Reviews You Can Rely On

Best Avalanche Beacon of 2021

Ian Nicholson testing an 3+ in the fine search.
Photo: Ian Nicholson
Friday December 18, 2020
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Our crew of seasoned snow professionals has spent the last half-decade testing over 20 of the best avalanche beacons. For our update, we bought 14 of the best models for our latest side-by-side analysis. Across North America from Alaska to the Cascades to the Sierra Nevada, we put these beacons in the hands of novice users, certified ski guides, avalanche forecasters, and safety course instructors, and tested them in real-time in both single and multiple burial simulations. Whether you're an industry professional or a brand new backcountry enthusiast heading outside the ropes for the first time, we can help you find the right avalanche beacon for your adventures.

Top 14 Product Ratings

Displaying 1 - 5 of 14
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Awards Editors' Choice Award Top Pick Award   Editors' Choice Award 
Price $499.94 at Amazon
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$470 List$349.95 at Amazon$349.95 at Amazon
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Overall Score
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92
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Pros Super fast processor, differentiates between beacons fantastically during multiple burials, best range in this review, best model for multiple and pro-level examinationsTons of features, excellent multiple burial features and performance, differentiates close proximity burials very well, long-ish range, analog mode to help with micro-strip searchingExcellent range, lightning fast, well-labeled buttons and easy to use interface, very intuitive, has all the features that the majority of backcountry users will use and want without a lot of extrasVery fast processor, excellent range, easy-to-use, comfortable to carry, top-notch multiple burial capabilities with excellent signal lock and marking/flagging functionsEasy to use, many features, Bluetooth and smartphone based app, good range, fast processor, best battery life in our review, excellent multiple burial and flagging features
Cons Expensive, more complicated than other models, okay but not the best for newer or less practiced usersA little chunky and slightly slightly bulkier for pocket carriers, one of the more complex interfaces, slightly slower than top beacons in the fine searchFlagging options were confusing at first, harder during fine search than other beacons we tested, directional arrows disappear at 3 m instead of 2 m requiring more practice to get proficient with itNot as user friendly in the bracketing stage as other models, sometimes tells user to keep the orientation earlier than we would like during the fine searchBattery life is only displayed in thirds and not a percentage, some force required to toggle switches, can be chunky feeling if carrying in a pant's pocket
Bottom Line One of the most capable and highest performing beacons on the marketAn extremely capable beacon whose features and multiple burial prowess will appease the requirements of any advanced user or proA solid all-around beacon that will satisfy the demands of a majority of usersA great all-around and very capable beacon that works well for the majority of usersOne of the best models for advanced and beginners alike, it's easy to use, and is one of the best priced "pro-level" beacons
Rating Categories Mammut Barryvox S Arva Axio Arva Neo Mammut Barryvox Black Diamond Guide BT
Range (15%)
10.0
9.0
9.0
10.0
9.0
Speed (20%)
9.0
9.0
9.0
9.0
9.0
Single Victim Search (20%)
9.0
8.0
8.0
9.0
9.0
Fine Search (15%)
9.0
8.0
8.0
8.0
9.0
Multiple Burials (15%) Sort Icon
10.0
10.0
9.0
9.0
9.0
Features (15%)
10.0
10.0
8.0
7.0
10.0
Specs Mammut Barryvox S Arva Axio Arva Neo Mammut Barryvox Black Diamond Guide BT
Weight 210g / 7.4 oz 229g / 8.1 oz 260g / 9.2 oz 210g / 7.4 oz 210 g / 7.4 oz
Number of Antennae 3 3 3 3 3
Manufacturer's Range 70 - 95 meters 60 meters 60 meters 70 meters 60 meters
Flagging Feature? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Battery Life (send) 300 hours 250 hours 250 hours 300 hours 400 hours
Digital/Analogue Both Both Digital Digital Both


Best Overall Avalanche Beacon


Black Diamond Guide BT


92
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Range 9
  • Speed 9
  • Single victim search 9
  • Fine search 9
  • Multiple Burials 9
  • Features 10
Range: 60 meters| Battery life: 250 hours
Easy to use interface
Excellent multiple burial and flagging feature
Bluetooth makes it easy to adjust settings and update software
Best battery life in our review
Good range
Fast processor
Lots of features
A little bulky for carrying in your pocket
Slider that adjusts off/search/send is very sticky and takes some force
Battery life is only displayed in thirds and not a percentage

This Black Diamond Guide BT is one of our favorite overall beacons. The BT in this model's name refers to Bluetooth, as this model has software that can be updated; you can also adjust its settings via a downloadable app on your smartphone. The Guide is not only excellent for advanced users, but for all levels of users in the backcountry.

