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 known as shadow box effect). Now the market has shifted almost entirely to triple antenna models that are faster, more advanced, and easier to use.
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 get a better, more well-rounded feel for each model's performance, noting when there were differences to determine what kind of user each beacon is best suited for.
We directly compared rescue times, the subsequent ease of use or operation for each stage of the beacon search (single search, course search, fine search), and their overall range. We also assessed each beacon's performance while being used by both seasoned backcountry veterans and someone newer to backcountry travel to see if there was much of a difference.
Single Victim Search
We compared each model with how easily they assisted a rescuer in finding a single victim. While a huge range or many flashy features are nice, these design aspects aren't nearly as important as the beacon's number one job — zeroing in on a single buried signal. Even in the worst-case scenario with multiple burials, you can dig out each person individually, turn their beacon off, and treat the situation like several single-person burials. We compared each model's intuitiveness, displays, and how well it operated in the course search (aka keeping the arrow in the middle and making the number get smaller).
For our speed tests, we considered how quickly we could find a single burial and the efficacy of the user interface. It was important to us to understand how the settings and features interacted, the overall precision, and the devices' processor speed.
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. 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 scored models on how likely (and how consistently) they set us up to get a probe strike on our first attempt, something we also awarded higher scores for.
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 for multiple burials. We compared scenarios with 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, we also attempted to fool different models by playing with an orientation at a five-meter distance.
We took all the models in our review to a local football field to compare their maximum range. 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 to test its maximum range. We used the same beacon being searched for to minimize potential variables in our test.
We scored each model's feature set and considered the different designs 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 more likely to help people more frequently, such as easy-to-use group check modes and easy-to-update software.
Lead tester Ian Nicholson has spent more than 17 years guiding backcountry skiing as well as climbing and mountaineering. He works on the national instructor training team for AIARE, teaching both pro-trainer courses and professional-level courses. He has taught more than one hundred recreational Level 1 and Level 2 AIARE avalanche courses and has trained over 1,000 avalanche course students. Ian is an IFMGA mountain guide and works on the AMGA national instructor team. He has tested all these beacons side-by-side in numerous avalanche courses and has spent countless hours making individual and direct comparisons.