The Finders: Best Avalanche Beacons
9 beacons you can count on when the worst happens in the backcountry
Avalanche transceivers are part of the so-called "holy trinity" of backcountry rescue. Along with shovels and probes, they work in concert to locate, pinpoint and dig out victims in the event of a slide.
Since beacons are necessary for the very first step—locating someone buried beneath the snow’s surface—it pays to have one and know how to use it. Becoming comfortable with the model you choose doesn’t have to be intimidating. The now-standard third antenna has made finding a buried beacon easier, while flagging (or, “marking”) functions make transitioning between multiple burals speedier and more efficient than ever before.
And, with upgradable software available for most models, it’s easier to pick a model you like and stay with it for years, upgrading internally as new technology becomes available. They're safer, and they don't break the bank. From casual backcountry adventurers to aspiring snow scientists and rescuers, manufacturers are designing transceivers to fit a wider variety of users. Find the one that's right for you.
Arva’s “clip for safety” concept is integrated into the harness system: As soon as you put it on, it turns on. In search mode, the three-antenna EVO3+ provides direction, distance and sound while the most recent screen feature tells the rescuer if they have 1, 2, 3 or more victims. A mark button allows rescuer to block out found victims so the search can continue more easily for other potential victims.
BCA has always done a great job of keeping a beacon as simple as possible. A single button switches from transmit to search mode on the Tracker2, which also has four directional arrows, a digital numerical value and sonic display to intuitively guide the rescuer to the buried victim. It utilizes three antennas to eliminate spikes and nulls in the fine search. In a multiple burial scenario, the Tracker2 will isolate the strongest signal that’s within 10 meters. Though it displays the presence of two or more buried victims, a downside is the absence of a mark function that isolates one beacon’s signal over another.
Mammut ELEMENT Barryvox
Mammut considered sidecountry skiers when they introduced the stripped down Element, an all digital, single-button beacon using the Pulse’s proven “Basic” level function. Complete with mark function that flags found beacons, large LCD display, and upgradable software, the Element values speed, simplicity and efficiency for the beginner or backcountry vet.
Pieps DSP Tour
Like the Element, the Tour is a user-friendly everyday option. An LCD display with intuitive screen icons shows number of burials, and searches out strongest signals first. A single-button mark function keeps matters simple in multiple-burial scenarios where transitions can be confusing. And, finally, updatable software allows you to upgrade without buying a new unit each season that new technology is introduced to the market.
The 3+ features a circular graphic display with distance value, directional arrow and sound. Like others here, its mark function isolates and separates beacons in a multiple burial scenario, but it goes further than that. To reduce worst-case “coupling” (transmitting beacon oriented vertically, receiving beacon horizontal), Ortovox uses a “smart” transmitting antenna. When buried, the smart antenna automatically finds its orientation and switches to the optimal antenna to receive searching beacons. The 3+ also has an improved partner check for groups headed into the backcountry.
Like the 3+, the smart antenna system analyzes the orientation of the transmitting antennas, which are perpindicular to each other, and chooses the optimal antenna to receive searching beacons. With a new and leaner overall menu, the S1+ jettisoned its old compass function, so you don't have to recalibrate it every time new batteries are installed. In search mode, visual crosshairs provide quadrants that assist in visualizing burials relative to the rescuer. A new, larger “Y” antenna increases receiving range. The directing arrow also turns backwards if you've passed your traget. Free, upgradable software is available through Ortovox’s “Up Box”, sold to local dealers.
Mammut PULSE Barryvox
The 3-antenna Pulse sets the standard for professional and recreational use. The digital/analog hybrid provides Basic and Advanced profiles for users of all levels. Features include marking function, vital data options, individual configuration options, and is update compatible. The Pulse also comes with W-Link technology (a separate 868mh frequency), the first of its kind, which allows searching beacons to communicate with one another. Found victims can be marked, and that info can be shared with other W-Link compatible beacons. The two button controls are intuitive, but you still need to be an experienced user if you're going to make use of the Advanced functions.
The Link is Arva’s W-link compatible option. The second dual-band beacon, the Link also boasts Simple and Advanced modes (with personal programming options), marking function for multiple burials, digital/analog processing and a new motion detector—“standby mode”—meant to protect searchers from secondary avalanches while looking for buried victims. If there is no movement for more than four minutes (indicating to the beacon that the rescuer, too, has been buried), the unit automatically switches into emission mode.
The Vector—the first 4-antenna beacon ever—can be used by professional and recreational users alike. The fold-out antenna provides simultaneous operation of the two main antennas, allowing for a longer-range, 80-meter circular search strip. It locks in on three waypoints along a flux line—an electomagnetic wave emitted by a buried beacon—and uses an algorithm to triangulate the victim’s location, cutting out the long arc of the flux line and directing the rescuer directly to the buried victim. The LCD screen displays latitude and longitude as well, thanks to an internal GPS, which can be downloaded to track data. Also helpful is that the battery life is measured in hours rather than straight percentage, with separate figures depending on whether it's in search or send mode.