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Our crew of seasoned avalanche professionals and AMGA certified ski guides has spent over a decade extensively testing more than 20 of the best avalanche beacons. In this review, 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 AIARE course instructors. We tested all of these beacons 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.
Editor's Note: We updated this article on September 8, 2022, with six new beacons, including award winners such as the Arva Neo Pro, Black Diamond Recon BT, and BCA Tracker4. We also tested the unique new Ortovox Diract Voice, which has voice commands in addition to the usual auditory beeps a beacon emits.
Bluetooth makes it easy to adjust settings and update software
Best battery life in our review
Lots of features
REASONS TO AVOID
Somewhat 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, not a percentage
The Black Diamond Guide BT (along with the functionally identical Pieps Pro BT) is one of our favorite overall beacons. The difference between these beacons is strictly cosmetic, which is why both of these models earn identical top scores. The BT in the name refers to its Bluetooth connectivity, which is the method used for updating its software. You can also adjust its settings via a smartphone app. The Guide proved to be one of our favorite all-around beacons because it is so good at so many things. It was among the fastest of the models tested and offered some of the most precise bracketing. It has above-average range, and its multiple burial functionality was among the best, second only to the Mammut Barryvox S.
While it's an awesome beacon, the Guide BT has more features than most novices need, and it's probably overkill for many backcountry users who would be just as well off with something like the BCA Tracker4 or the BD Recon BT which aren't nearly as feature-rich, but satisfy the basic needs of backcountry travelers at a lower price. But for those seeking a fully-featured beacon that is still ultra-quick and easy to use, look no further. This model boasts a rare combination of being easy to use, fast, and precise, with a good range and excellent multiple burial capability. These assets land it at the top of its class and make it a good option for nearly all levels of users.
Top-tier bracketing performance in the fine search
REASONS TO AVOID
Signal suppression function can be tricky in certain situations
Lacks option to update software
The S in the Backcountry Access Tracker S stands for Simple, but this beacon still has all the features that most backcountry travelers are seeking while keeping the intuitive design that the Tracker beacons are known for. It's housed in a low-profile casing, great for those who prefer to carry their beacon in a zippered pants pocket. We were continually impressed by its speed and prowess, especially for the price. All of our testers loved how straightforward this beacon was to use, and appreciated the fast processor speed. One of our favorite things was how precise it was during the bracketing stage of the search, for both experienced and novice users alike.
While this not a dealbreaker, we didn't love the multiple burial function where it only suppressed one signal for one minute. Most of the time this won't present a problem, but in certain situations, it can create confusion and certainly takes a little more practice to become adept with. Additionally, the model we tested didn't quite live up to BCA's stated range. While more range is great, it still provides the 40-meter search strip that the majority of rescuers are going to use and that most avalanche educational intuitions are teaching. Still, we think the pros far outweigh the cons, and if you're looking for the best beacon for the money, look no further than the Tracker S.
Directional arrows disappear at 3m (instead of our preferred 2m)
The Arva Neo Pro is a professional-level beacon that will appeal to those wanting an advanced beacon for more complex rescues but at a very reasonable price. No other similarly priced model offers an analog mode, the ability to toggle between signals, or as long of a maximum range for the price. The Neo Pro is quite intuitive overall and our test team found it to be among the top-performers at nearly every stage of the search except for the fine search.
In the fine search, it just took more practice to come right over the top of the buried signal while making our brackets. This likely has something to do with its directional arrows disappearing at 3m instead of 2m, but also some to do with the beacon itself. It isn't that the Neo Pro isn't capable of producing precise brackets (smaller, given the depth), but it took more practice to be proficient when directly comparing it with other beacons searching for the same buried signal. With that said, for more practiced or advanced users, the Neo Pro is a top-tier pro-level beacon that happens to be priced more in line with the "all-around" transceivers on the market.