It performed very well in the fine search for a single victim and was consistently among the best for accuracy and placing the buried beacon at the center of the bracket. It was also one of the very best models at complex and close proximity burials, just beating out the Barryvox S in what are otherwise comparable beacons.

Read review: Black Diamond Guide BT

Best for Advanced Users


Mammut Barryvox S


95
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Range 10
  • Speed 9
  • Single victim search 9
  • Fine search 9
  • Multiple Burials 10
  • Features 10
Range: 70-95 meters | Battery life: 300 hours
Longest range in the review
Option to unflag previously marked beacons
Excellent for professional level examinations
Expensive
More challenging to use than others
Not geared towards less experienced users

The Mammut Barryvox S is an excellent beacon for advanced users traveling avalanche terrain. It's fast at finding a single burial and is adept at handling complex multiple burials. It sports numerous features to help customize it to its user's tastes and preferences and sports the longest overall range and widest search strip width of any model in our review. The Barryvox S is the newer version of an older award winner, the Pulse Barryvox. The newer Barryvox S shares many of the Pulse's best features while improving on its few drawbacks. The most notable improvement was speed while moving closer than 10 meters to a buried beacon, but specifically the quickness you could move in the fine search while bracketing.

While it is excellent for professionals and experienced users, it's not necessary for other backcountry travelers. It's overkill for many who could easily get away with a less expensive beacon, as they likely won't use a majority of the features this model has to offer. Its capabilities also equates to complexity — something that isn't particularly helpful for less experienced individuals when racing against the clock to save their friend's life. The Barryvox takes a little more practice to be precise in the bracketing stage than models like the Tracker3 or the Black Diamond Guide BT. The Barryvox S besti for more advanced users and pros who will take advantage of its many features and its top-notch ability to manage even the most complex multiple burial rescue scenarios.

Read review: Mammut Barryvox S

Best Bang for the Buck


Backcountry Access Tracker S


83
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Range 7
  • Speed 9
  • Single victim search 9
  • Fine search 10
  • Multiple Burials 8
  • Features 6
Range: 45 meters | Battery life: 250 hours
Easy to use and very intuitive
Top-tier bracketing performance in the fine search
Quick
Great value
Slim profile
Signal suppression function can be tricky in certain situations
Below average range
No option to update software

The Backcountry Access Tracker S is the latest in the long line of intuitively designed Tracker beacons; the "S" is basically a slimmed-down version of the Tracker3. Built-in a similar low-profile casing as the T3, it's one of our favorite models for pocket-carrying backcountry travelers. The S in Tracker S is for a simple, though don't let the name lead you to believe this isn't an incredibly capable beacon. It also has nearly all of the features of the Tracker3, and continually impressed us for its speed and prowess. All of our testers loved how simple it was to use, and appreciated the speed of its processer. One of our favorite things was how precise it consistently was during the bracketing stage of the search, for both experienced and more novice users alike.

While this wasn't a dealbreaker, we didn't love the multiple burial function where it only suppressed the closest signal for one minute. This is fine the vast majority of the time, but in certain situations, it's a hassle; it's something you'll have to learn to be okay with, as no other manufacturer designs their flag/marking function this way. With the model we tested, it didn't quite live up to BCA's stated range in any of our tests and was notably shorter than the Tracker3. While more range is excellent, it still provides the 40 meter search trip that the majority of rescuers are going to use.

