So you’re thinking about backcountry skiing, eh? Being in the backcountry has its merits: gorgeous views, no lift lines, untouched snow, and more. But with that can come unfamiliar terrain, adverse snow conditions, and a serious lack of ski patrol. When entering uncontrolled terrain, the risks are demonstrably higher and you’re going to need a certain set of tools to be able to travel safely.
While there is a myriad of tools and skills you need to have, one of the most important is an avalanche beacon, also called an avalanche transceiver. All beacons have two modes, search and transmit, and are used to relay the position of a burial victim in the event of an avalanche.
All avalanche beacons operate off of a standard 457 kHz radio signal and must be able to transmit for up to 200 hours, operate in search mode as low as -10 degrees Celsius for at least an hour, and have a normal operation temperature range of -20 to +45 degrees Celsius (-4 – 113 degrees Fahrenheit). All beacons will come with a clip or harness system to keep them securely attached to your body.
Before the digital age, beacons relied on an analog system, with beeps that got louder as you closed in on the burial. However, digital beacons use advanced displays to guide you toward a beacon as well as provide distance and direction, among other information, depending on the manufacturer. Often times, beacons will also use a display combined with beeps to help you hone in on a signal even more quickly.
The cost of avalanche beacons is driven by advanced features. Brands like Arva and Ortovox utilize multiple antennas to boost their search-and-transmit signal range. Other features like an LED display, materials used in manufacturing, and battery optimization drive costs.
Some beacon manufacturers provide firmware updates to maintain functionality as well as adding custom features as technology progresses. It is a good idea to check with your local ski shop or the manufacturer’s website to ensure your beacon is up to date before the ski season begins.
Which Beacon is Right For You?
So… which beacon should you buy, if you had to choose one? Since all avalanche beacons are required to adhere to a strict set of standards, it comes down to advanced features and price.
At the recreational level, your beacon is going to have all the modern functionality, including some sort of visual display and often extras like a flag feature for multiple burials. Digital displays enhance and make the search process far more efficient. And if you are with a group, the flag feature lets you find and digitally flag multiple burials. Flagging is good but can also be detrimental, as burial victims have only a precious few minutes to be pulled out of the snow.
Moving up in price, you will gain extra features that guides and professional athletes use, such as a beacon check option that you can run before you start on the skin track. A beacon check option would let you swiftly make sure that all beacons in your group are working properly. While this does save time, it can drive up the cost depending on the manufacturer and model. Other options, like inclinometers, let you use your beacon for more than just position and search. But weigh your options wisely. Often a feature like a built-in inclinometer will make your beacon a more diverse tool but can also drive up the cost and there is the possibility that, while using it for purposes other than search and rescue, the transmit or search function could accidentally be altered or turned off completely.
Other brands have proprietary features that let you save a profile with personal information such as your name and health stats, like Mammut’s W-Link. Although, if you have Mammut beacon and your skiing buddy has an Ortovox, that information isn’t compatible.
My suggestion would be to stop by White Pine Touring if you’re in the Park City area, or stop by your local ski shop. There you can touch, pick up, turn on, and talk about the different beacons with the help of a knowledgeable salesperson. They can help you pick out a beacon that you understand and is also within your price range. If you’re itching for one now, check out jans.com’s selection of avalanche beacons below. Our Experts have done the legwork and have selected a number of models that they believe work the best in the backcountry for recreational and professional users alike. Ultimately the best beacon is the one that’s familiar and you spend the most time practicing with.
Beacons Are Only as Good as Their Operator
If you’re buried in an avalanche, your beacon is your best friend. However, if you’re the one searching for a burial victim, your beacon is just one small part of the equation. In this blog’s intro I noted how you would need a certain set of tools that are just as important as a beacon. You’re going to need knowledge – of terrain, snow conditions, and how to use your beacon, among other tools like a shovel and probe.
Even if you buy the most expensive beacon with the easiest-to-read display, not knowing how to use it effectively has major implications. Beacon use takes practice to get right. Investing in this tool should be a priority, but gaining the knowledge necessary to use it and other tools correctly and efficiently is just as important.
Our White Pine Touring guide service offers avalanche classes to all levels of backcountry users. Invest in one of these classes if you live here in Park City, or research another in your home town. Know before you go so you can be safe and have fun.
Paul Boyle, Marketing Associate