Consistently the fastest rescue times for less practiced users
REASONS TO AVOID
Multiple burial function wasn't as good for complex scenarios involving more than two people
Slightly below average range
The BCA Tracker4 is the latest of BCA's long line of tried and true Tracker beacons. The Tracker4 picks up where the Tracker3 left off, but most of its differences are external, with the T4 being tougher, offering a better display, and easier to operate controls than the T3. The functionality of these two beacons is nearly identical. The Tracker4 is one of the fastest and easiest to use beacons on the market. Its processor speed is among the absolute quickest and its precision during the bracketing stage proved to be among the best. These attributes are likely why this beacon consistently produced some of the quickest rescue times for 1-2 beacons and was the absolute fastest in the hands of newer or less practiced users.
The only thing we didn't love about the Tracker4 is its multiple burial functionality. It works for 3 or more beacons (about 5% of real-world avalanche scenarios), but it takes a little more skill than other models. This is because it can only mark/flag one beacon at a time while searching for the next. Additionally, it automatically "unmarks" the first beacon after 60 seconds. This does have some advantages but is generally more difficult for less practiced users, and even its slick big picture mode couldn't quite make up for it. Its range was also just so-so, not terrible, but nothing to write home about either. Still, when searching for 1-2 beacons, this model repeatedly proved it was among the absolute fastest and easiest models we tested.
More practice is required to be proficient in the fine search
Slightly less precise (small) brackets compared with other models
Not geared towards novices
The Mammut Barryvox S is an excellent beacon for more advanced users who demand a lot from their beacon and are more likely to take full advantage of a fully-featured beacon's capabilities. This model is fast at finding a single burial but takes a little more practice in the fine search. It really excels in complex multiple burials, where its prowess is literally unmatched. It sports numerous options and 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 we tested.
While this model is excellent for professionals and experienced users, it's likely just too much beacon for novices or less experienced backcountry travelers. These users can easily get away with a less expensive model since many of the advanced features would never be used. Its capabilities also equate to a slight increase in complexity, which is unhelpful for less experienced individuals when racing against the clock to save a friend's life. The Barryvox S also takes more practice to achieve precision during the bracketing stage. This model is best for advanced users and pros who will take advantage of its many features, gigantic range, and unparalleled ability to manage even the most complex multiple burial rescue scenarios.
Better performance in the fine search than most in its price range
REASONS TO AVOID
Battery life displays in thirds
Stiff slider toggle difficult to operate with gloves
The new Black Diamond Recon LT is functionally very similar to the Black Diamond Recon BT and the Pieps Powder BT but in a smaller package. Just like those models, it uses Bluetooth to connect a smartphone app for configuration and updating. We think the Recon LT is very well suited and more than adequate for the majority of backcountry travelers. Most folks are unlikely to take advantage of the complex features offered on the premium models, but the Recon LT has all of the basic features that casual users are seeking, along with a straightforward user interface. The other pleasant thing about the Recon LT is its low weight and compact size. Whether this appeals to you as a smaller user, a gram counter, or someone who exclusively wears their beacon in a pant pocket, this was our favorite of the new crop of compact models.
Despite its small size, we found it among the more precise at bracketing and it also offers an above-average processor speed and range. It's downsides are minor: the battery life is displayed in thirds rather than the more common percentage, and its lock mechanism is very stiff. The stiff slider-lock mechanism might is likely due to a few very publicized issues with previous models' slide locks switching between SEARCH-SEND-OFF without the user knowing it. This issue has been taken care of with this new version. The Recon LT is an excellent compact beacon with just the right amount of performance and features to suit the majority of backcountry travelers very well.
