An avalanche beacon or avalanche transceiver is a device that emits a pulsed radio signal. Another avalanche beacon can receive this signal. Avalanche beacons are used for finding avalanche victims buried under the snow.
The best beacon is the one that you can use competently and seamlessly in a high stress situation because you’re thoroughly familiar with its operation and quirks. A more expensive or more fully featured beacon that you’re unfamiliar with won’t help you find a buried victim more quickly. If you’ve never owned a beacon before, consider enrolling in an avalanche awareness course and checking out several models before deciding.
Things to consider when buying an avalanche beacon:
Yes, most modern beacons are compatible with one another; they use the international standard 457 kHz frequency. Older beacons (pre-1986) that utilize the 2.275kHz frequency should no longer be used. Some transceivers have the additional ability to transmit and receive data on a separate W-Link frequency (868 Mhz for Europe or 915 MHz for North America) as well – the Mammut Pulse Barryvox uses this band to transmit pulse and movement data.
Digital and analog beacons vary in the way they allow you to interpret the data being transmitted.
Wear your beacon under at least one layer of clothing so it’s not pulled off your body in the event of a slide. Many beacons have a harness system to wear the beacon underneath your jacket and over base layers; some beacons use a simple strap system without a harness. Some people prefer to place their beacon in a secure pocket in their pants or jacket. 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 perform a search. Refer to the manufacturer’s recommendations for more detailed information on adjusting the straps or harness to fit your body.
Beacon prices vary based on the number of antennas, type of display, microprocessors, and features. High end beacons often offer a choice of search modes (basic, advanced) and more sophisticated multiple burial functions, but these may be difficult or confusing for novice or infrequent users.
Nothing prepares you for an emergency beacon search like regular practice 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 (difficult) or a glove or Ziploc bag (more difficult) with a live transceiver in it and then locating it with a probe. Don’t forget to turn the buried beacon on or you could be waiting until spring to find it.
Beacon practice is a little like New Year’s resolutions; people always say they’re gonna do it but somehow let it slip… don’t be that guy (or girl)!
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.
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.
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