The Best Avalanche Beacon Review
What is the best avalanche beacon for the backcountry? To find out we took 13 top models and put them through rigorous head-to-head tests in the Cascades, Sierras and Alaska. We had novices test them to see which is easiest to learn and use; then we put them in the hands of expert mountain guides, avalanche forecasters, and seasoned AIARE avalanche course instructors to see which beacons they preferred most.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Other Awesome Beacons that Narrowly Missed Being Top Picks:
Backcountry Access Tracker3
The slick looking new Backcountry Access Tracker3 is the newest of the Tracker family. Like its relatives, it's great at finding a single victim and bracketing during fine search, where most rescuers struggle the most. The Tracker3 now adds a lot more features aimed at advanced users: a signal suppression/marking function and the best overall pocket-riding triple antenna beacon on the market. We liked nearly all of the Tracker3's features, (especially its BP or Big Picture function) and its control options. We liked the accuracy of the signal suppression/marking function but didn't like that the suppression only lasted for one minute. After that one minute the beacon reverts back to normal searching where the rescuer is directed to the closest beacon, regardless of which beacon that is. While less of an issue in real world settings, we also didn't love that the Tracker3 can only suppress one signal at a time; if you try to suppress a second, it undoes the first. The Tracker3 remains a capable, lightning fast beacon that has some of the functionality desired by more advanced users.
Pieps DSP Sport
The Pieps DSP Sport was our Best Buy award winner when it used to cost $275, now at $320 it's still a rad beacon for what is still an excellent price, but it faces a lot more competition in the mid-$300 price range. With that being said, we still think it's one of the most capable beacons for its price and is still one of our favorite overall products we tested for its ease-of-use and lightning quick processor. We also think that 80% of people should likely buy the DSP Sport over the DSP Pro because they'll never use the more advanced features and might as well just save the money and buy a nicer shovel.
The Arva Evo4 was a strong contender for our Best Buy award being the least expensive beacon ($290) to feature flagging/marking features. It's easier to use and quicker than its predecessor the Evo3+ and is above average for processor speed among beacons in our review. Its slightly below average range and bulky housing are what narrowly kept it from being our Top Pick winner but it remains a super easy-to-use and dependable option for folks looking for a solid beacon on a budget.
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Analysis and Test Results
Below we break down the criteria we used for evaluation and present a few key pieces of information regarding avalanche beacons. Besides real world applications, we also performed a series of side-by-side tests to compare range, processor speed, flagging/marking features, battery life and more. We break down the different models and their advantages and disadvantages. We also pick our Editors' Choice, the Best Buy and a handful of Top Picks for specific reasons and a handful of user groups from novice to professional.
Ever wonder how avalanche beacons work? Check out our How To Choose the Best Avalanche Beacon article on beacon fundamentals and current technology in addition to buying advice on key features and important factors to consider.
If you are heading into the backcountry, check out our Avalanche Airbag Review. Airbag packs aren't as essential as an avalanche beacon but they greatly increase your chance of surviving an avalanche (it's a really sweet review).
A Note on Wearing an Avalanche Beacon
On average, 38 people die from avalanches in North America every year and 185 people worldwide. In North America, roughly one-third of those deaths are a result of trauma and the other two-thirds are a result of asphyxiation. Wearing an avalanche beacon doesn't guarantee survival in an avalanche and the fact that you are wearing one should not persuade you to ski, snowboard, or snowmobile in a way you otherwise wouldn't.
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 the average rescue time is heavily debated, it is generally thought that from the moment the person is caught in the slide to the time the victim's airway is exposed on the surface is around 20 minutes. Wouldn't you and your partners like to be on the faster side of that average? We recommend taking an AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) or American Avalanche Institute (AAI) avalanche course. Or if you haven't taken one in the last 8-10 years you might consider taking one again since a lot has changed with recent studies and it's truly is time to freshen up your skills.
Wearing an Avalanche Beacon
There are two locations on your body that are considered acceptable to wear your beacon. 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 its harness, it is not acceptable to have it on the outside of your outermost layer of clothing rather than underneath at least one layer of clothing because the odds of it getting ripped off your body are too high (no matter how hot it is, or how cool you think it makes you look). The other acceptable location is in your pants on the inside of a zippered sewn-in pocket. Laminated pockets are not okay because these types of pockets have been torn off during an avalanche.
Don't keep your cell phone, radio or GoPro within 30 cm of your unit, regardless of whether it is on or off. There have been at least two high-profile deaths in the last three years because a cell phone interfered with the wearer's beacon. At least one of these cell phones was off. Recently there have been reports of heated gloves and boots causing interference.
Criteria for Evaluation
Speed is along with ease of finding a single victim the most important factor you should consider when purchasing a beacon. Our speed category measured how fast we could find a victim with a given beacon, start to finish. While speed takes into account several other categories we used in our criteria for evaluation, speed has some of its own, the most important being processor speed, dealing with both a single burial and multiple burials. To test speed we compared all 13 products side-by-side over several days with well over 200 tests performed. We also let everyone, from relative novices to seasoned avalanche instructors, test them to get a broad insight into each contender's performance. In the end, the fastest performers weren't always the most expensive nor the most feature rich options. In fact, we found several of the more complex models to be slightly slower than their more basic counterparts.