Read review: Backcountry Access Tracker S

A Competent, Lightning Fast Model


Backcountry Access Tracker3


91
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Range 8
  • Speed 10
  • Single victim search 10
  • Fine search 10
  • Multiple Burials 8
  • Features 8
Range: 50 meters | Battery life: 250 hours
Fast processor, which excels in the fine search
Very precise in the fine search
Compact and light design, which fits easily in a pants pocket
Average display screen
Limited multiple burial functionalities

The slick-looking and low profile Backcountry Access Tracker3 is the latest and greatest of BCA's Tracker family. Like its relatives, it's excellent at finding a single victim and makes bracketing during fine search exceptionally easy. It is also the most accurate, and shows the buried beacon in the dead center of their bracket. Both of these aspects are particularly nice, as this is where the majority of rescuers struggle the most. The Tracker3 takes the ease-of-use and lightning-fast processor speed of the Tracker2 and adds a handful of features aimed at more advanced users; most notably a signal suppression/marking function and a low profile, making it one of the best overall pocket-riding triple antenna beacons on the market. We liked nearly all of the Tracker3's features, (especially its Big Picture function) and its control options.

We liked the accuracy of the signal suppression/marking function, but didn't like that the suppression only lasted 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 didn't love that the Tracker3 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, the Tracker3 remains a competent, lightning-fast model that has some of the functionality desired by more advanced users.

Read review: Backcountry Access Tracker3

Notable Value for Speed, Ease of Use, and a Solid Flagging Feature


Black Diamond Recon BT


87
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Range 8
  • Speed 9
  • Single victim search 9
  • Fine search 9
  • Multiple Burials 8
  • Features 9
Range: 60 meters| Battery life: 200 hours
Easy-to-use
Great flagging feature and intuitive design
Can be configured and is updateable with Bluetooth and a smartphone
Good range
Fast processor
Better performance in the fine search than most in its price range
Battery life displays in thirds
A little on the chunky side for pant pocket beacon wearers
Slider toggle is stiff; difficult to operate with thicker gloves or mittens on

The new Black Diamond Recon BT is more-or-less identical to the Pieps Powder BT, which is branded under the Pieps name (BD has owned Pieps since around 2012). The Recon is the more basic version of the award-winning Guide BT. While the Guide BT received an award for its exceptional all-around performance and array of features, we think the Recon BT is better-suited and more than adequate for the majority of backcountry travelers. Most folks will rarely take advantage of all the features on the Guide BT, whereas the Recon has more basic performance characteristics and a handful of features that beginner to experienced users tend to look for. The BT in this model's name refers to Bluetooth, as it can be updated and configured via a Smartphone app.

Read review: Black Diamond Recon BT

Compare Products

select up to 5 products to compare
Score Product Price Our Take
95
$500
Editors' Choice Award
Perfect for pros or advanced users, this model is one of the best performing products in every category
92
$450
Editors' Choice Award
A high-end beacon that is packed full of features, with an interface that is easy to use for the less experienced
91
$350
Top Pick Award
A fantastic all-around model that combines ease of use in a smaller than average package
90
$470
Top Pick Award
Designed for advanced users or pros, it's one of the best for multiple burials with its long third antenna, analog function and ability to toggle through signals
87
$350
Has better range and superior multiple burial capabilities while still being fairly quick in the fine search
87
$340
Marketed as a more basic beacon, but capable and well featured, especially for the price
86
$390
Using a proximity sensor, the Micro automatically switches between Sending while stowed to searching when its not - also the lightest and most compact beacon currently out there
85
$350
This beacon is easy enough to use for novices but capable enough for a professional
84
$300
Best Buy Award
A no-frills design that excels at a beacon's number one job - finding a single buried beacon
83
$300
Best Buy Award
With an easy to use interface and a lightning-fast processor, it's a great option for a wide range of users
82
$390
A highly capable, lightweight, triple antenna contender
77
$340
An easy to use beacon with intuitive displays help keep it simple during what is likely a very stressful situation, however just so-so fine search performance and average speed kept this beacon from scoring higher
75
$320
An easy-to-use interface and host of awesome features make it well suited for a wide range of users
75
$290
Beacon is easy to use but has a short range and no flagging feature

As a long-time avalanche educator, IFMGA/UIAGM Guide, former...
As a long-time avalanche educator, IFMGA/UIAGM Guide, former forecaster, and an instructor on AIARE's National instructor team, lead reviewer Ian Nicholson is passionate about testing and comparing beacons and helping you figure out which model is best for you.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

