Best Avalanche Beacon of 2020
Best Overall Avalanche Beacon
Mammut Barryvox S
The Mammut Barryvox S is our top overall scorer. This is the newer version of our older award winner, the Mammut Pulse Barryvox. The newer Barryvox S shares many of the Pulse's best features while improving on the few drawbacks. In comparison to the rest of the competition, it is superior to other products for the elite or advanced snow travelers. It features the longest range (70-95 meters) and picks up signals for other beacons at lightning speed. It's also the most functional when faced with multiple burial scenarios. If you're a professional in the field or need a beacon for your next AMGA exam, this is the one we recommend.
While even the beginner will find this beacon easier to use than the older pulse, it has many features and functions that a novice user will likely never take advantage of. It also has a steeper learning curve and comes at a high price. If you're new to backcountry snow travel, this isn't our top recommendation. But, if you're a professional in the industry that requires all the advanced features, this is our recommendation.
Read review: Mammut Barryvox S
Best Bang for the Buck
Backcountry Access Tracker 2
The Backcountry Access (BCA) Tracker 2 remains among the easiest and fastest option for novice and intermediate users — and it's still wicked fast for advanced users. It's lightning-quick at finding a single victim, which is the most important thing an avalanche beacon needs to do. While it does not have any of the more advanced features of some other products, the Tracker 2 serves the vast majority of users exceptionally well.
If you like the Tracker 2 but wish it had a flagging/marking feature, check out the Tracker 3 or the Pieps DSP Sport, which could move nearly as quickly and were close-to as intuitive, and both at a respectable price. The Arva Evo4 was also a strong contender for this award and sports a flagging feature, but our testers found it to be marginally more challenging during the bracketing stage compared to the Tracker 2.
Read review: Backcountry Access Tracker 2
Best Bargain All-Around Beacon
Backcountry Access Tracker3
The slick-looking Backcountry Access Tracker3 is the latest of the Tracker family. Like its relatives, it's excellent at finding a single victim and makes bracketing during fine search exceptionally easy, which is nice because this is where the majority of rescuers struggle the most. It takes the ease-of-use and lightning-fast processor speed and adds a handful of features aimed at advanced users: a signal suppression/marking function and the best overall pocket-riding triple antenna beacon on the market. We like nearly all of the Tracker3's features, (especially its BP or Big Picture function) and its control options. We like the accuracy of the signal suppression/marking function but don't like that suppression only lasts for one minute. After that one minute, it reverts to normal, searching where the rescuer is directed to the closest beacon, regardless of which one that is.
While less of an issue in real-world settings, we also don't love that it can only suppress one signal at a time; if you try to suppress a second, it undoes the first. This takes a little more practice for pro-level examinations and is worth noting as it is different than the rest of the industry. With that said, it remains a competent, lightning-fast model that has some of the functionality desired by more advanced users.
Read review: Backcountry Access Tracker3
Exceptional for Pros and Advanced Users
The Arva Axio is a top-notch avalanche beacon for more advanced users. Its unique, extra-long fold-out third antenna helps differentiate signals nearby burials. This, plus an ability to toggle through signals, along with an analog feature that lets its user micro-strip search when the going gets tough, make it one of the best beacons for advanced users and pros to help deal with complex situations or rescue examinations.
Overall, the Axio was one of the toughest beacons to confuse, and miss-marked/miss-flagged signals the least along with the Barryvox S. This model offers several different settings in each of its functions to truly cater to the users' needs. The one thing for more novice users who are considering this beacon is that the Axio's directional arrows disappear at 3m instead of 2m. While this is a pretty small difference, we noticed that more novice users typically need a little more practice with it during the bracketing stage than with models whose arrows disappeared at 2m. More experienced users had little trouble with this.
Read Review: Arva Axio
Speedy with an Awesome Flagging Feature
Pieps DSP Sport
The Pieps DSP Sport was formerly a better value. Though it's now priced higher, we still think it's one of the most capable beacons for its price, and it was one of our favorite overall products we tested for its ease-of-use and lightning-quick processor.
Our caveats are few. We only wish that the switch was a bit easier to operate with a gloved hand, and the battery display showed a percentage instead of thirds. Both issues make it a little harder to use than other competitors.
Read review: Pieps DSP Sport
Why You Should Trust Us
This expert review is brought to you by snow expert and guide, Ian Nicholson and Chris McNamara. Ian is a beacon in the world of snow science, guiding, and gear reviewing. He works as a professional instructor for AIRE, teaching over 70 Level 1 and 2 Avalanche courses and has worked for the Northwest Avalanche Center as a professional forecaster. He's also been guiding for over 15 years, using beacons throughout his alpine guiding career. Chris is the founder of OutdoorGearLab and a world-renowned climber, entrepreneur, and gear tester. These experts, in addition to many alpine professionals, have contributed their voice and opinions to this review; this provides a well-rounded assessment of each device.