Configured/updated with Bluetooth and smartphone app
REASONS TO AVOID
Processor speed isn't quite as fast as other models
Fine search requires more practice to be precise
Some voice prompts aren't as intuitive
The Ortovox Diract Voice is a solid all-around beacon that is set apart by its new and unprecedented voice command feature. This model guides you through the steps of the search, using various voice prompts describing what the searcher should be doing or what the beacon is doing in different situations. As you'd expect, the majority of these prompts come when the beacon is in SEARCH mode and are meant to assist the rescuer in remembering what to do at key stages (such as utilizing searching strips during the signal search, or dropping to the ground at 6 meters), as well as helping the user stay on the flux line during a rescue. Our review team found these prompts most helpful for newer and less practiced users, though we think anyone could benefit from this during the stress of a companion rescue in a real-world setting. We also appreciated that the beacon made several other statements letting you know it was turning ON or OFF. Even without the voice prompts, we found this beacon to be overall quite solid.
We had a couple small gripes, however. For being such an otherwise ultra user-friendly beacon, it was just so-so when it came to bracketing in the fine search, requiring a bit more skill than some other models at coming right over the top of the buried transceiver. Its processing speed was also slower than other models in multiple close-proximity burials. Still, we think this model is notable for its voice prompts. They're not a major game-changer, but we think they could be beneficial in real-world use in tandem with the normal visual/audible prompts that a standard beacon offers.
We've purchased and tested two dozen avalanche beacons over the last decade. We test all the beacons in our review extensively; pitting them head-to-head in both single and multiple burials. We compared all products side-by-side over several full days, with well over 200 tests performed. We time and analyze each model's performance at each stage of the search in the hands of both professionals and novice users. The heaviest weighted metrics speed, single victim search, and fine search. We compared each model's performance and accuracy in the fine search and the consistency and precision of their brackets. We also performed controlled range tests, starting outside the beacon's maximum range, and moving in until detection to avoid single drag error, performing 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.
Our testing of avalanche beacons is divided across six rating metrics:
Speed tests (20% of overall score weighting)
Single Victim Search tests (20% weighting)
Fine Search tests (20% weighting)
Range tests (15% weighting)
Multiple Burial tests (15% weighting)
Features (10% weighting)
This review was put together by two of our resident experts in mountain safety and technology. Heading up the review is Ian Nicholson, an IFMGA/UIAGM Guide who works on skis in the backcountry for over 100 days each winter. Ian is a ski guide who works for AIARE on a national level instructing professionals level avalanche courses. He has taught over 100 recreational level 1 and level 2 courses and works on the instructor team for the AMGA teaching courses in the ski discipline. This gives Ian a unique and in-depth perspective on a large range of experience levels, observing literally hundreds of novices learn to use their beacons while facilitating professional-level beacon assessments. Ian also spent five seasons for Northwest Avalanche Center and the Alaska Avalanche and Information Center furthering his experience in which to draw for this review. 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.
Analysis and Test Results
To help you suss out the best transceiver for you, 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 and precision, flagging/marking features, battery life, range, and associated search strip widths, and more.
We highlight awards for specific user groups and like many products, the more you spend, the more featured and capable the beacons become. However, with beacons, the most capable and featured-filled beacon might not actually help you find someone faster, especially for the most common single-burial situation, and thus might not be the best for everyone. The reason for this is the most capable beacons are often more complex with more complicated interfaces. Because they are generally less straightforward to use, a super capable beacon perfectly suitable for a pro might be a poor choice for a novice user or someone who doesn't practice as frequently.
Allow us to use the metaphor of manual cameras vs. point-and-shoots. If you don't know how to operate all the settings on a manual camera, you might be better off with a point-and-shoot. A more fully-featured beacon is a lot like a 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 functions and settings, but is easier to operate as a result. Less practiced users may appreciate something that is more straightforward to use, especially considering that these products are designed to be used during stressful, high-stakes scenarios.
We made sure to highlight a handful of models that perform well but are on the less costly side. One beacon that fits this description is the Backcountry Access Tracker S. At its price point, it's an extremely capable beacon and therefore a great value. While it wasn't our favorite overall, it is fast, easy to use, and the price is right. If you're seeking a more advanced beacon but don't want to spend top dollar for a professional-level beacon, the Arva Neo Pro has a bunch of the advanced features that pros and seasoned recreational users are looking for like an analog mode, an ultra-capable multiple burial function, and a super long range, but costs much less than the majority of its closest competition.
