How do you choose the best avalanche beacon and how do they work? Below we look at some fundamentals, the current technology, key features, and point out important factors to consider when buying this crucial piece of backcountry safety equipment. Be sure to check out our full review, where we put the fifteen top models available in a series of side-by-side tests and compared them with over 200 days of testing.
The Best Avalanche Beacon Is The One You Are Most Practiced With
There are differences in features, functions, processor speed, range, and more, between products, but to a certain extent, the more familiar and proficient you are with your beacon, the faster you will be. So regardless of which you buy, remember that practice is essential. Also be honest with yourself — if you are someone who isn't likely to practice very much, don't buy a more advanced and complex model; you will be better off with a simpler version, like the Ortovox Zoom+ or the Backcountry Access Tracker 2. 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) Level 1 course.
How Do Avalanche Beacons Work?
Avalanche Beacons, sometimes called avalanche transceivers, all fundamentally work by being able to do two things: they broadcast or "send" a signal, and search for a radio wave we call a "flux line," shown 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. In addition to these two functions, all of the beacons we tested emit a tone, or "beep," that gets louder and/or quicker as the strength of the signal increases. The directional arrow helps keep the rescuer on the flux line until they can't make the distance numbers get any smaller. At this point, they start the fine stage and begin to bracket a box that is above their victim.
This is where the Ortovox S1+ is slightly different from all the others. Instead of "circling in" along a flux line toward the buried beacon, the S1+ uses sensors (hence the name S1+) and calculations to take the rescuer straight to the buried beacon. It still uses distance numbers, but instead of a directional arrow, it uses two cross lines that you try to get the body icon in the middle of. In our experience, this is easy, though strange at first for more experienced users. Below is a picture of the searching display on an S1+.
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 years work on 457 kHz frequency and can all be used interchangeably. 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.
One Piece Of The Puzzle
Wearing an avalanche beacon, but not carrying a shovel or probe, is like using Google maps to go somewhere, but not knowing what the address is. A beacon gets you close, the probe pin-points your victim, and the shovel 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 entirely wrong because the deeper the victim is, the larger the size of the brackets. The average burial depth in North America is 1.4 meters. It used to be accepted that the average depth was 1.1 meters but that statistic has been updated for the winter of 2013/14. For an average 1.4 meter burial, most brackets are going to be at least 1.4 meters across, and likely more. Without a probe, no matter how good your bracketing skills are, there is just way to much snow to move in that size of a box to have a chance at finding them alive.
Buy For Your Level Of Experience
All beacons are easier and quicker to use than they were ten years ago, but they are now 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 Arva Axio or the Mammut Barryvox.
You probably are not going to be able to take advantage of the more advanced features that these models provide, and you might confuse yourself in the process and thus are spending more money than you have to and maybe looking at worse results. Instead, that same novice user should look at the Tracker 2 or Ortovox Zoom+. They are both simple to use and incredibly intuitive. During our tests, 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 increased range. We still think a BCA Tracker2 is a solid choice for these user group because it is so fast, and we also like the Pieps DPS Sport for this user group, along with the Arva Neo and Ortovox 3+.
Intermediate or higher level users who want to learn and use some of the more complex features should look at the Pieps DSP Pro, Mammut Barryvox, Arva Pro W, or the Ortovox S1+. These beacons aren't just for trip leaders or professionals, but to make them worth the extra money, people who are considering buying them should make an active decision that they want some of those features like the ability to "go back" and un-mark/un-flag a beacon, 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 $100 and get a cheaper one that will suit their needs perfectly well.
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.
Features To Look For
Ease of finding a single victim
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.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.Range
Maximum range is important, but not as important as the previous two categories. People love to talk about range, likely because it is a physical comparison between beacons. While range increases your search strip width, so 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," 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 are important and easier to use than the universal techniques 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.
Universal Multiple Burial Techniques
Regardless if 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 Technique. Both of these techniques work for all beacons regardless of their design.
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
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; the Arva Pro W and Arva Neo 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.