While backcountry skiing is incredibly exciting, the conditions you’ll be in are very different compared to a ski resort. You get the all the freedom you want in exploring, but you’re also fully responsible for your own safety. This is why you need to think about bringing additional gear in case you get in trouble, and an avalanche beacon should be high up on that list.
An avalanche beacon (transceiver) is a smart device that uses a radio signal to communicate with other beacons that are buried under the snow or to send a distress signal if you’re the person buried. This allows people to get help faster and spend less time under the snow, which is critical in this type of situations. This is why beacons must be reliable, fast, and easy to use in an emergency.
Finding a device you can rely on is important, but you must also learn how to use it properly. Our buying guide will give you hints on how to find the best avalanche beacons and how to operate them, so you are well-prepared in case you have to use it. But first, take a look at the versatile avalanche beacons we picked out for you.
How To Choose An Avalanche Beacon – Buying Guide
Since avalanche beacons are used in emergencies, the main focus of these devices is functionality. They need to be simple to understand and use, and work flawlessly if an avalanche happens (because time is very limited in those situations). For this reason, avalanche beacons nowadays are fully compatible with each other, greatly increasing the chance of rescue when off-piste skiing. Still, there are differences between models and brands in terms of design and additional features. Take a look.
Ease Of Use
It’s vital that the avalanche rescue beacons have functions that are simple to use and easily accessible, at least the basic ones (turning the device on or off and switching between transmit and receive modes). This is even more important if you’re an inexperienced user, since too many controls and options may confuse you when trying to locate avalanche victims.
Because of this, numerous search and rescue professionals advise skiers to get to know their device well before going out, because it’s much more difficult to figure things out in a high-stress situation. In addition to the ease of reading and operation, the device also must be fast in picking up and adjusting the signal (which we’ll talk about a bit later). All of this is critical if the search is going to be successful.
Frequency and Compatibility
Almost all avalanche beacons available today are compatible with one another. This fact makes the search and rescue operations much faster, and we all know that time is a critical factor when an avalanche strikes. All the beacons today operate at the same frequency – 457kHz, and are able to detect one another without trouble. The same universal frequency is used all around the world, and not just in North America, meaning that your device will work anywhere you go.
This has been a standard for a bit more than 20 years, so you don’t have to worry about it when buying a new one. However, older beacons operated on dual frequencies (457kHz and 2.257kHz), so there were some compatibility issues. Furthermore, an older beacon can experience something known as a ‘frequency drift’, which slightly changes the frequency it operates on and makes it undetectable by others.
This is why we advise that you buy a new beacon if the one you own is very old. In relation to this, some models we reviewed come with a frequency drift adjustment feature, allowing them to search a bit above and below the 457kHz and potentially pick up the signal from these older beacons.
There are several things that determine the effectiveness of a beacon. First, the design of the beacon itself plays a huge role in this. Even though they work on the same frequency, not all beacons pick up the signal at the same speed, and this is determined by the components inside. This is why our list only features devices from renown manufacturers with plenty of experience in this area.
Furthermore, how effective a beacon is also depends on how adept you are in using it both when you’re part of the search party, but also if you’re a victim trying to survive an avalanche. You may buy any of the best avalanche beacons, but it will be of no use if you don’t have enough experience in using it. Finally, some functions that a beacon has (a third antenna, flagging of multiple victims and similar) can really make the device more efficient during a search operation.
Beacons are part of the emergency gear that you should take with you whenever you go on a backcountry ski trip. Because of this, they need to be convenient to carry, especially since backcountry skiers usually try to keep things light and comfortable.
Most beacons come with a harness (waist or chest), and we think this is the option you should look for. This is probably the most practical way of carrying it since it stays firmly on your body but it doesn’t come in the way. Simply wear it underneath your jacket, and you don’t have to worry it will get ripped from your body if you’re in an avalanche.