The models we found to be the most lightning quick because of their processor speed were the BCA Tracker 2, Tracker3, the Arva Neo, Otyovox 3+, the Pieps DSP Sport and the Pieps DSP Pro. The Ortovox S1+, Mammut Pulse Barryvox and Barryvox Element, Arva Evo4, and Ortovox Zoom+ were just a touch slower. We were a little disappointed with the original Tracker DTS. This model did okay but was not as quick as other "simple" beacons.
Ease of Finding a Single Victim
This is the most basic but most important consideration when choosing an avalanche beacon; in our scoring, we weighted this category the most heavily. We put so much emphasis on this category because statistically speaking 85% of the time rescuers are searching for a single burial. The other 15% of the time where multiple people are buried, rescuers won't have the resources to divide and conquer and will likely be focusing all of their effort on one victim at a time. We weighted "ease of use" taking into account the simplicity and functionality of the interface, the controls and processing speed. Another big factor we took into consideration when comparing was how well each beacon dealt with signal spikes. All the three antennae models did great, while the older or less expensive double or single antenna designs like the older Tracker DTS, had their shortcomings.
Interface and Controls
How easy and intuitive the controls and interface are 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 a buried beacon.
Our favorite controls for simple models were on the BCA Tracker 2 and the Ortovox Zoom+. Both models 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. Of the mid-level complexity models, referring to models that had a search and send feature and flagging/marking function, the Arva Evo4, Arva Neo, Ortovox 3+ and the Pieps DSP Sport were surprisingly easy to understand and intuitive to use. Among the most complex models, we 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 do as well. Even compared with other complex, feature-rich products, the Pro W was a little harder to use; the menu wasn't as intuitive and it took a little longer to get the hang of it.
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. This is the part of the beacon phase of the search that rescuers struggle with the most. 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 with respect to processing power. They don't all have the same precision; some were slightly better than others at getting the victim in the center of our brackets more effectively. 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. The Ortovox 3+ was slightly less precise at having our victim in the center of our brackets.
A Note on Range
A manufacturer's given maximum range is always measured with the searching beacon and the victim beacon in perfect orientation or perfect "coupling." 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 alignment are slim. Almost all of the products we tested have a manufacturer's maximum range of between 40 and 60 meters. So if a perfect case range is 50 meters, its worst case range is 25 meters. Because most beacons cite 40-60 meters of maximum range, it means they have 20-30 meters of worst case range. This is why AIARE and other avalanche educational organizations teach the rescuer to search with a 30 meter wide search strip width; or 15 meters of range on either side of you. That way 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.
Manufacturers' Maximum Distance Ratings
While the manufacturer's range was fairly accurate, some of the time it was usually 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 are usually not actually meters. For example, when we picked up a signal with a Tracker 2 while it was reading 47 meters, we were actually around 42 meters away. In our tests the only products where the number was accurate were the Mammut Barryvox Element and the Mammut Pulse Barryvox. Most units displayed a greater number of meters than what was the actual distance. The Pieps were the most notorious for this.
OutdoorGearLab Range Tests
We tested all of the contenders' ranges on a high school football field. We started out of range with as optimal a coupling as we could get with the target beacon 85 meters away. Our test product was at waist level in a typical searching position. We marked the place we first picked up the signal; those with the longest range were entirely analog or had an analog function. These included 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 in analog 13-19 meters further away than when they were in digital mode. While we agree analog is a cool feature, few people know how to accurately use the analog function effectively enough so that it speeds up the rescue. Because it doesn't aid most people's search effectively, we primarily reported each product's maximum digital range.
After countless tests and comparisons the products with the longest range were the Mammut Pulse Barryvox, Mammut Barryvox Element and Arva Neo. They could sometimes receive signals just below 60 meters and were our top performers in this category. Just barely behind were the Ortovox S1+, the Pieps DSP Pro and the Arva Pro W. All of these had ranges on either side of 50 meters. Next, it was just below a 10-meter gap before the next group, which included the BCA Tracker 2, Ortovox 3+ and the Pieps DSP Sport.
Ease of Use in Multiple Burial Situations
A Note on Multiple Burials
Roughly only 15% of reported avalanches in North America and Europe are instances where multiple people are buried in an avalanche. Of that 15%; 10% of the time there are just two people buried, and the other 5% of the time there are three or more victims.
To even consider using a flagging/marking function on a beacon you need a lot of rescuers, likely more than four. The reason is, if you have multiple people buried and three or four rescuers, all of those rescuers' effort should go into finding one person really fast to give them the best chance of survival. There is no point in finding two people kind of quick and having them die of asphyxiation. It sounds morbid to talk about but it is better to go "all in" and try to find one person faster, rather than walk around flagging people while leaving them buried.