Overall speed, along with ease of finding a single victim, should be the most important factors to consider when purchasing a beacon. It's easy to get swept up in all the cool extra features or things like a long range, but at the end of the day, speed and ease of finding a single buried beacon should be the strongest considerations.
Our speed category measured how fast we could find a single burial with a given beacon, start to finish. While speed considers several other factors, such as precision in the fine search, we gave it an accumulative score from 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 and bracketing precision.
We also tested models that accommodated 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 — both in processor speed and in the intuitiveness of their user interface, which took longer to interpret for the less experienced or less practiced users.
The models with the most lightning-fast processor speeds were the BCA Tracker S and Tracker4, Black Diamond's Recon LT, Recon BT, and Guide BT, and the Pieps Powder BT and Pro BT. There were other solidly performing models, but for pure processor speed, these models were a cut above the rest.
Ease of Finding a Single Victim
Finding a single victim is a basic but very important feature of any beacon, and shouldn't be overlooked in favor of other features when considerating your selection. As such, we weighted this category 20% of the total score. We emphasize this category because statistically speaking, in North America, roughly 85% of the time rescuers are searching for a single burial beacon. The other 15% of the time in multiple burial situations, most rescuers won't have the resources to divide and conquer and will likely have to focus all of their effort on locating and digging up one victim at a time rather than using flagging/marking features.
For example, if two rescuers are looking for two buried beacons, they will essentially complete two independent single victim searches, one immediately after the other as it is better to get one person an airway faster than two people probed but left under the snow. The clock doesn't stop on a buried victim until they have a clear airway. 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 are 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.
The simplest model to use was the Ortovox Diract Voice, thanks to its unique voice prompts where the beacon actually speaks to you, guiding you through your rescue in various ways throughout the search. We found the Diract Voice tied with the BCA Tracker S, BCA Tracker4, and Arva Evo5, which all featured exceptionally easy-to-use interfaces. Also of note were the Black Diamond Recon BT and the identical Pieps Powder BT, which have intuitive and straightforward controls that are easy to understand and operate while offering a few more features than most of the models listed above.
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 and move with your beacon along the surface of the snow. However, this is also the search phase where you can see the most considerable differences 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 efficiently getting the victim in the center of our brackets, and some consistently had larger brackets. Larger brackets are a disadvantage because it means more probing and a slower overall rescue.
This assessment came from an average of consistency among dozens of tests, with the models consistently scoring the best. These models include the BCA TrackerS and Tracker4, and Black Diamond's Recon BT, Recon LT and Guide BT. These beacons most consistently put the buried beacon in the middle of the bracket. We found the Mammut Barryvox S and the Mammut Barryvox provided very precise bracketing but took more experienced users or more practice to more consistently come in right over the top of the buried transceiver.
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 on a given model's maximum range because it's an easily quantifiable number, but that doesn't make it more important. It's hard to argue that more range isn't nice, but in most situations, having an extra 15 meters of range will have a minimal difference in reducing overall rescue 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's 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.
The products we tested have a manufacturer's maximum range of between 50 and 70 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 50-70 meters of maximum range, it means they have 25-35 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.
Manufacturers' Maximum Distance Ratings
While most manufacturers' 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.
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 exact (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).
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 higher 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'd prefer accuracy, this doesn't have an effect on actual performance; it is just something to be aware of.
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.
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. While we agree analog function is a cool feature, few people know how to accurately use the analog function effectively enough that it would speed up a 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 Mammut Barryvox models still offered the longest maximum range, consistently picking up a signal at around 70 meters away, and both have a manufacturer's search strip width recommendation of 70 meters. The only other model that could come close was the Arva Neo Pro which also features an analog mode, though its maximum receiving range is shorter than the Barryvox S; around 70-80m in Analog and 55-65m in digital.
