Reviews You Can Rely On

How We Tested Avalanche Beacons

Friday December 18, 2020

Avalanche beacons have changed significantly over the past decade going from a time when there were still a handful of manual dial-down beacons with no directional arrows — to two antenna models which suffered from signal spikes (also know as shadow box effect) to even just a short time later the market has shift almost entirely triple antenna models that are faster, more advanced, and easier to use.

For our review we made sure to get a wide range of skill levels to...
For our review we made sure to get a wide range of skill levels to test each beacon; from avalanche professionals to intermediate users, too begins taking their first level one, to help us figure out which beacons were best for what users.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

For this review, we made sure to put each model in the hands of both avalanche professionals as well as more novice and less experienced users. We did this to both get a better more well-round feel for each model's performance, noting when there were differences and which models we less adept for beginners or occasional users.

We compared everything about these beacons from their range to their...
We compared everything about these beacons from their range to their precision in how direct they were able to bring us over the top of the buried signal.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

We directly compared rescue times and the subsequent ease of use or operation for each stage of the beacon search (single search, course search, fine search) as well as their overall range. We also weighed different models performance while being used both seasoned backcountry veterans or someone newer to backcountry travel — to see if there was much of a difference.

We tested each model's maximum range on a football field as well as...
We tested each model's maximum range on a football field as well as several side-by-side comparisons in the field.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

Range Test


We compared each model's maximum range. We took all the models in our review to a local football field and tested them ourselves. While testing each model, we made sure to start well outside a given beacon's maximum range to avoid single drag which can happen when you start close and move away from a model that is searching in-order to test its maximum range. We used the same beacon that was being searched for to minimize potential variables in our test.

We weighed ease of finding a single victim the strongest because of...
We weighed ease of finding a single victim the strongest because of that is obviously an avalanche beacon's most important functionality.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

Ease of Finding a Single Victim


We compared each model with how easily they assisted a rescuer in finding a single victim. While a huge range or lots of flashy features are nnice, these design aspects aren't nearly as importance as the beacon's number one job — which is zeroing in on a single buried signal. Even comparing multiple burial capabilities to single burials with several buried signals, even in the worst case you can dig each person individually and turn their beacon off and treat the situation like several single person burials in a row. We compared each model's intuitiveness, its displays, and how well it operated in the course search (aka keeping the arrow in the middle and making the number get smaller).

Mark Ryman getting his hustle on while testing a BCA Tracker3 in the...
Mark Ryman getting his hustle on while testing a BCA Tracker3 in the fine search.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

Fine Search Comparison


The fine search, or bracketing stage of the search is the most difficult; it's where the majority of people make mistakes in real-world instances and thus we weighted it pretty high. For our fine search tests, we compared each model from 10 meters out through the entire bracketing process. We compared both the precision and accuracy in which a given model brought us in over the buried one, how centered the buried models were within our brackets, and how consistently it was able to do it. Besides just observing where the buried beacon was inside our brackets, we also weighted models on how likely (and how consistently) they set us up to get a probe strike on our first attempt, something we certainly gave higher scores too.

Photo: Ian Nicholson

Multiple Burial Performance Comparison


Much like our ease of finding a single burial comparison, we put different models in the hands of both novices and seasoned users to see how they fared. We compared scenarios with the three and four beacon scenarios having a least one pair of close proximity burials which we define as less than five meters apart (a distance that both AIARE, the AMGA, and the ACMG use). In a separate test, lead tester, Ian Nicholson also attempted to fool different models by playing with orientation at a five meter distance.

Photo: Ian Nicholson

Features


We weighted each model feature set and took the different designs into account when deciding if they added to a model's overall performance and thus increased its value (cost versus performance). We gave higher scores to features that were more likely to help people more frequently, such as easy-to-use group check modes and easy-to-update software.

Ian Nicholson
Ian Nicholson
Photo: Dallas Glass

Lead tester Ian Nicholson has spent more than 15 years guiding, mountaineering, and backcountry skiing. He works for the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC), and works on the national instructor training team for AIARE, teaching both pro trainer courses and professional level courses. He has taught more than 85 recreational Level 1 and Level 2 AIARE avalanche courses. Ian is also an IFMGA mountain guide and works on the AMGA national instructor team. He has tested all these devices side-by-side in numerous avalanche courses and has spent countless hours making individual and direct comparisons.

OutdoorGearLab beacon reviewer Ian Nicholson performing a...
OutdoorGearLab beacon reviewer Ian Nicholson performing a Rutschblock test while teaching an AIARE Level 1 course. Ian has taught over 80 Level 1 and Level 2 avalanche courses over the past 12 years.
Photo: Dallas Glass