8 Best Avalanche Beacons for Backcountry Skiing
Traveling in backcountry terrain can be hazardous if you are unprepared without the correct education or avalanche safety tools. One of the most important safety tools in an avalanche beacon, also referred to as an avalanche transceiver. We are going to take a look at some of the best avalanche beacons, but first let’s understand why they are so important.
Why you need an avalanche beacon in the backcountry
According to the Utah Avalanche Center, approximately 67% of avalanche fatalities occur in victims that were not carrying basic avalanche gear. In addition, 93% of buried avalanche victims survive if they can be dug out within 15 minutes – which only an avalanche beacon can give a reasonable chance of making possible.
Avalanche beacons are basically the seatbelts of backcountry winter sports. While you may not always need it, the moments you do could save your life. To put simply, wearing and knowing how to use an avalanche beacon is safe and smart. Like wearing a seatbelt, you should consider the use of one almost mandatory when backcountry skiing or riding.
How Avalanche Beacons work
Avalanche beacons are small, phone sized devices that are worn on your body and that can both receive and transmit an electronic signal at a specific frequency (457 kHz).
Everyone in a ski party would set their beacon to transmit any given time they are traveling in the backcountry. In the event of an avalanche, all unburied people will switch their beacons to the receive/search mode to communicate with the buried victims’ beacons and therefore try to pinpoint the victims location.
All modern backcountry beacons are meant to be compatible with one another, regardless or the brand or model, so you should be able to locate your fellow skiers regardless of the beacons that they carry. However, you should still consistently do checks with each other to make sure everybody’s beacon is in working condition and there are no issues communicating.
The Ski Source Product Overview
Best Avalanche Beacons and Transceivers Reviews
The Black Diamond Guide BT avalanche beacon is all you will ever need in an avalanche beacon.
The beacon features both basic and advanced functionality, while consistently demonstrating best in class accuracy. In other words, this beacon tops the performance chart and you can feel confident that it will place you where you need to be in order to find and rescue your partners as quickly as possible.
There is also a downloadable app that you can use with your smartphone to adjust settings and update software. You connect with your phone via Bluetooth (hence the “BT” name).
The BCA Tracker S is an absolute favorite of many backcountry skiers. This beacon is slim and low profile so that it fits super nicely into almost any chest or pant pocket. It is really one of the most comfortable beacons to have on you.
While this is a lower priced and more simple version of other BCA beacons, it still provides plenty of function to handle pretty much any scenario.
The Tracker S is one of the more simple beacons to use and operates at a speed almost equivalent to the top of line transceiver models.
Because of the speed, ease of use, and necessary functions all performing highly, this beacon is probably the best bang for your buck you can find. There are more feature-rich options, and options with longer ranges or longer battery. But this beacon provides good levels of everything you would need and want, all while being one of the most affordable avalanche beacons out there.
The clean and compact BCA Tracker 3 is one of the more recent Backcountry Access avalanche beacon models. Like the ‘S’ model, it is slim and fits nicely in pockets making it one of the best pocket friendly beacons.
The speed and accuracy of this model is the best that Backcountry Access offers and one of the best on the market at all. In particular, finding single victims and the bracketing accuracy during fine search is especially on point. Considering these are the main skills and things that the majority of users spend the most time on, it’s comforting how much the Tracker 3 excels in those aspects.
The Ortovox Zoom+ is about as simple of an avalanche beacon as there is. While limited in functionality for more complex burial scenarios, it excels by providing beginners or infrequent users with basic and easy to understand controls.
Given the price, it is understandable that the processing speed and range aren’t quite up to par with other models. However this beacon still performs well enough to safely and efficiently perform a search, especially because it is so easy to use. The biggest drawback is that there is no marking or signal suppression for multiple burial searches.
Still, for the all-around capability and probably the most basic and easy to use, this beacon comes out at pretty much the lowest prices you’ll find for an effective transceivers. It is perfect for beginners, the budget oriented, or infrequent users that may not get as much practice time in (though, no matter, you should ALWAYS get practice time with your safety gear).
The Mammut Barryvox S is one of our overall favorite beacons due to its excellent handling of complex multi burial situations. This beacon is also a fast performer, with the quickness during fine search particularly standing out.
The range is as good as you can find in an avalanche beacon and allows for wider search strip widths.
However, the plethora of features available can seem to be almost a little too much for most backcountry users. For that reason, we think it is best used in the hands of advanced and experienced backcountry users. Even then, you will want to make sure you have plenty of practice in with it to overcome any complexities that the interface may throw at you.
Along with functions to handle complex multiple burial scenarios, there are numerous options to customize it to your preferences.
The ARVA Neo Pro avalanche beacon is a very capable all-around beacon at a reasonable price point.
While not quite as fast or super precise as the BCA models, it does feature better range at a manufacturer listed 70 meters.