Why You Should Trust Us


This review is made possible by two of our resident experts in mountain safety and technology. Heading up the review is Ian Nicholson, an IFMGA/UIAGM Guide who teaches for AIARE on a national level instructing professionals level courses and has taught over 90 recreational level 1 and level 2 courses. Ian has also worked as a forecaster in Alaska and currently works in the field for NWAC, his local avalanche center, and full time as a backcountry ski guide. Joining Ian is our Founder and Editor-in-Chief Chris McNamara. As the founder of OutdoorGearLab, guidebook publisher SuperTopo, and the American Safe Climbing Association, Chris has a special interest in information, awareness, and gear used in the mountains. You can check out more of what he's up to here.

We extensively tested all the beacons in our review, pitting them head-to-head in both single and multiple burials, timing and analyzing each model's performance at each stage of the search in the hands of both professionals and more novice users. We compared each model's performance and accuracy in the fine search and the consistency and precision of their brackets (boxes). We also performed controlled range tests, starting outside the beacon's maximum range, and moving in until detection to avoid single drag error and performed this on two separate occasions with each model. We looked for consistency and repeatability of each model's performance along each stage — as well as across user types — to best assess the pros and cons of each model.

Related: How We Tested Avalanche Beacons

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Analysis and Test Results


Below we present key pieces of information regarding avalanche beacons and the criteria we used for evaluation. Besides real-world practice with individual beacons, we also performed a series of side-by-side tests to assess processor speed, bracketing/fine search performance, flagging/marking features, battery life, range, search strip widths, and more.

Related: Buying Advice for Avalanche Beacons

Another round of side-by-side testing and comparisons.
Another round of side-by-side testing and comparisons.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

Traveling in the backcountry in the winter can be an amazing...
Traveling in the backcountry in the winter can be an amazing experience, however, unlike a ski area, the risk of being caught in an avalanche is not mitigated by bombs or ski patrol. Good decision making is crucial to not getting caught and you should ALWAYS wear a beacon "just in case" anytime you are traveling in or around avalanche terrain. Photo Colin Zacharias enjoying some low-density snow of Alta Vista near Paradise in Mt. Rainier National Park.
Photo: Seth Waterfall

Value


We highlight awards for specific users, and like most things, generally speaking, the more you spend, the more featured the beacons become. However, with beacons, the most capable and featured filled beacon might not be the best for everyone. For example, the most capable beacons are often more complex and have less straightforward use; this might suit a pro perfectly but wouldn't be the best for a more novice user or someone who doesn't practice as frequently.

To some extent, beacons are also like a more manual camera; sure, it can do more, but you have to know more about operating it to get more out of it. If you don't plan to use all the manual features, you are better off getting a beacon that might have fewer options on how to manage certain settings. As a result, it just does it for you and will be easier; something most people can appreciate in a stressful situation.

We made sure to highlight a handful of models that perform well and cost less, so you're able to see the highest value for the best price. One beacon that fits this description is the Backcountry Access Tracker S. At its price point, it's an extremely capable beacon — the best option for the price. While we like other models slightly better, this is a very solid beacon for the price because it is so fast and easy to use.


Speed


Overall speed, along with ease of finding a single victim, should be the single most important factor folks consider when purchasing a beacon. While all the cool extra features are rad and easy to focus on, speed and ease of finding a single 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 considers several other categories, such as precision in the fine search and ease of locating a single victim, we gave it an accumulative score for our criteria in our evaluation. This is because it takes into account parts of other categories and several of its own, with the most important being processor speed.

Overall speed should be among the most important factor backcountry...
Overall speed should be among the most important factor backcountry travelers should be considering when purchasing a beacon. While all the extra features are cool and easy to focus on, speed and ease of finding a single buried beacon should be your strongest considerations.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

We compared all products side-by-side over several days, with well over 200 tests performed. We also tested models with a wide range of user abilities, from relative novices to seasoned ski guides and avalanche professionals, to get a broad insight into each model's performance. In the end, the fastest performers in simple, single transceiver burials weren't always the most expensive or the most feature-rich options. In these types of scenarios, 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 fast thanks to their processor speed were the BCA Tracker S and Tracker3, with the Black Diamond Guide BT, Black Diamond Recon, and Pieps Micro following closely behind. Only a small notch slower yet was the Mammut Barryvox and Mammut Barryvox S, performing only every-so-slightly slower. We were a little disappointed with the original Tracker DTS and Ortovox Zoom; these models did okay but were not as quick as other "simple" beacons.

