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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:
Can you use different brands of beacons together?
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.
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.
Types of Beacons
Digital and analog beacons vary in the way they allow you to interpret the data being transmitted.
Most of the beacons on the market (and all the models that we sell) are now digital. Digital transceivers use multiple antennas and microprocessors to translate the transmitted data into both an audible signal and visual display. Digital transceivers normally indicate both direction and distance to the victim, and adapt very quickly to changing signals.
Once common, there are very few purely analog beacons produced today. Analog signals are manifested as audible beeps that get louder as you approach a buried victim or transceiver. Analog transceivers generally have a greater send and receive range but require more user knowledge and practice to be used effectively. (Some digital beacons allow the user to use an analog signal as an additional aid in search or in conjunction with the digital signal.)
Number of Antennas
While older beacons commonly had only one antenna, newer models typically have two or three separate antennas and often the ability to electronically choose the “best” antenna to use in a given situation. Generally, more antennas are better.
Searches with Multiple Burials
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 display and mask or “flag” found victims differently. Most show several victim icons or a number, and allow you to ignore a signal after you locate and mark it so you can move on to the next victim. Successful multiple burial searches are an advanced skill and require practice and intimate familiarity with your beacon. If multiple burial searches are a priority for you, we recommend taking an advanced level avalanche course and practicing often in realistic scenarios.
How to Wear a Beacon
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.
Always use alkaline batteries
Never use rechargeable batteries
No Lithium batteries – although good for cold, the discharge rate is not compatible with beacon battery meters (Note: The Mammut Pulse Barryvox v3.2 is the exception and is compatible with Lithium batteries).
Carry extra fresh batteries with you
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)!
We recommend taking an avalanche course to familiarize yourself further with all your backcountry gear.