Selecting avalanche beacons involves finding the best selling, most popular, and highly rated options on the market. After choosing the best options to test, we put each through a set of rigorous tests. We have tested each beacon in real scenarios for single and multiple burial scenarios. In addition to actually measuring range, battery life, and response time of each, we also compare the accuracy and ease of use in a coarse and fine search. All features are explored, and all functions are critiqued. Finally, we analyze each to score them objectively, to come up with unbiased and well-researched recommendations. On top of that, we hand these out to a plethora of tester, including beginners, novices', and professionals in the field.
Related: How We Tested Avalanche Beacons
Analysis and Test Results
Below we break down the criteria we used for evaluation and present a few critical pieces of information regarding avalanche beacons. Besides real-world applications, we also perform a series of side-by-side tests to compare the range, processor speed, flagging/marking features, battery life, and more.
Related: Buying Advice for Avalanche Beacons
We've used each model in a variety of settings, putting each one to the ultimate test. Our fleet includes the most expensive, and we highlight top options for specific users. We also highlight models that are friendly on your wallet, so you're able to see the highest value for the best price. One beacon that fits this description is the Backcountry Access Tracker 2. We recommend it if you're on a tight budget.
Speed, along with ease of finding a single victim, is the most critical factor you should consider when purchasing a beacon. While all the cool extra features are rad and easy to focus on, speed and ease of finding a buried beacon should be your strongest considerations. 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, and multiple burials nearby. 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 ski guides and avalanche professionals, 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. 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 and Tracker3, the Arva Neo, and Micro along with the Mammut Barryvox S and more basic Barryvox. The Ortovox S1+, Arva Evo4, and Arva Axio 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
Finding a single victim is the most basic, but still, the 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. Additionally, we considered the "ease of use," taking into account the simplicity and functionality of the interface, the controls, and the processing speed.
Another significant factor we took into consideration when comparing the different models was how well each beacon dealt with signal spikes. All of the three antennae models performed well, 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 were 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 intuitive and straightforward 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 liked the user interface and controls of both the Ortovox S1+, the Mammut Barryvox S, and the Arva Axio.
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 essential to slow down during this stage, but this is also the phase of the search where you can see the most considerable difference between products concerning processing power.
When it came to the fine search, we found a lot of variability in the precision; some were slightly better than others at getting the victim in the center of our brackets more efficiently. The Mammut Barryvox S and Mammut Barryvox performed near the top again, along with the BCA Tracker 2, Pieps DSP Sport, and Arva Neo. The Ortovox 3+ was slightly less precise at having our victim in the center of our brackets.
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 for 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 the odds of getting that perfect alignment are slim.
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 100 meters away. Our test product was at waist level in a typical searching position. We marked the place we first picked up the signal; we would rarely get the same spot with the same beacon, so we either mention the general range we picked up the beacon on or an average of those attempts.
Almost all of the products we tested have a manufacturer's maximum range of between 40 and 60 meters. If a perfect scenario 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 40-meter wide search strip width; or 20 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.
Those with extended ranges were entirely analog or had an analog function. The model with the longest range was the Mammut Barryvox S, which could pick up a signal as far away as nearly 90 meters in analog mode and 72 meters in digital mode. It is worth noting that while we agree analog function 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 efficiently, we primarily reported each product's maximum digital range even if they have an analog mode. In digital mode, both the Mammut Barryvox S and the more standard Barryvox offered the longest maximum range, consistently picking up a signal at around 70 meters away and both coming with a manufacturer's search strip with recommendations of 70 meters.
After countless tests and comparisons, the products with the next longest ranges were the Arva Neo, and DSP Sport. These models would most often pick up their signals around 50-55 meters away, and were our next round of top performers in this category. Just barely behind were the Ortovox S1+ and the Arva Axio, which were consistently in the 45-50 meter range. Next, it was just below a 10-meter gap before the next group, which included the BCA Tracker 2, BCA Tracker4, and the Ortovox 3+, which were often in the 35-45 meter range.
The units (IE numbers) that describe distance along the flux line that we follow to find our victim are usually not meters. For example, when we picked up a signal with a Tracker 2 while it was reading 47 meters, we were around 42 meters away. In our tests, the only products where the number was accurate were the Mammut Barryvox and the Mammut Barryvox S. Most units displayed a more significant number of meters than the actual distance. The Pieps models were the most notorious for this, though this doesn't have an effect on actual performance, just something to be aware of.