The ease of finding a single victim is the most basic but most...
The ease of finding a single victim is the most basic but most important function of any beacon. Photo: Side-by-side testing in Mt. Rainier National Park.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

Ease of Finding a Single Victim


Finding a single victim is the most basic but most important feature of any beacon and shouldn't be overlooked when considerating your selection. As such, we weighted this category the most heavily. We emphasize this category because statistically speaking, in North American, roughly 85% of the time, rescuers are searching for a single burial beacon. The other 15% of the time, where multiple people/beacons are buried, a majority of rescuers won't have the resources to divide and conquer and will likely focus all of their effort on locating and digging up one victim at a time.

The Barryvox S is one of only a few models that tells its user to...
The Barryvox S is one of only a few models that tells its user to turn around if they have gone too far. It displays the "U" shaped arrow shown here when you have overshot your mark.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

For example, two rescuers looking for two buried beacons will essentially complete two independent single victim searches, one immediately after the other. Additionally, we considered the "ease of use," taking into account the simplicity and functionality of the interface, the controls, and the processing speed.


Interface and Controls

How easy and intuitive the controls and interface has a direct correlation with how quickly rescuers were able to find a buried transceiver, something that we found true with both experts and novices alike. Along with the actual user interface (how the beacon directs/displays to you where to go) are the controls themselves that help you navigate through menus, go from send to search, and flag a buried beacon.

Intuitive design and simple well-labeled controls like the ones...
Intuitive design and simple well-labeled controls like the ones shown here on the Black Diamond Guide BT are critical in assisting rescuers to save their friend quickly under what is unquestionably an extremely stressful situation.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

The simplest model to use were the BCA Tracker2 and the Ortovox Zoom+. Both models have intuitive and straightforward controls that are easy to understand and operate. While they don't have complex features, like a flagging feature, or options on various functions, both are hands down the easiest to use.

As beacons get more capable they inevitably have a more complex...
As beacons get more capable they inevitably have a more complex interface and often more buttons. While this is fine for more practiced and experienced users unlike a lot of other outdoor gear more isn't necessarily better.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

Among the more fully-featured models, which are models that have a search and send feature and flagging/marking function, are the Backcountry Access Tracker3, BCA Tracker S, Black Diamond Recon BT, Arva Neo, and Ortovox 3+; they are also surprisingly easy to understand and intuitive to use. Among the most complex models are the Black Diamond Guide BT, Mammut Barryvox S, and the Arva Axio. Each of these beacons had fairly simple functionality for basic uses; optimizing the potential takes more practice and time reading the manual, as you should with any beacon.

The fine search is the final stage of searching and it&#039;s where most...
The fine search is the final stage of searching and it's where most less practiced or novice users waste time or blow it altogether. This is also one of the areas where we observed the largest difference in the effectiveness of the different models. Tester Ian Nicholson with an Arva Neo.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

Ease of Use in Fine Search


The fine search is the final phase of the beacon search and classically involves the final approach below 10 meters and the bracketing stages. This is the part of the search that rescuers struggle with the most. Regardless of the beacon, it is essential to slow down during this stage; however, even then, this is also the phase of the search where you can see the most considerable difference between products concerning processing power, precision, and ease-of-use.


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.

In all models (except the original BCA Tracker DTS), the arrows go...
In all models (except the original BCA Tracker DTS), the arrows go away at 2 or 3 meters (you are just supposed to ignore the arrows below 2m with the original Tracker). While not a huge deal, models whose arrows disapeared at 2m instead of 3m were generally easier to use by novice or less practiced individuals. BCA and Pieps designed their arrows to go away at 2m while Arva and Mammut designed theirs to go away at 3m.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

This assessment came from consistency of dozens of tests, with the models consistently scoring the best. These models include the Mammut Barryvox S, Tracker2 and 3, Tracker S, Pieps Micro BT, and the Black Diamond Guide BT and Recon BT.

