Backcountry beacons are important safety tools for rescue in an avalanche. Find one that’s right for you and hope you never have to use it.
Backcountry tracks are tracing the high-alpine bowls: It’s that exciting, hair-raising time to re-glue skins, waterproof outerwear and wax skis. More important, though, is recharging the backcountry brain with daily avalanche forecasts, avalanche burial drills and beacon checks before that first tour.
“Avalanches bring stressful, crazy situations. The technology available today in transceivers makes the search process infinitely easier than past beacons. That’s the number one reason it’s important for backcountry users to replace and update their beacons,” said Tom Mason, U.S. Brand Manager of Ortovox, one of the world’s leading beacon manufacturers alongside Backcountry Access, Black Diamond (which acquired Pieps in 2012), Mammut and Arva.
Three antenna digital transceivers are standard among avalanche educators and recommended over the preceding dual antenna beacons, which aren’t obsolete but are aged and disadvantaged, according to the Canadian Avalanche Association. Modern transceivers generally last a decade with diagnostic checks (about $20-$35) after the first five years and every two years after that, Mason said. Timelines vary by manufacturer: For instance, Mammut beacon diagnostic tests are every three years.
The best way to find the right beacon? Try them out. “Get together with friends [for burial drills.] Go to an event, or take a rescue or refresher course: Practitioners and other users will have better beacons you can test,” said Dave Furman, Mammut Hardgoods Category Manager, USA and Canada. Read the manual with your backcountry partner. As Furman highlighted, “Nobody practices [beacon use] enough.”
Aside from three antennas, other common characteristics of conventional, cutting edge beacons include a marking function for multiple burials, acoustic search guidance and auto revert, in case of a second avalanche. To compare, we tested each beacon in single- and multi-burial scenarios with a 60-meter wide slide path. Here’s more on what makes a handful of the newest beacons unique.
Mammut Barryvox S
Our testers found this beacon’s clarity was superior in single- and multi-burial scenarios. Follow-the-arrow guidance walks you through the course search—including “turn back” indication if you’re going the wrong direction—all the way to pinpointing. Animated screen icons queue each step of user action. And “auto guidance” overrides signal overlap to focus on a single burial including individual distances and arrows that are “on the money.” Furthermore, this 70-meter search strip width (SSW) is the longest range offered among consumer recreational-use beacons, Furman confirmed.
7.4 ounces; $499.95
Black Diamond Guide BT
Our testers found the Guide BT (60 meter SSW) interface easy-to-use with helpful components like the detailed scan, which shows victim direction and distance and allows selection. Note: This tool among others need to be activated via the user app.
7.9 ounces; $449.95
At 11- by 7-centimeters, the debut pocket-sized beacon is slimmer without sacrificing modern features, said Jeremy Jolley, Arva U.S. Sales Manager. (The Barryvox S is 11.5- by 6.7-centimeters, by comparison.) The Evo5 doesn’t offer any screen icons to help user differentiate multiple signals, but the U-turn alarm and 50-meter SSW are awesome. Note: single battery life span decreases faster in search mode compared to other beacons, our tester found.
5.9 ounces; $315
Backcountry Access BCA Tracker S
Our users liked the new Tracker S (50 meter SSW) audio assistance, which fluctuated 20-30 meters away from burial. In multi-burials, the big picture mode—a display of all distances and directions of the transceivers—is well designed, and signal suppression (rather than “flagging”) is helpful.
5.8 ounces; $299.95
Adventure Journalist MORGAN TILTON is a recipient of multiple North American Travel Journalists Association awards with a focus in travel, industry news, and human endurance. When she’s not on the road, she’s backcountry splitboarding, doing hut trips, or re-learning how to downhill ski in Colorado’s San Juan or Elk Mountains, where she grew up and lives today. She works with close to 55 publications.