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How to Choose an Avalanche Beacon / Avalanche Transceiver


An avalanche beacon, sometimes called an avalanche transceiver, is an electronic device that emits a steady radio signal used to locate buried victims in the aftermath of an avalanche. Along with a shovel and probe, your avalanchebeacon is one of the three pieces of safety gear you must carry with you at all times in the backcountry. Here, we will provide an overview of avalanche beacon features and things to consider before you buy. 
 

Avalanche Beacon Basics


Avalanche beacons range from relatively simple, streamlined options to more feature-laden products designed to assist experienced riders and professional guides. While there are pros and cons to each, the most important thing is to practice and become familiar with whatever beacon you choose. Advanced features often look great on paper, but if they're confusing and difficult to use in a time sensitive situation, they can easily do more harm than good. The best beacon is the one that you can use efficiently in a high stress situation because you’re thoroughly familiar with its operation and quirks.

How do Avalanche Beacons Work?

Although analog avalanche beacons were once common, they have been replaced by digital versions which are less finicky and simpler to use. Digital beacons use multiple antennas and microprocessors to send and receive radio signals. When turned on, an avalanche beacon will transmit a steady signal that can be picked up by other beacons. When switched to "search mode", it will receive signals sent out by other beacons, and translate the transmitted data into both an audible signal and a visual display. Digital transceivers normally indicate both direction and distance to the victim, and adapt very quickly to changing signals.

Are Different Avalanche Beacons Compatible With Each Other?

Modern beacons are designed to be fully compatible with one another, no matter what brand or model you choose. They use the international standard 457 kHz frequency. Older beacons (pre-1986) that utilize the 2.275kHz frequency should no longer be used. This means you can be sure that you and your partners are able to locate each other in an emergency rescue situation, no matter what beacons you carry.

 

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Does It Matter How Many Antennas My Avalanche Beacon Has?

In a word, yes. While older beacons commonly had only one antenna to emit the radio signal, the vast majority of beacons sold today now use a three-antenna design. Generally speaking, the more antennas a beacon has, the more accurately and efficiently that beacon will be pinpointed by another, regardless of how either beacon is oriented in space. While you may encounter older models with only two antennas, the three antenna design is known to give more accurate readings and be less prone to error. It is these that you should aim for.

How do Avalanche Beacons Deal With Multiple Burial Scenarios?

Thankfully, multiple burial rescues are relatively rare. However, many beacons do come with advanced features to help rescuers in such situations, and it is worth understanding how your beacon displays and processes this information.

In a single victim search, most beacons are easy-to-use and function similarly, though you may find some more intuitive than others. In multiple burial situations, different models may display and "flag" multiple signals slightly differently. Most beacons automatically direct you towards the closest signal, while simultaneously alerting you that multiple signals are being received by displaying several victim icons, or a number. Your beacon will allow you to suppress and ignore individual signals once they have been located and marked, so you can lock on to another signal and locate the next buried victim.

Successful multiple burial searches are an advanced skill to master, requiring intimate familiarity with your beacon and plenty of practice to perform well under duress. If multiple burial searches are a priority for you, we recommend taking an advanced level avalanche course and practicing often in realistic scenarios.

Avalanche Beacon Batteries

One of the most important things is making sure your avalanche beacon is ready to spring into action at a moments notice. The last thing you need during a rescue is for your beacon to run out of juice, and that means keeping a close eye on battery level. Many avalanche beacons display battery level upon booting up, allowing you to keep track of the situation.

Follow these basic battery rules to keep your avalanche beacon in good working order:
 
  • ​Put fresh batteries in at the start of every season
  • Always use regular alkaline batteries
  • Never use rechargeable batteries
  • Do not use lithium batteries, unless specified by the manufacturor.
  • Always carry extra fresh batteries with you
  • Once battery level drops below 50%, it's time for new batteries
  • Always remove the batteries if your beacon is not going to be used for an extended period of time, like at the end of the season

How to use an Avalanche Beacon

How do I wear my avalanche beacon?

Wear your beacon under at least one layer of clothing, so it is not pulled off your body in the event of a slide. Most beacons come with a harness system that allows you to wear the beacon underneath your jacket and over base layers. Some people prefer to place their beacon in a secure pocket in their pants or jacket. If you choose to do this, make sure it is pocket designed for this purpose, with something to clip the beacon to. With or without a harness, the beacon’s controls are normally placed facing your body and in a place that’s convenient to reach if you need to pull it out and perform a search.

How do I get to know the features on my avalanche beacon?
Practice, practice, and practice! Nothing prepares you for an emergency beacon search like regular practice with your partners in a realistic setting. Many ski areas in avalanche country maintain “beacon basins” or practice areas during the winter that offer user-activated search scenarios at different skill levels. If a practice area isn’t available, take turns with your partners burying a pack with a live beacon in it, and then time yourselves searching, locating, and retrieving it. These skills require plenty of practice so that they become second nature when the time comes to use them. 

We recommend that backcountry travelers take an AIARE Level One class or equivalent and practice the skills they learn there regularly with their partners. Here are some great resources for avalanche safety education:

— American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education
— American Avalanche Association
— Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center

You should carry an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe when travelling in avalanche terrain and know how to use them. Backcountry travel requires an acceptance of the risks involved (avalanches are not the only danger) and implies a willingness to take responsibility for educating oneself about these dangers and ways to mitigate them.

A note on RECCO® reflectors: RECCO® reflectors are small electronic chips that can be built into jackets, pants, boots and other pieces of personal gear. The RECCO® system works by bouncing back a radar signal to the searcher and is not related to the 457 kHz beacon frequency. A search and rescue party with a corresponding RECCO® detector unit can locate a buried victim wearing a reflector in either a ground or air search. RECCO® reflectors are strictly passive devices and do not allow the wearer to conduct a search for a buried victim. They are not a substitute for avalanche beacons for backcountry travelers.

A note on "W" Link: Some models of Mammut and Arva transceivers use a separate frequency called "W" Link to transmit data other than victim location.

A note on Pieps TX600: Pieps offers a small transmitter for dogs or gear that transmits 1kHz below the standard operating frequency (456 kHz, rather than 457 kHz) and can be detected by specific Pieps models.

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