How do you choose the best avalanche beacon for you, and how do individual models differ? How do you know what key features you should be looking for? Below we took a look at some key fundamentals, current beacon technology, a few key features (and whom they'd be best for), and point out important factors to consider when buying this crucial piece of backcountry safety equipment.
"The Best Beacon is the One You Are Most Practiced With"
Between products, there are differences in features, functions, processor speed, range, and more. However, to a certain extent, the more familiar and proficient you are with your beacon, the faster you will be with it. While we found some models better or easier to use than others, all of the products we chose for our review work. Regardless of which you buy, remember that practice is essential, especially with the stress of someone's life on the line when seconds matter.
Be honest with yourself — if you aren't likely to practice at least 1-2 times every autumn, then simply don't buy a more advanced and complex model. It will not help you find your buried friend faster. You will be better off with a simpler version. If you haven't taken an avalanche course and are currently venturing into the backcountry, we strongly recommend taking an AIARE (American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education) or AAI (American Avalanche Institute) Recreational Level 1 course. As of 2018, there is even a 1-day standalone rescue course, which is excellent for re-sharpening your skills after you've taken your Level 1.
How Do Avalanche Beacons Work?
Avalanche beacons, sometimes called avalanche transceivers, all fundamentally work by being able to do two things: broadcast or "SEND" a pulsing radio wave commonly referred to as a signal or a flux-line. The other is to search for a signal/flux-line and give a direction and distance to its source (the buried beacon). All manufacturers are slowly transitioning to using the same terminology, with Send being the broadcasting mode (transmit was used by some manufacturers, most notably Backcountry Access, but we hear even they are soon to be changing). See a visual of what a "flux line" looks like and the pattern in which it broadcasts in the graphic below.
All modern beacons, including all of the contenders in our review, give both a directional arrow and a distance number when searching. It's important to note that this a rough distance, approximately in meters along the flux line, rather than in a straight line to the buried signal. It's also important to remember that this signal is a "pulse" of information rather than a continuous feed. So if your arrow is in the middle, but your numbers are getting bigger, you are going the wrong way.
In addition to these two pieces of information, all of the beacons we tested emit an audible tone, or "beep," that gets louder and/or quicker as the strength of the signal increases to help give the user more feedback as their position changes relative to the buried beacon. The directional arrow helps keep the rescuer on the flux line; most manufacturers and avalanche education entities recommend that searchers move their beacon along the surface of the snow starting around 5-10 meters away (yes, this means the rescuer is crawling).
Finally, most beacon's directional arrows disappear between 2-3 meters away, cueing their rescuer to keep their beacon in the same orientation and start the fine search (also called the bracketing stage). This is the most challenging search phase and is where most people mess up (so you should practice this part of the search the most!) This is also why we strongly weighted a beacon's abilities to make it easier in the fine search/bracketing stage, as this was the part of the search that most people messed up.
Do All Avalanche Beacons Work Together?
This is a common question people have; "do all avalanche beacons work on the same frequency? The answer is yes; all beacons made in the last 15 or so years work on 457 kHz frequency and can all be used interchangeably. Previously with models older than 15 years, there used to be two standard frequencies, one in Europe and one in North America, so they may or may not be compatible, but we do not recommend using a beacon that old, nor does any beacon manufacturer.
One Piece Of The Puzzle
Wearing an avalanche beacon but not carrying both a shovel and probe is like using Google maps to go somewhere but not knowing the address. A beacon gets you close, but the deeper they are, the larger the bracket will be, and the probe is what actually pinpoints the exact location, and then the shovel more obviously digs them out. Occasionally you will hear people say that they know how to bracket so well that they don't need a probe, but this is potentially deadly because the deeper the victim is, the larger the size of the bracket. The average burial depth in North America is around 1.4 meters. It used to be accepted that the average depth was 1.1 meters, but that statistic has been updated. For an average 1.4 meter burial, most brackets will be at least 1.4 meters across, and likely more in the real world and a bumpy snow surface. Without a probe, no matter how good your bracketing skills are, there is just way too much snow to move to have a good chance at finding them alive due to the time it will take to move the sheer volume of snow.