As far as functionality goes, this beacon has everything you would need for most scenarios including flagging and multiple burial scenario features. It also includes an analog mode, standby mode, and a SCROLLING function to target specific victims in a search. It is easy enough for the less experienced to use, but still provides the capability needed for more experienced users. In fact, ARVA claims this is their most advanced avalanche beacon despite being considerably cheaper than their Axios model.
Overall, the Neo Pro is worthy of consideration for many backcountry goers as an item that isn’t best in class in any specific way, but does a pretty good job in almost every way.
While the Barryvox S model from Mammut may get the glory as being one of, if not the most advanced beacon on the market, don’t overlook the more “basic” Mammut Barryvox model as one of the best midrange budget beacons available.
This beacon operates with supreme speed while offering a fantastic 70 meters in range. Its processing speed shines in the fine search phase, though the bracketing isn’t quite as intuitive as other models and will definitely take practice to get used to. In fact, this beacon tends to give slightly larger brackets and is a bit more finnicky to narrow in on than other models in the price range, which is what keeps it from being one of our favorites.
However, if you get enough practice in, this is a beacon that packs all the features you need with a super fast processing speed all on a midrange budget. It is still an excellent option for the majority of users, but might just take more getting used to in order to become as efficient as the technology will allow you.
The Ortovox 3+ is a slightly more advanced version of the Zoom. So if you like the ultra simple and easy to use interface that Ortovox provides, but you need a few more features than the Zoom – this beacon should be on your list.
In multiple burial scenarios, the easy to read display will put an obvious mark around each signal as that victim has been flagged. This flagging feature differentiates it from the Zoom (which has no flagging feature) and makes it a more adequate beacon in multiple burial scenarios.
The obvious display and intuitive use are this beacon’s strongest advantages. However, at the price point the range and the accuracy in fine search are not as good as other competing models in this price range. For that reason, most users will likely want to look at the BCA Tracker series or the Mammut Barryvox if they plan on dropping between $300-400.
More Avalanche Beacons and Transceivers for Backcountry Skiing
Avalanche Beacons Features & Buying Guide
Avalanche beacons today can range from ultra simple to fairly complex. When it comes down to it, the most important factor in a burial scenario is that you can quickly and easily find your partner to rescue them. Ease of use and speed of your avalanche beacon are by far the most important aspects of any beacon.
Ease of Use
While you should continually practice with your beacon to ensure you can fluently use it properly in an emergency situation, ease of use certainly helps. This can sometimes be at odds with more advanced beacons with tons of features or smaller, micro beacons that have limited screen space.
Ultimately, your ability to adequately use your avalanche beacon is the most important thing in an emergency scenario. Beacons that are easy to use will eliminate any unnecessary time wasted figuring something out and let you focus more on finding and uncovering your partner quickly.
Speaking of finding your partner quickly, different avalanche beacons will have slightly different processing speeds for determining distance and your search zone. Time is of the essence when you need to use your beacon, so the faster your beacon is, the better.
Your beacon range is the distance at which it will accurately detect a signal from another beacon. Obviously the further your beacon’s range, the better ability to detect a buried partner from a farther distance.
Its worth mentioning that stated ranges for beacons are usually in a controlled and perfect way so that they can measure range accurately across different models. In a real scenario, the connection will likely not be as clean and therefore the ranges will be slightly less than advertised. Keep that in mind when evaluating range.
If you are educated in burial scenarios and practicing with your beacon, range shouldn’t be a huge factor as you would be searching in search strip widths that would accommodate beacons or signals on the lower end of the spectrum (20m on either side for a 40m search strip width).
Multiple burial functions
Some beacons have multiple burial functionality that allows you to “flag” a buried person so that your beacon can then move onto another signal coming from a different burial. This allows you to mark one by one, so you can then go back and do a fine search on each victim.
Many avalanche scenarios will involve more than one person, so having this feature is critical to saving time between digging out victims. With two or more rescuers, this feature becomes even more valuable.
The size and bulk of your beacon may be a consideration for you, although we would advise not to value this over more important, life-saving features. Obviously having a large bulky block on your chest or against your leg can be quite annoying, so the more streamlined models are a bit nicer to actually move around with.
Number of antennas
As avalanche transceiver technology has progressed, the number of antennas within the beacon has increased to provide more reliable readings. Most beacons today (all on this list) have 3 antennas, so there isn’t too much to consider here other than just making sure the beacon you are looking to purchase utilizes 3 antennas. That is the most reliable and up to date method for avalanche transceivers.
Digital vs Analog Mode (Audio signal)
Some higher end models offer an Analog mode. All this basically means is that you can use your ears to find a signal rather than relying on the digital, allowing you to potentially pick up a signal from further away before the digital mode would register it. In reality, this feature would probably not be used in a real emergency situation given you would have to switch modes, plug in headphones, listen closely, etc. Time is of the essence and you would be better off using that time springing into action and letting the digital mode do the work.