Showing the steps of the fine search. At 10m the beacon should be...
Showing the steps of the fine search. At 10m the beacon should be keep at ground level. Below 2m the beacon should be kept in the same orientation while bracketing.
Photo: AIARE

Range Comparisons


Maximum range is important, but it isn't nearly as critical as the categories we've mentioned above. People often like to put a lot of weight in a given model's maximum range because it's an easier quantifiable number, but that doesn't make it more important. While no one will argue more range isn't nice, having say a 60 meter range over a 45 meter range will have a minimal difference in reducing rescuers overall time for the reasons listed below (regarding search strip width).

A Note on Range

A manufacturer's stated maximum range is always measured with the searching beacon perfectly in line with the transmitting beacon, which is considered perfect orientation or perfect "coupling." This is a standard for manufacturers and is the same format for our in-house 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 the perfect alignment are extremely slim.


Almost all of the products we tested have a manufacturer's maximum range of between 40 and 60 meters. It is worth noting that if a perfect scenario range is 50 meters, then its worst-case range is 25 meters. Thus when 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.

Side-by-side range comparisons, with a Pieps DSP Pro in the...
Side-by-side range comparisons, with a Pieps DSP Pro in the foreground of the photo.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

Manufacturers' Maximum Distance Ratings

While most manufacturer's range was reasonably accurate, some of the time, it was a bit further than we could pick up in our tests. To insurance accuracy, we did multiple sessions of testing; one on a dry football field and one in the mountains in a remote parking lot.

In most cases, the numbers on the screen are close to but not...
In most cases, the numbers on the screen are close to but not actually the correct distance to the buried beacon, nor do they correlate to the distance along the flux-line. While no model was that far off, both of Mammut's models were the closest to the actual distance.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

A Note on the Distance Numbers

The units (IE numbers) that describe distance along the flux line that we follow to find a buried transceiver are typically not meters (but are often close). For example, when we picked up a signal with a Tracker3 while it was reading 47 meters, we were around 42 meters away (even in perfect coupling, reducing an effect of the curvature of the flux lines).

The numbers displayed are an approximate distance in meters along...
The numbers displayed are an approximate distance in meters along the flux line. The reason that is significant is that the flux lines are curved so it rarely takes you in a straight line distance. Also of note, the distance isn't exactly a meter (with the exception of Mammut) but it is close enough.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

In our tests, the only products where the number was accurate or extremely close to being 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 and Black Diamond models were the most notorious for this, often giving a much larger number than we observed in our testing. While we think better accuracy is slightly better, this doesn't have an effect on actual performance; it is just something to be aware of.

Your range affects your search strip width, or how much area you can...
Your range affects your search strip width, or how much area you can cover as you systematically search the debris pile. More range means a quicker single acquisition, but we feel range should be a much lower priority than things like processing speed.
Photo: AIARE

Range Tests

We tested all of the ranges on a high school football field. We started with optimal coupling, as we could get with the target beacon 100 meters away (adjusted for meters despite the yard marks on the football field). 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.

Bracketing stage with the Barryvox. It took some practice to work as...
Bracketing stage with the Barryvox. It took some practice to work as well in the fine search as other models.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

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 still offered the longest maximum range, consistently picking up a signal at around 70 meters away, and both coming with manufacturers search strip with recommendations of 70 meters.

OutdoorGearLab&#039;s real-world beacon test range results. In addition...
OutdoorGearLab's real-world beacon test range results. In addition to these ranges, the Mammut Pulse Barryvox and Arva Pro W's range while in analog mode is approximately 12-19 meters greater. Tests were performed on a lined football field.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

After countless tests and comparisons, the products with the next longest ranges were the Arva Neo, the Black Diamond Guide BT, and the Black Diamond Recon BT. 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.

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 a single avalanche occurrence. For those curious, of that 15%; 10% of the time, there are two people buried, and the other 5% of the time there are three or more victims.


To be in a situation where you need to use a flagging/marking function on a beacon, you likely need several rescuers. 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.

