range regardless of orientation or coupling.
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A group using strategic shoveling after bracketing with their beacon and probing.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Durability
People always want to know about beacon durability. With the exception of the first generation BCA DTS Trackers whose antennas are marginally more vulnerable to being cracked because of their location within the beacon, there isn't much difference. With all avalanche beacons it's important to remember that they are fragile pieces of life saving equipment and owners should do their best to protect them. Avoiding impact or unnecessarily leaving them out in the cold (such as in your car) overnight which can lead the antennas to de-tune. If the antennas become damaged, even a little crack, it can dramatically effect its ability to search as well as someone else's ability to save you. This is especially obvious under five meters during the fine search. As far as one companies antennas being more long lasting and resistant to de-tuning compared to others we couldn't find a major difference.

Editors' Choice - Best Avalanche Beacon
The Mammut Pulse Barryvox is our top scorer and winner of our OutdoorGearLab Editor's Choice award. The Pulse scored near, or at the top in every category. For being one of the most complex, feature rich options on the market, most people still found it relatively easy to use. The Pulse also has has the longest range, was among the fastest and deals the multiple burials exceptionally well. What's the disadvantage? The Pulse is, the along with the Ortovox S1+ the most expensive in our review. The Pulse can also be a little over whelming for some users.
Mammut Pulse Barryvox Transceiver
Mammut Pulse Barryvox Transceiver
Credit: Mammut

Best Buy - Best Value Avalanche Beacon
Our new OutdoorGearLab Best Value is the Pieps DSP Sport. It retails for only $275, which is one of the least expensive models in our review and the cheapest triple antenna option in our review. Being inexpesive ceratinly doesn't make it incapable, the DSP Sport has the longest range, and is only one of two products that have a flagging/marking feature for under $335. Also among sub $335 options, the Pieps DSP Sport, one of the easier to use and has one of the fastest processors during every stage of the search.
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Pieps DSP Sport Avalanche Beacon
Credit: Pieps/Black Diamond

Top Pick - Best all around avalanche beacon between $300-$400
The Best product between $300 and $400 was a tough call because there are a lot of great options in that price range. This is also the price range that most consumers are looking in and most of the features these products have are geared toward the majority (novice through advanced) of users, leaving only the most experienced guides and avalanche professionals and the most remedial to likely want something different. After careful consideration the OutdoorGearLab Top Pick for best all around product between $300 and $400 goes to the Arva Neo. The Neo certainly wasn't the runaway winner in this category, facing stiff competition from both the Mammut Element Barryvox and the Pieps DSP Pro, but in the end we gave it to the Arva Neo for its top end range, fastest in class processing, its stellar user interface and it's easy to use and effective flagging feature. If you like the Neo, but wish it had a couple more advanced features check out the Mammut Element or the Pieps DSP Pro.
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The Arva Neo
Credit: Arva

Top Pick - For Speed and Ease of Use
The Backcountry Access (BCA) Tracker 2 remains the fastest option for the novice, through intermediate users for finding a single victim and one of the fastest beacons period. Overall the Tracker 2 was the fastest or near the fastest regardless of user ability and that is why it earns one of our Top Pick awards, because that's the straight up most important thing a beacon needs to do. While it might not have any of the more advanced features that some other products have, the Tracker 2 serves the majority of users extremely well. If you like the Tracker 2 but wish it had a flagging/marking feature check out the Ortovox 3+ which we could move near as fast with and it is equally as intuitive. It you like the Tracker 2 but wish it was even more simple, check out the Ortovox Zoom+, it is also near as fast as the Tracker 2 but even more simple to use.
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A BCA Tracker 2 avalanche beacon.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Top Pick
The Ortovox S1+ was just barely edged out in our scoring by our overall Editor's Choice the Mammut Pulse Barryvox and its still one of our favorites. It is a previous Editor's Choice winner (2011) and when it came out we considered it a "game changer". We still think one day other models will use similar technology as the S1+. What sets the S1+ apart is, it's the only option on the market that takes you straight to the victim, rather than "hooking" around on a flux line. This plus its fast processor, helped the S1+ to be one of the quickest we tested. It also handled multiple burials exceptionally well and like single burials, it displays them in a completely different way; it shows all the victims, each with its own distance number all at the same time, making it easy to keep track of them. The S1+ also like other high end products has a dozen or so other features and control of several options within each feature.
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The Ortovox S1+ winner of our OutdoorGearLab Top Pick for avalanche beacons for more advanced users and avalanche professionals.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Ian Nicholson and Chris McNamara
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