Screen display is often an overlooked feature of avalanche beacons, but can be extremely important. Your beacon is no use if you can’t read it and conditions change quickly in the backcountry. Whether you are in low light (dusk or dawn), or in the middle of a heavy snow, you will need your display to be bright and clear in all conditions.
Brands for Avalanche Beacons
Let’s be clear – avalanche gear is potentially life saving. Faulty gear can be the difference between life and death. For ANY avalanche related gear, you should stick to known reputable brands for emergency and alpine equipment.
Yes, there are cheaper off-brand options on Amazon. Is saving a couple extra bucks really worth your life? We don’t think so. Here are the primary brands that make good and trustworthy avalanche beacons:
- Black Diamond
- Backcountry Access (BCA)
- Pieps* (not to confuse people, Pieps was technically acquired by Black Diamond in 2017, however is often still marketed as a separate brand)
We would recommend sticking to products made by these brands for avalanche safety equipment. They are some of the best and most trusted manufacturers of avalanche beacons.
*WARNING — the Pieps DSP Pro and DSP Sport have experienced user-reported issues over the past few years. We strongly recommend NOT buying this model out of an abundance of caution. Pieps/Black Diamond has been haphazard in their response to the apparent issues with the model.* — https://www.skimag.com/adventure/pieps-dsp-beacon-switch
Avalanche Beacon Batteries
ALWAYS check your battery levels before any excursion in the backcountry. Most beacons use alkaline batteries rather than lithium because they are proven to be more reliable, despite not lasting as long and having a worse shelf life.
Ultimately, the most important aspect of avalanche beacon batteries is that they are reliable. You need your batteries to give accurate charge readings and have no chance of suddenly cutting off.
Follow these best practices for your battery:
- Always do beacon checks at the beginning of every outing with your partners
- Use alkaline batteries unless specifically told otherwise in your beacon’s manual
- Always carry extra batteries with you in your pack, and also keep an extra pair in the car just in case
- ALWAYS replace your batteries if they are below 50%
- Remove batteries when your beacon will not see use for a long time (such as for off season storage)
- Put brand new batteries in at the start of the season
PRACTICE and KEEP PRACTISING!!
Practice is a necessity of owning an avalanche beacon. Most victims have very little time to be saved, and any delay whatsoever could be the difference between life and death. Not only should you practice so that you are as familiar as possible with your gear itself, but also so that you are comfortable conducting a search in a time-pressured situation.
Make sure you practice with your specific beacons features so that using your beacon becomes second nature. Practise burying items, or even multiple items with beacons so that you can get used to the process of tracking a beacon down. Many beacons have a multi-burial mode or features that you should familiarize yourself with in the event that an avalanche buries multiple people.
Avalanche Beacon Transceivers: FAQs
What is a RECCO reflector? Is RECCO the same as an avalanche beacon?
Many ski and snow sport jackets today are equipped with RECCO technology, which is sewn into the fabric somewhere. RECCO reflectors don’t require any action from the user (ie – they are a “passive” device), and they can be located by ski patrol and rescue groups that carry the specific equipment necessary to detect RECCO. This technology sends a signal that the RECCO patch “reflects” back.
However, RECCO reflectors ARE NOT avalanche beacons. Because they require specific technology that usually only resorts or search and rescue teams carry, it is not feasible to have distant search and rescue teams respond to backcountry avalanche events, as the timeline needed for rescue is so tight.
What is the difference between a transceiver and personal locator beacon (PLB)
While we use the term “beacon” in this article because it is the most commonly referred to term, be careful not to confuse an avalanche beacon (ie transceiver) with a PLB, which is a personal locator beacon.
A personal locator beacon is specifically used to send a help signal to search and rescue teams. However, external search and rescue teams are too far in the vast majority of circumstances to actually rescue an avalanche victim. PLBs may still be useful for calling in emergency medical assistance or some other help AFTER the victim has been dug out.
An avalanche beacon (transceiver), on the other hand, is for locating device that skiers or people nearby can communicate with to hone in on the location of a buried avalanche beacon.
PLBs are an external call for help. Avalanche beacons are used amongst your own party.
The best avalanche beacon is the one you can use most effectively in a high-stress, emergency scenario. This of course will vary based on how experienced you are in the backcountry, how often you practice with your beacon, and whether your a light recreational user or a more advanced professional.
The most simple, easy to use, and budget friendly beacon is probably the Ortovox Zoom+, but many users will likely want more functionality in their beacon as they progress. The Black Diamond Guide BT is a top of the line option that excels at everything without being quite as complicated and advanced as the Mammut Barryvox S.
No matter what you choose, be sure to practice and always be ready for an emergency situation. Do group checks, make sure your batteries are charged, and avoid dangerous situations to begin with. Be smart and be safe out there!