Avalanche Beacon 101
If you’re in the market for an avalanche beacon (avalanche transceivers), today’s units are incredibly proficient search tools. Digital signal processing and directional guidance are all standard fare.
We handed a collection of latest avalanche beacons to rank novices with no tips or directions beyond how to switch to search mode. Search results for a single buried beacon were impressive. When you add a second burial, search results were more variable. Nonetheless, multiple-burial searches are easier than ever before thanks to the signal masking features on .
Most avalanche beacon manufacturers now offer two or three different models ranging from a basic unit for basic searches to a mid-range unit with added functionality like multi-signal marking and a high-end unit with programming functions aimed at professional users. Basic units are a great choice for resort skiers and skiers who will only use their beacon a few times a season. They are every bit as safe as other beacons but have more limited search features. They are desgned to keep use as simple as possible. Mid-range beacons are probably the most useful for avid recreational backcountry skiers. They add search features aimed at making multiple burial scenarios easier to manage. High-end units are for professional users who prefer some programability.
The write-ups below focus on four mid-range beacons: the Backcountry Access Tracker 3, Ortovox 3+, Barryvox Element and the Pieps DSP Sport.
We conducted our practice sessions with a BCA Beacon Basin up at Sol Mountain Lodge in British Columbia’s Monashee Mountains. A beacon basin is a dedicated collection of burried beacons designed for search training. The set up includes multiple buried transmitters all controlled from a central switch box. Sol’s beacon basin has 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 unit, which is 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 — regardless of the beacon used. Secondary to 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.
Read the full avalanche beacon review (link to pdf copy of avalanche beacon review)