In order for your beacon to be able to tell other buried beacons apart, it uses a blend of signal strength and cadence. When two buried beacons are close together, the difference in strength becomes minimal and your beacon can only rely on cadence (or the pulsing "beeb" off each beacon). If there are three or more beacons buried even slightly near each other they will have too much signal overlap and your beacon can't differentiate a specific beacon's cadence and won't be able to accurately mark/flag/suppress a specific beacon.
Universal Multiple Burial Techniques
Knowing and having practiced with your beacons specific masking/marking/flagging function is good to be familiar with. There are two universal multiple burial techniques that will work with any beacon, eliminates the need for flagging and works fantastically with multiple beacons in close proximity. They are the Concentric Circle method (Sometimes refereed to as the 3-Circal or expanding circles method) and Micro Strip searching technique. With either of these techniques, a fast processing beacon is the key to moving quickly, but again no flagging function is necessary.
Our Findings During Side-by-Side Comparisons
Multiple burial situations is where the competition differed the greatest. It is more important to find, probe and dig up a single victim rather than just flagging/marking multiple victims without digging them up. Consequently, we more heavily weighted "speed" and "ease of finding a single victim" in our scoring. But with that said, multiple burials are still a factor to consider. We performed our side-by-side comparisons tests with two, three and four buried beacons to see how well each model resisted getting bogged down. Keep in mind with any beacon the fact that multiple burials are always harder and take even more practice than 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 performed as well with two or three beacons and nearly as well with four or more beacons were the Pieps DSP Pro, Arva Neo, Arva Evo4 Ortovox 3+ and Arva Pro W. All of these products could 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 performed fantastically with up to three beacons. The DSP Pro and the Arva Pro can also unmask previously marked beacons.
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 can be located. The models that we tested that have a Revert To Transmit mode are the Ortovox S1, Ortovox 3+, Tracker3, 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. You must set it up at home by plugging the Pieps data cable into its headphone jack. On the flip side, with the Tracker3 if you want the beacon to revert to transmit you need to turn that function on every time you turn on your beacon; otherwise it won't revert. We liked beacons that gave the user the option to turn this function on or off. We 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+.
The Plus/Minus of Revert to Transmit Mode
The Revert to Transmit mode is sometimes a controversial feature. Its importance is sometimes overemphasized and some manufacturers, 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? Because if you are searching for someone your beacon is likely in your hand and if you are hit by a second avalanche there is almost zero percent chance that the you will be able to hang onto it. The elastic leash attaching the beacon to the wearer's chest harness is also almost certain to snap. So while we took this feature into consideration when rating all of the products we tested, we didn't count it as a big factor.
Built-in Compass for Fine Search
A cool feature that some models have is a built-in compass feature that proved especially helpful in the fine search. These indicate whether you have gone to far and need to turn around, unlike Pieps or Tracker beacons where the arrow still tells you to go straight ahead. The only indication that you need to turn around is the distance 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. We 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 on which the Mammut Pulse Barryvox transmits its Pulse feature movement information.
Smart Antenna Technology
This is a feature developed by Ortovox that we expect to see other manufacturers use in the future. Any unit using this type of technology figures out which of the antennas is at the best orientation to broadcast from. With most other products, if the primary transmitting antenna is oriented vertically, the range at which other beacons will be able to pick up the buried beacon is dramatically reduced; it could potentially be only 50 percent of maximum range. The Smart Antenna or similar technology uses gravity to determine which is the best antenna from which to transmit. Smart Antenna Technology helps beacons be found more easily by optimizing antenna position, rather than helping a beacon search better.
With most triple antennas models, only two of the antennas are used to search for a signal and most of the time one of them is implemented far less than the other. This affects the beacon's maximum range and thus the search strip width that should be used. The Arva Neo is one of the first products to equally power both of its antennas. This means that the Neo has no worst case orientation and maintains close to its maximum range regardless of orientation or coupling.
Scanning Functions and Big Picture Functions
Several beacons like the Pieps DSP Pro offer a scanning feature that helps advanced rescuers in complex situations asses how many victims there are to locate and how far away they are, rather than just showing the closest signal. The BCA Tracker3 has a BP or Big Picture mode which, when turned on, displays the distance and a direction for every signals it picks up, quickly cycling through all of them in rapid succession. This is similar to an older analog style beacon or a Mammut Pulse Barryvox in analog mode.
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 in durability among beacons. With all of them it's important to remember that they are fragile pieces of life saving equipment and owners should do their best to protect them. Avoid 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 company's antennas being more long lasting and resistant to de-tuning compared to others, we couldn't find a major difference.
Though they do not guarantee survival, the products in this review are meant to enhance safety in an avalanche. When it comes to safety, making a selection can be overwhelming task. This review is designed to help lay out the differences of the beacons on the market today. Reference our Buying Advice article to learn how these products work and important factors to keep in mind when making your purchase.
— Ian Nicholson and Chris McNamara
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