However, newer beacon models are getting more compact, and some of them come without a harness. The idea is that they are compact enough to fit in a pocket of your ski clothing, so there’s no need for wearing a harness. On the other hand, some people prefer to carry it in a pocket anyway. If this is you, make sure you put it in an inner pocket and avoid putting it in loose outer pockets or your ski backpack.
The range of a ski beacon is an important thing to consider since it can make a difference when covering larger search areas. This varies from one device to the next, but usually falls somewhere between 130 and 200 feet (40 to 60m). Keep in mind that this range represents the diameter of a circle where the beacon is in the center, so it covers 65 to 100 feet in every direction from where you’re standing.
While it’s always better to have a larger range, this shouldn’t be the sole factor that leads you when buying. Some beacons are faster at picking up the signal from a buried device and more efficient in locating it even if it has a smaller range on paper. Finally, you must keep in mind that uneven terrain or a victim under a lot of snow can influence the range and search results, so make sure you’re always thorough.
Most snow beacons nowadays come with either two or three antennas, with three-antenna versions being more and more common. The reason behind this is that the strongest transmission is in the direction where the antenna is oriented, and having multiple antennas gives you better coverage. Because of the way radio waves spread (flux lines), the signal isn’t always equally strong, and antennas with different orientation give the device a better reading.
However, you shouldn’t be deterred from devices with only two antennas. The third one has the most useful when searching for a buried victim because it makes the signal more stable and easier to locate once you’re near, but not much else. It doesn’t increase the range or change the function of the beacon. The same goes if you’re a victim – there’s no real difference in signal transmission when comparing models with two and three antennas.
Even though their basic function is the same, many manufacturers equip their avalanche beacons with additional features to make them more efficient on the snow. This increases the chances of a faster rescue in an avalanche, so it’s desirable to get such a device even if it only slightly improves the chance of a positive outcome.
One of the most useful functions is automatic revert to transmit mode. When you turn them on, most beacons are in search mode. However, if the beacon detects that you’re not moving for a certain amount of time (usually a minute), it automatically switches to transmit mode. This is helpful if you were caught in an avalanche and are unable to switch the mode yourself, either because you can’t reach it or because you were injured.
Some of the more sophisticated beacons on the market come equipped with W-Link frequency to aid the standard frequency that all the beacons use. This is an excellent addition since it’s able to transmit more information to the search crew and make marking of the locations faster. In addition, some are also able to transmit the victim’s vital signs, which is important in multiple burial scenarios.
Marking or flagging is a common feature nowadays, and a very useful one when searching for several avalanche victims. The feature allows you to ‘flag’ the location of the first victim so you can continue your search without the strongest signal interfering. A function called ‘Big picture mode’ works great together with the marking function, since it’s able to show you which signals are the closest as well as their direction (without overlapping), so you know who needs to be rescued first.
We also want to mention compatibility with other devices. Some avalanche beacons can connect to your smartphone using Bluetooth, and use this connection to update software or even transfer some data through the mobile app on your phone. Furthermore, some devices can be connected to a PC using a USB cable, for the same reasons.
The display is a very important part of your transceiver since it gives you critical information when searching for victims. Depending on the model you buy, the display is more or less sophisticated. On a basic model, the display will usually just show distance, while the direction is shown with the LEDs on top. However, the best avalanche transceivers have LCD displays that show not only distance, but also direction, number of victims, a compass, battery level, and other useful info.
As you have probably guessed, devices with larger screens are more expensive too. Luckily, getting a beacon with the largest screen isn’t necessary – it’s much more important that it’s easily visible. This is why the numbers are very bright on most beacons, to give you a good contrast. It’s an added plus if the display has a backlight, so you’re able to see it in low-light conditions or if you’re in a snow storm.
In addition to the display, we also want to comment on the audio signals (beeps) and vibrations. Many devices use beeps which get stronger and more frequent when you’re nearing the target, as a way of helping you. Additionally, some models vibrate if they pick up a signal while they’re in the harness, to notify you that a transmitting beacon is nearby.