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. So while flagging features are cool and relied upon for many ski guide and avalanche professional rescue examinations, they aren't nearly as useful in real-world situations as they might seem. If you have multiple people buried and three or four rescuers, all of those rescuers' effort should likely go into finding one person quickly to give that person the best chance of survival.
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 "beep" 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 useful to be familiar with it. Two universal multiple burial techniques will work with any beacon, eliminates the need for flagging, and works fantastically with multiple beacons in close proximity. They are the Concentric Circles method (sometimes referred to as the 3-Circle or expanding circles method) and Micro Strip searching technique. With either of these techniques, a fast processing beacon is crucial to moving quickly, but again no flagging function is necessary.
Our Findings From Side-by-Side Comparisons
Multiple burial situations are where the competition differed the greatest. Again, 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 that with any beacon 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 Barryvox S and Arva Axio. These two beacons differentiated between close proximity burials exceptionally well could scroll through victims and were extremely difficult to fool the marking/masking function. The Ortovox S1+ also worked in multiple burials situations exceptionally well but weren't quite as solid as the Axio and Barryvox S. All four of these beacons had the option to unmask previously marked beacons. The BCA Tracker3, Arva Neo, and Pieps Micro all did well in our multiple burials test and would likely do quite well in most real-world situations; however, they wouldn't be our first choice for guide and professional level rescue examinations.
This category showed the most variability between the different avalanche beacons that we tested. Some come laden with useful and well-thought-out features, while others have limited options. Here's how we scored the various models on their features, and below we describe the feature options currently available on the market today.
Group Check Mode
Several beacons in our review feature a "Group Check Mode" designed to be used during the function check that every backcountry traveler should be doing before leaving the trailhead every time they go out into the backcountry. While a group check mode is hardly necessary for all beacons, it does help models with stronger signal lock, or the design functionality to lock onto the closest beacon and then stay with it for short periods even if they start moving further away. There are advantages and disadvantages to strong signal lock, such as the advantage to differentiate close proximity burials to its user. However, for this portion of the review, it's worth noting that a strong signal lock can make it a pain to perform a function check if there are more than just a few other people in your group. We liked the easy access and visual aids of the Barryvox S and Barryvox, which were different despite so many similarities between these beacons, along with the Arva Axio. We liked the S1+ and the Pieps Micro, but they just weren't quite as user-friendly as far as getting to them and using them.
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 significant movement during a designated period. The idea behind this feature is if the rescuer is searching and their beacon is in search mode, and a second avalanche hits them, it will switch over in hopes that they can be located.
In the majority of models that we tested that have a Revert To Transmit mode, it comes ready to use. The Pieps Sport has 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 models 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 Axio, Barryvox S, Barryvox, 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 a second avalanche hits you? Because if you are searching for someone, your beacon is likely in your hand, and if a second avalanche hits you, there is almost zero percent chance that you will be able to hang onto it. The elastic leash attaching the beacon to the wearer's chest harness is also almost sure to snap. So, while we considered this feature when rating all of the products that we tested, we didn't count it as a significant factor.
Turn-Around Indicator in the Fine Search
A cool feature that some models have is a built-in compass or turn-around feature that proved especially helpful for newer users in the fine search. These indicate whether you have gone too 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 S, Arva Axio, and Ortovox S1+.
A note on Features regarding the first of its kind Pieps Micro. This is the first beacon we've tested not to feature a switch or leaver to turn this model from Search-to-Send or back again manually. Instead, it automatically switches to Send when stowed in a pocket or its harness and automatically turns to Search when removed from these places. It can do this by utilizing a proximity sensor on the face of the beacon. This is a cool idea. However, it didn't always work, which isn't ideal in a life-saving device.
We never had an issue while stowing it in its included harness but consistently had issues with not being able to put it into Send mode in our pant pocket even when using its included stuff sack, which is supposed to solve this problem. While the Micro was super fast and intuitive and scored well in all other categories, this feature (which is cool and could potentially solve common mistakes in theory) is an area that one of our otherwise top scorers didn't do as well.
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 offer a scanning feature that helps advanced rescuers in complex situations assess 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 signal it picks up, quickly cycling through all of them in rapid succession. This is similar to an older analog style avalanche beacon or a Mammut Barryvox S in analog mode.
Except for 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 affect 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 significant 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 an overwhelming task. This review is designed to help layout the differences between the avalanche beacons on the market today.
— Ian Nicholson and Chris McNamara