Buy For Your Level Of Experience
All beacons are significantly easier and quicker to use than they were ten years ago, but now many models are being designed with specific user groups in mind, so you'll want to choose carefully based on your experience. If you're a novice user who only goes out a handful of times every year, you are not doing yourself any favors by buying the high-end and truly tricked-out beacons. Not only are these types of beacons more complex with a less straightforward interface, but novice users likely won't take advantage of the more advanced features that make these models cost more in the first place. Instead, that same novice user should look at the Tracker S, Arva Evo5, Backcountry Access Tracker3. These models are all simple to use and incredibly intuitive. During our beacon testing, they performed exceptionally well when we put them in the hands of dozens of people who had never touched one before.
If you already are an intermediate user or aspiring to be so, look for a simple model that might have a couple of the most essential additional functions, like a flagging feature and a 50 meter search strip width. We still think a BCA Tracker2 is a solid choice for this user group, because even though it lacks a flagging/marking function, it is super fast.
Intermediate or higher level users who want to learn and use some of the more complex features should look at the Black Diamond Guide BT and Mammut Barryvox models. These beacons aren't just for trip leaders or professionals, but more advanced users who are likely to take advantage of their additional features can easily make them worth the extra money. People who are considering more advanced beacons should make an active decision whether they want some of those features, like the ability to "go back" and un-mark/un-flag a beacon. You will also need to decide if you want to have specific group check modes and scan functions. If those people don't aspire to use these more advanced features, they might as well save some money and get a model that will still suit their needs (and probably be a little simpler to use).
The Different Stages Of The Search
We reference different stages of the search during our beacon comparisons. The graphic below also illustrates each stage and the name for each section of the search. These are terms that are used on a national level and are identical or very similar to the terms used in Canada as well as the alpine countries of Western Europe.
Features To Look For
Ease of Finding a Single Victim
The ease of finding a single victim is hands down the most important feature a beacon can have. People love to talk about all kinds of fancy features, but when it comes down to it, none of them matter if you can't quickly find your partner. Even multiple burial techniques can be broken down to a one-by-one search where you do a series or single victim searches stacked on top of one another.Speed
Speed is the next most important factor to consider when purchasing a beacon. While speed, to some extent, goes along with ease of finding a single victim, processor speed and the ability for your beacon to allow you to move quickly without "hiccuping" or jumping flux lines is invaluable.Precision In The Bracketing stage/Fine Search
In real life, the part of the search that most rescuers struggle with the most is the fine search, also known as the bracketing stage, which generally starts under five meters and involves creating the bracket or "box" that they will eventually probe. This is where we found the greatest differences between models in how easily they could position the buried beacon in the middle of our brackets. We noticed that with all users — to a lesser extent very experienced users and pros — beacons whose arrows disappeared at two meters instead of three generally did better in the bracketing stage and more commonly had the buried beacon in the middle of their brackets earlier in the search. Actual precision and the ease of getting that precision in the bracketing stage played a large role in a beacon's ability to quickly locate a single (or multiple) beacon.Range
Maximum range is important, but not as important as the previous three categories. People love to talk about range, likely because it is a physical comparison between beacons and an easily quantifiable number. While range increases your search strip width, you could theoretically search a more extensive area faster; most people use the much smaller 30-40 meter search strip widths that they were likely taught in their AIARE Level 1 avalanche course. The reason that those smaller search strip widths are taught is that it takes into account the shortest range beacons on the market.
The interchangeable terms "marking," "masking," "signal suppression," and "flagging" all refer to a function on many beacons where you, as the rescuer, tell your beacon to ignore a buried beacon's signal. Multiple burial flagging functions can be helpful and are easier to use than the universal techniques described below but are sometimes an overemphasized factor when considering which product to buy. In a real burial scenario, it is not okay to flag everyone and not dig anyone up. If you are by yourself or with only one other person, you are likely not going to do much, if any, flagging and all your effort should go towards exposing at least one person's airway rather than just "finding them" without digging them up.
A reason these designs have developed so much and many people seek them out is because all ski guides, avalanche educators, and ski patrollers are required to go through beacon rescue drills where they have to locate multiple beacons in a defined area in a limited amount of time. These folks often want a beacon well-equipped to handle multiple burials not because they are likely to encounter multiple burials in real life, but because their assessments and exams frequently contain these scenarios. With that said, one study showed that guides and ski patrollers are more likely to come across or be involved in a larger accident compared to your average tourer.