Even though these situations don’t happen every day, having several people buried under the snow can be a serious problem. This is why most modern devices are capable of discovering several signals and leading you to them. This is usually shown as a number and direction on the screen, so you know how many signals there are and the direction they are coming from.
A unit needs to be able to differentiate between signals in these situations. If not, the signals overlap with one another and you won’t be able to find anything. This is why you should try and get a device that can do this, even if it costs a bit more. An additional plus is if the beacon has the marker function we mentioned, allowing you to mark victims as you find them so you can continue the search and save time.
Most devices in our avalanche beacon reviews use three AAA batteries, and some even have them included in the package. A smaller number of devices use a single AA battery, so be sure to check this before buying. You should only use alkaline batteries for powering avalanche beacons because they are most reliable and work best in low-temperature circumstances.
Avoid using rechargeable and lithium batteries, since they are known to cause problems. Rechargeable batteries don’t work well in cold conditions, while lithium batteries do but are unreliable in showing the power level accurately, so you can be surprised to see you battery level dropping from 25% to 0% in a matter of minutes.
In any case, make sure you have enough battery power when going out (at least 40%). Most beacons can operate for more than 200 hours in transmit mode (with full batteries), so this should be more than enough. If you plan on staying out for a longer period of time or going on a winter camping trip, be sure to bring an extra pack of batteries with you.
Two types of avalanche beacons exist – analog and digital. All the best avalanche transceivers are digital since they are far superior in both speed and functionality when compared to the analog devices that were used in the past. A good thing is that the two are fully mutually compatible, so they won’t have problems communicating with each other.
Digital transceivers (beacons) have multiple antennas and a small computer (processor) inside. The antennas gather the information from the signal, while the computer processes it and shows it on the display (distance and direction). An added benefit is that it works very fast, so it’s able to adapt to a signal change and make your search faster.
Analog transceivers have a single antenna that is used to receive the signal. When the device receives the signal, it produces a beep. As you approach your target, the beeps get louder and more frequent, until you locate the person buried under the snow. Relying only on sound can be problematic, which is why digital models are a much better solution. However, analog models often have a bigger range, and some people prefer them for their simplicity.
Q: How Do Avalanche Beacons Work?
An avalanche beacon (transceiver) is a device that uses electromagnetic (radio) signals to locate another beacon. As you had the chance to see, it’s used to track a person buried after an avalanche, by picking up the signals that the victim’s beacon is transmitting. Transceivers have two modes of operation – transmit and receive.
When in transmit mode, the beacon uses the antennas to transmit radio waves at the 457kHz (a standard for avalanche beacons). These signals spread to the surrounding area and have a shape of flux lines (instead of linear). As long as the device is set to transmit (send) mode, the signals are emitted continuously within small time intervals.
On the other side, you have a beacon that is set to receive mode. This beacon picks up the radio signal from the buried beacon, processes it, and then shows the distance and the direction on the display. The rescuer then follows the signal along the flux lines until they reach the point of the strongest signal (smallest distance), and then the probing and digging processes begin.
In critical and life-threatening situations such as avalanches, speed can make the difference between life and death. Be sure to familiarize yourself with your beacon, know how to use all of its functions and how to read it properly. As we mentioned earlier, some beacons come with automatic functions that can come handy (for example automatic revert to transmit mode in some models, or the automatic switch to search when you take it out of the harness).
We must caution you that an avalanche beacon has its limitations, so keep that in mind. It only works with other beacons and only when they are within range of one another. Other than that, it doesn’t have satellite communication, so it won’t be of much use if you get lost in the wilderness. If this is your concern, consider getting a hiking GPS that is able to pinpoint your location using a satellite, or get a personal locator beacon.
Q: Is An Avalanche Beacon Necessary?
Yes, it really is – it can save your life or help you save someone else’s. Once you leave the ski resort, you’re no longer in a safe area. Depending on where you are, the backcountry slopes are more or less prone to avalanche, and you never know what might happen. Wearing a beacon on you will help the rescue service locate the signal and find you under the snow.
