If you’re in the market for a new avalanche beacon (also known as avalanche transceivers), today’s units are incredibly proficient search tools. Three-antenna construction, digital processing of the signal and directional guidance are all standard fare. We handed a collection of newest avalanche beacons to rank novices with no tips or explanation for use beyond how to switch to search mode and the resulting search times for a single signal were impressive. When you add a second buried signal, search results became more variable, but the multiple-burial search process is easier to learn than ever before.
Most avalanche beacon manufacturers now offer two or three different models including a basic introductory unit, a mid-range unit with added functionality like multi-signal marking and a high-end unit with programming capabilities aimed at professional users. The four beacons included in this test – Backcountry Access Tracker 3, Ortovox 3+, Barryvox Element and the Pieps DSP Sport – are mid-level beacons with a focus on an easy-to-use interface and signal masking for multiple-burial scenarios. They are designed for solid recreational users and beyond.
We conducted our practice sessions with a BCA Beacon Basin up at Sol Mountain Lodge in British Columbia’s Monashee Mountains. The beacon basin includes multiple buried transmitters all controlled from a central switch box. The system had five buried beacons and allowed us to set up consistent test scenarios and a wide variety of multiple burial situations.
Field-testing proved unequivocally that each of these beacons is incredibly efficient at finding a single buried signal, the most likely real-world scenario for the bulk of avalanche beacon users. From seasoned veteran to rank beginner, single-burial course searches were handled with ease. Fine search proficiency required a little practice with each beacon, but the digital processors and three-antenna designs ensure a smooth transition from initial signal detection through coarse and fine searching. Processing speed and signal detection range varies between beacons but made little impact on overall search times for single burials in our testing. Subtle differences revolved around the style of tones and the fine search interface, with each beacon offering a slightly different approach but all proving to be very functional.
Where the beacons show more significant differences is during multiple-burial scenarios. Multiple burials are statistically less common than singles but are still a factor worth considering when evaluating your next avalanche beacon purchase and when practicing your search skills. The bottom line is that even with signal marking technology, multiple burial scenarios require technique, practice and familiarity with your beacon’s specific features and functionality.