We gave beacons higher scores with displays, like this one on the...
We gave beacons higher scores with displays, like this one on the Black Diamond Recon BT; that help us keep track of how many beacons we have marked/flagged where it shows one "person" in a box to indicate it has been marked.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

Once you get to your formerly buried partner's airway, you could choose to flag them to save the effort and time of turning their beacon off. However, turning it off is the most foolproof way to deal with the situation and will take away any doubt or future confusion later, depending on your rescue skills. For ski guides, ski patrollers, or other avalanches professionals, a dependable rescue flagging/marking functionality and a beacon's ability to handle multiple close proximity burials is essential for training and examinations.

Among reported avalanches in North America and Europe, about 15% of...
Among reported avalanches in North America and Europe, about 15% of avalanche incidents involved more than one buried beacon, and 85% of the time incidents involved only a single burial.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

Flagging Limitations

For your beacon to be able to tell other buried beacons apart, it uses a blend of signal strength and cadence (each model has its own magic blend of these two). 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 will have a very difficult time differentiating a specific beacon's cadence from another and potentially won't be able to accurately mark/flag/suppress a specific beacon.

This graph shows the percentage of signal suppression failures...
This graph shows the percentage of signal suppression failures depending on the number of buried beacons. The data suggests that with two signals flagging/marking technology is effective, but with four signals the percentage of signal suppression failure is nearly 70%. This information was gathered from a recent February 2015 article in The Avalanche Review by Bruce Edgerly, as well as Schweizer, LeTang and Genswein's 2012 ISSW report and a 2011 report also in the Avalanche Review.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

Universal Multiple Burial Techniques

Knowing and having practiced with your beacon's specific masking/marking/flagging function is useful; you need to be familiar with your beacon. 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 three 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.

Differentiating close proximity burials is the peak of difficulty...
Differentiating close proximity burials is the peak of difficulty with any beacon. That is why Arva designed their Axio to have a much longer, fold-out third antenna which did a fantastic job of managing close proximity burials. Opening this folding antenna is also what turned it into Search mode.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

Our Findings From Side-by-Side Comparisons

Multiple burial situations are where the competition differed the greatest. Again, our professionals 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.

Multiple burial situations are where models had some of the most...
Multiple burial situations are where models had some of the most variances. However remember in the world it is most important to find, probe and dig up a single victim rather than just flagging/marking multiple victims without digging them up.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

After dozens of tests and comparisons and facilitating AIARE Pro level multiple beacon search assessments, 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 and could scroll through victims, and were extremely difficult to fool the marking/masking function. They also both offered the ability to unmask previously marked beacons.

The BCA Tracker3, Black Diamond Guide BT, and Black Diamond Recon BT all did nearly as well in our multiple burials test and would likely do extremely quite well in most real-world situations.

Comparing beacons back-to-back during the bracketing stage of the...
Comparing beacons back-to-back during the bracketing stage of the fine search.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

Features


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 different models on their features, and below we describe the different feature options currently available on the market today.

Several models, particularly the more advanced ones, don&#039;t like to...
Several models, particularly the more advanced ones, don't like to "jump" between signals. Most of these models have a "group-check" mode which should be utilized when performing a trailhead/function check.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

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. A group check mode helps 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.

Testing various group check modes among models we tested. We gave...
Testing various group check modes among models we tested. We gave higher scores to models that were easy to initiate and operate.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

However, for this portion of the review, a strong signal lock can make it difficult 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, Black Diamond Guide BT, and Recon BT. We liked the Pieps Micro, but they just weren't quite as user-friendly as far as getting to them and using them. Models like the BCA Tracker3, Tracker S, Pieps Micro BT, or the Arva Evo5 don't have strong signal lock and jump easily from one to another, always locking onto the strongest signal. This made it much easier to perform a function check/group check and was better for micro strip-searching but took more care and skill if two beacons were buried extremely close to one another.

Revert to Transmit Mode

Some of the models we tested had a revert to transmit feature (also known as auto revert). 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 most models we tested (that have a revert to transmit mode), it comes ready to use. Some models like the Black Diamond Guide BT have a revert to transmit mode that can be configured via Bluetooth with your smartphone, while others have this feature, but you can't set it up in the field. 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, and Barryvox.