In addition to the beacon, be sure to take other avalanche emergency gear with you – a shovel, a probe, and perhaps a ski airbag. A probe is used for performing a fine search when you’ve located the victim under the snow, while a shovel is used to dig them out, or to dig yourself an air pocket so you can breathe before the rescue team comes.
Unfortunately, an avalanche beacon (or other emergency gear) won’t keep you safe from avalanches – they are only used after the accident has happened. This is why you need to be smart and well prepared when going to the backcountry, and avoid potentially risky areas known for avalanches. Also, learn as much as possible about avalanche safety, so you can avoid dangerous situations.
Q: How Does The RECCO System Work?
RECCO is a system used by many search and rescue teams around the world for quickly locating people in need of help (including avalanches). It’s a great complement to avalanche beacons, and you can use them at the same time to increase your chance of rescue.
The RECCO system contains two parts – a RECCO reflector (worn by the skier or snowboarder) and a RECCO detector, carried by the rescue services. The reflector is a passive unit that is integrated into your gear – ski pants, jacket, or even your ski helmet. It doesn’t require any maintenance and it doesn’t use batteries. The purpose of this unit is to reflect the signal coming from the detector and give your approximate location to the rescue unit.
The RECCO detector that is carried by SAR and emits a radio signal that gets bounced from the reflector, and then it picks the signal up and calculates the location. This system is very useful for searching broad areas with a helicopter or snowmobiles since it makes things much faster than searching on foot.
As we said, the system has absolutely no interference with beacons. So, the next time you’re thinking about what to wear skiing, consider getting gear equipped with a RECCO reflector since it can be helpful in an emergency.
Q: How Do I Use My Avy Beacon?
As you’ve figured out by now, an avalanche beacon has two modes of operation – transmit and receive. Most beacons come with an on/off button and a slider that allows you to change between these two modes. Using the beacon in transmit mode is pretty passive – you turn it on, set it to transmit, and secure it to your body.
Be sure to wear the harness underneath your clothing, as we’ve suggested earlier. This prevents the beacon from getting detached in an accident, and the battery to be compromised by the cold. If something happens to you, the beacon will continue sending a signal. Always be sure to check if it’s working properly before you go, either with the other people in the group or at the checkpoint in the resort.
As for the search (receive) mode, it requires that you actively take part. When you set the beacon to search mode, the device tries to pick up a signal from any beacon in the surrounding area. Depending on the model, the range of the beacon is different. The search consists of several stages – signal search (more than 40m), coarse search (10 to 40m), fine search (pinpoint on the line, less than 10m), and the final pinpoint with a probe.
When searching, try to follow the flux lines as best as possible. Don’t worry if you’re not going in a straight line, because you shouldn’t be. Follow the direction and distance reading until you reach the lowest signal. When searching, try to keep the beacon in a straight line and not rotate it too much. There are many instructional videos and courses available on this topic, so learn as much as possible about the process because a swift reaction can really make a difference.
Globo Surf Overview
When going out on an unmarked trail, your awareness and precaution must be on a very high level. As you know, avalanches are natural disasters that are very dangerous and often deadly. Even though it won’t prevent an avalanche, a transceiver can save your life in that limited time window you have been buried under the snow, because it can lead to a quick rescue.
Now that you know how they work and what to look for, finding the best avalanche transceiver shouldn’t be difficult. Be sure to always put it on before you step on your cross-country skis because, unfortunately, you never know. The best thing you can do is learn how to recognize dangerous situations and keep yourself safe, and we really hope that you never get into a situation where you’ll depend on the beacon.
- Avalanche Beacon (Transceiver), avalanche.org
- Avalanche Rescue, backcountryaccess.com
- How to Choose an Avalanche Beacon, evo.com
- How to Choose Avalanche Transceivers, rei.com
Globo Surf Avalanche Beacons Reviews