Universal Multiple Burial Techniques
Regardless of whether your beacon has a flagging/marking feature or not, there are two universal methods for multiple burial situations that everyone should be aware of. They are micro-strip searching and concentric or expanding circle techniques. Both techniques work for all beacons, regardless of their design. All flagging/marking features fail and the odds of them failing with more than three signals goes up tremendously, especially if they are in close proximity. As long as these techniques are performed correctly, they always work and are nearly as fast.
There are lots of cool, snazzy features that beacons of all levels come with. While we like many of these features and find nearly all of them useful, none of them are as important as the core functions of a beacon: searching for a single victim, ease of use, and speed. As we talked about before, be realistic about your experience and your needs — is it worth the extra $100 for those extra features, or not?
Caring For Your Beacon
Cell Phone Interference
Cell phones and anything else that broadcasts a signal (like a GoPro) can interfere with our beacon's ability to transmit a signal and our friend's ability to accurately pick it up. As a result, keep phones and anything else at least 30cm (around one foot) away and ideally in airplane mode or off to minimize the chance of interference.
De-Tuning Over Time
Avalanche beacons are delicate pieces of electronic equipment and need to be treated as such; don't throw it around carelessly where the antennas could be cracked or damaged. Avoid leaving them out in the cold overnight if possible, as this de-tunes your antennas over time and makes your beacon more prone to signal drift. This means not leaving them out in your car unnecessarily overnight and ideally sleeping with your beacon on multi-day trips. Over time, all beacons will de-tune, which will dramatically affect or completely impair their ability to search for a victim or be found by a searching rescuer. As a good rule of thumb, replace your beacon every 5-7 years and check its range at least once a year — or after a potentially traumatic event — to make sure it's still functioning properly.
You should always use fresh, high-quality alkaline batteries and replace them before they get too low. How low is too low? It depends on the beacon, and it is worth taking the time to look up because each beacon has a battery level where the manufacturer recommends to replace them. When you do replace your batteries, they should all be done at the same time using the same brand. Never use rechargeable or lithium batteries despite their superior performance in the cold, because the amount of remaining power is not accurately read. An exception to this rule is a couple of beacons produced by Arva, which are okay to use lithium batteries with, according to the manufacturer.Battery Size
Even among similar-looking AAA or AA batteries, not all companies choose to go the extra step by meeting the exact specifications for the international battery standard for size. At least two battery manufacturers do guarantee size: Duracell and some Panasonic models. There have been at least two cases where someone has died because a battery was dislodged inside a beacon that someone was wearing during a slide that was likely a result of inappropriately sized batteries.
A Note on Wearing an Avalanche Beacon
On average, 36 people die from avalanches in North America every year, and around 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 a rescue beacon. Experienced backcountry enthusiasts and avalanche professionals can find multiple beacons in under six minutes, while the unpracticed novice can easily take 25 minutes or more. While the average rescue time is heavily debated, it is 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), American Avalanche Institute (AAI) or other American Avalanche Association (AAA) recommended avalanche course. Additionally, if you haven't taken one in the last 5-10 years, you should consider retaking one since a lot has changed with recent studies. It would be extremely rare for a person not to find retaking a Level 1 useful, even if they have taken a course several years prior.
Wearing an Avalanche Beacon
There are two locations on your body that are considered acceptable to wear an avalanche beacon. The first is in your beacon's harness strapped to your core, covered by at least one layer of clothing, which protects it from getting ripped off your body during impact. While wearing the beacon in its harness, it is not acceptable to have it exposed to the outside.
It is not okay to have the beacon uncovered no matter how hot it is, or how cool you think it makes you look. The other acceptable location is in a zippered pants pocket. The pants pocket needs to be an internal (i.e., inside hanging) zippered sewn-in pocket. Laminated pockets are not okay because these types of pockets have been torn off during an avalanche. Despite worry from some readers, there has never been a reported case of someone having their pants ripped off in an avalanche with their beacon inside.
Don't keep your cell phone, radio, GoPro, or any other device that broadcasts a signal within 30 cm of your avalanche beacon. 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.