Revert to Transmit exist so that if you are hit with an avalanche...
Revert to Transmit exist so that if you are hit with an avalanche while in Search mode, your beacon will start transmitting again. But if you are hit with your beacon in your hand, what are the chances that you can hang onto it, or that this lanyard will hold?
Photo: Ian Nicholson

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, 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, which 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 with this compass feature are the Mammut Barryvox S, Arva Axio, and Arva Evo5.

The Pieps Micro sports an interesting new design feature that could...
The Pieps Micro sports an interesting new design feature that could be the first in a new wave of beacons. It does not have a switch to manually turn it from Search-to-Send or back again. Instead, it automatically sets to Send when stowed and then turns to Search when removed from the harness. It is able to do this by utilizing a proximity sensor on the face of the beacon seen here to the right of my thumb and to the right of the "S".
Photo: Ian Nicholson

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 the 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.

Isotech Technology

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.

A group using strategic shoveling after bracketing with their beacon...
A group using strategic shoveling after bracketing with their beacon and probing.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

Scanning Functions and Big Picture Functions

Several beacons offer a scanning feature that helps advanced rescuers assess how many victims there are to locate and how far away they are, rather than just showing the closest signal. The Black Diamond Guide BT has this Fish Finder style application where it will tell you how many signals it is picking up in specific distance ranges. The BCA Tracker3 has a 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.

Most beacons offer pretty comparable durability, however, beacons...
Most beacons offer pretty comparable durability, however, beacons are necessarily that tough. You should treat these life-saving devices with care, store them dry cool places and wear your beacon screen side in when on your body.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

Durability


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 major difference.

Comparing beacons in Mt. Rainier National Park.
Comparing beacons in Mt. Rainier National Park.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

Conclusion


This review is designed to help lay out the differences between the avalanche beacons on the market today. The products in this review are meant to enhance safety in the unfortunate event you or someone around you is caught and buried in an avalanche. When it comes to safety, making a selection can be an overwhelming task; remember you aren't necessarily buying this beacon for you, but rather your partners, friends, and backcountry partners. With all the ways you could save money, an avalanche beacon is likely not the best start.

Chip Daly helping with beacon testing in the Purcell Mountains of...
Chip Daly helping with beacon testing in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

A Note on Wearing an Avalanche Beacon



Statistics


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 ensure 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.

This graph excludes victims who die of trauma and emphasizes the...
This graph excludes victims who die of trauma and emphasizes the importance of proper training and practice to gain faster speed and proficiency. Times include beacon work, probing and shoveling.
Photo: AIARE (American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education)

Practice Makes Perfect


No matter how fancy a product you decide to purchase, proper 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.

The joy that backcountry skiing and snowboarding can bring is...
The joy that backcountry skiing and snowboarding can bring is immense, but besides just carrying your safety equipment you need to know how to use it. Consider taking an AIARE level 1 course. Photo: Over the head powder run near North Cascades Heli's touring based: Barron Yurt.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

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 not exposed to the outside (i.e., covered up); this puts it in the most significant "target area" on your body, and it's slightly more protected from impact. While wearing the beacon in its harness, it is not acceptable to have it exposed to the outside. It needs to be underneath at least one layer of clothing because the odds of it getting ripped off your body are too high otherwise.

It is never okay to have your beacon exposed and not covered by at...
It is never okay to have your beacon exposed and not covered by at least one layer of clothing even on the ascent because the chances of it being ripped off, even if it's in its harness, are too great. Photo Ian Nicholson skinning above Pineapple Basin on the way to the Bryant Peak Couloir.
Photo: Ryan O'Connell

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.

Ian Nicholson showing one of two appropriate ways to wear an...
Ian Nicholson showing one of two appropriate ways to wear an avalanche beacon. Here the Ortovox Zoom+ is worn in a hanging/inside, zippered pants pocket. The other way is in the beacon's harness system, as long as it's not on the outside of your clothing.
Photo: Ian Nicholson

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 the cell phone interfered with the wearer's beacon. At least one of these cell phones was off. Recently, there have also been reports of heated gloves and boots causing interference.

Ian Nicholson and Chris McNamara