After countless tests and comparisons, the products with the next longest ranges were the Black Diamond Guide BT and the Black Diamond Recon BT. These beacons would most often pick up their signals around 50-55m 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 15% of reported avalanches in North America and Europe are instances where multiple people are buried in a single avalanche occurrence. In 10% of avalanches, there are two people buried. Statistically, only 5% of avalanche occurrences bury three or more victims.
To be in a situation where you need to use a flagging/marking function on a beacon, you'll likely need several rescuers. If you have multiple people buried and three or four rescuers, all of those rescuers' efforts should likely go into finding one person quickly to give that person the best chance of survival rather than splitting resources and "dividing and conquering".
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 to 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 avalanche professionals, a dependable rescue flagging/marking functionality and a beacon's ability to handle multiple close proximity burials is essential for training and examinations.
For your beacon to be able to tell other buried beacons apart, it uses a blend of signal strength and cadence (each model uses its own magic blend of these two and no two companies are exactly the same). 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. Once there are 4 beacons in a smaller area (30x30m), even the most advanced beacons will struggle.
Universal Multiple Burial Techniques
Being practiced and familiar with your beacon's specific masking/marking/flagging function is unquestionably essential. However, even the best beacons can have errors, and knowing how to recognize your beacon is struggling is just as important. Two universal multiple burial techniques will work with any beacon, eliminate the need for flagging, and work 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. Between these two techniques, micro strip searching is far more useful, because it works in scenarios where flagging/marking is unlikely to work.
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 the Speed and Single Victim Search metrics in our scoring. With that said, multiple burials are still a factor to consider. We performed our side-by-side comparison 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.
After dozens of tests and comparisons and facilitating AIARE Pro 1 and AMGA Advanced Ski Guide Courses (which both involve timed rescue drills searching for multiple beacons), the undisputed best beacon for multiple burials was the Mammut Barryvox S, with the Black Diamond Guide BT/Pieps Pro BT (same beacon) and the Arva Neo Pro coming in a close second. These beacons differentiated between close proximity burials exceptionally well and in the case of the Arva Neo Pro and the Barryvox S, you can scroll through victims. It was difficult to fool the marking/masking function, which is a good thing. These two beacons also offer the ability to unmask previously marked beacons.
This category showed the most variability between the different avalanche beacons. Some come laden with useful and well-thought-out features, while others have limited options. Below we cover many of the different feature options currently available on the market today.
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 the Mammut Barryvox S in analog mode.
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 single time they go out into the backcountry. A group check mode helps models with stronger signal lock 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. One advantage is the ability to differentiate close proximity burials to its user.
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 Neo Pro, Black Diamond Guide BT, and BD Recon BT. Models like the BCA Tracker3, Tracker S, Pieps Recon 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 beacons that include this mode, it comes ready to use. Some models (like the Black Diamond Guide BT), you have to configure it via Bluetooth with the smartphone app. Some models have this mode, 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. The Mammut Barryvox beacons had this feature.
The Pros and Cons of Revert to Transmit Mode
The revert to transmit mode can be 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 offered by some beacons 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 growing larger. Products with this compass feature are the Mammut Barryvox S and Arva models.
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.
With most triple antenna 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.
A Note on Wearing an Avalanche Beacon
Practice Makes Perfect
No matter how fancy a product you decide to purchase, proper training and practice are essential. 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 under at least one layer of clothing; 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 not okay to have the beacon exposed, 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. Despite lots of debate, there is no evidence one way or another that either a pants pocket or the harness is safer.
Don't carry any other device that broadcasts a signal within 30 cm (around 1 foot) of your avalanche beacon. This includes your cell phone, radio, GoPro or anything else that transmits a signal. There have been at least two high-profile deaths in the last few years because of a cell phone signal interfering 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.
This review is designed to help lay out the differences between the avalanche beacons on the market today. Though they do not guarantee survival, 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 that you aren't necessarily just buying this beacon for yourself, but also for your friends, and backcountry partners. With all the ways you could save money, an avalanche beacon is likely not the best start.
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