For those who eagerly wait all year to see the first fresh sprinkling of powder hit the ground, they know there is no better season than snow season. From downhill skiing, to snowshoeing, to cross country skiing, ice fishing and hiking on snowy terrain, snow doesn’t mean it’s time to hunker down inside. For many, it’s a time to explore the outdoors and enjoy the cool, crisp temperatures. But depending on where your snow journey takes you, its imperative to bring an avalanche beacon with you in case disaster strikes.
An avalanche beacon is an emergency locator beacon that operates at 457 kHz. Designed for finding people who have been buried under a sudden snowfall, the beacon works by sending out radio signals that can be picked up on other transmitters once they’ve been switched from transmit to receive mode.
An avalanche beacon won’t stop an avalanche from occurring, but it significantly increases the victim’s chances of being rescued. Studies have found that 93% of buried avalanche victims survived when dug out within fifteen minutes of being buried.
Avalanche beacons are available in analog and digital. Analog beacons have audible signals that become louder the closer other beacons in the receive mode get to a beacon in transmit mode. Digital beacons are more exact in their abilities and use the transmitter signal to determine the distance to another beacon and the direction of the buried transmitter. Depending on the style and price of the digital beacon, directions range from generalized arrows to more sophisticated and exact coordinates. The more antennas a beacon has, the more accurate its signal and directions. When purchasing a beacon, opting for a design with three antennas offers the most sophistication in search and rescue missions.
Whether you opt for an analog or digital model, the most important thing when using an avalanche beacon is to become familiar with it before setting out in the snow to ensure you’re using it properly. Many skiers and snowshoers also pair their beacons with other rescue items, like shovels and probes, which help measure depth and are used to locate victims. We’ve included beacons that are sold in sets with these items on our list. It’s also imperative to start every snow season with fresh, non-rechargeable batteries and to frequently check your beacon throughout the year to ensure the battery level never dips below 50 percent.
If you’re ready to hit the slopes and explore the backcountry, make sure you have a reliable avalanche beacon on hand.
1. BCA Tracker 3 Avalanche Beacon
For a three-antenna avalanche beacon that comes with useful accessories, we like the BCA Tracker 3 Avalanche Beacon. The Tracker 3 comes with a harness for easy carrying as well as a stealth probe that comes with a convenient carrying bag. The newly updated beacon is 20% more lightweight than its predecessor and the compact unit can track up to three victims at once. It also has a Signal Suppression mode that makes it easy for users to ignore the closest signal once a victim has been located and marked safe, enabling them to quickly move on to find the next victim. The Tracker Three has a 50 m range and a Big Picture Mode full digital display that shows directional arrows and distance to victims.
2. Arva EVO4 Avalanche Beacon
BEST BUDGET BUY
When it comes to complex and potentially life-saving equipment, you should be wary of products that are too cheap. In trying to pinch pennies, you don’t want to accidentally buy a low-quality product that will let you down when you need it most. Fortunately, Arva is a trusted outdoor equipment company, and you can buy the brand’s EVO series avalanche beacons with confidence.
Yes, Arva EVO4 Avalanche Beacon is on the bulkier side of avalanche beacons, but what customers give up in weight and size they gain in price. A budget-friendly option that still packs an impressive amount of power, the Arva EVO4 can track three victims at once with loud audio feedback that users can hear at a distance. The three-antenna Arva EVO4 features a large LCD screen that allows users to mark victims in their team. The beacon features easy-to-follow arrows that help quickly find those who have been buried. With a transceiver that has an average bandwidth of 40 m, users can toggle between send and search functions. We also like that it has a ‘group check mode’ that makes it easy for users to ensure all beacons are working properly and connected.
3. Black Diamond Pieps DSP Sport Avalanche Beacon
LIGHTWEIGHT AND COMPACT
The Black Diamond Pieps DSP Sport Avalanche Beacon is one of the lightest beacons on our list, weighing just over 6 ounces. The three-antenna beacon has an easy to use interface that makes it a great option for users who are new to transmitters. One button allows users to toggle through transmitting, receiving and marking functions, with a send, search and flag status. The Pieps works with multiple burial scenarios and provides the distance and direction to each flag within 50 meters. The Pieps is a great option for users who belong to skiing groups with members that have older analog beacons since the Pieps works with them as well as newer digital models.
4. Mammut Barryvox Tour Package
When finding a victim, range and speed are two priorities for a beacon. The Barryvox is one of our top picks because of its impressive 70 m range. The three-antenna beacon has an intuitive display that numbers each victim and shows their distance and depth. The Barryvox has a major safety clause built-in and will switch the signal from search to send after four minutes of inactivity. A group and self-test are also easy to perform. The user-friendly beacon has an ergonomic design that makes it simple for users to control even while wearing gloves. The Tour Package comes with everything users will need to stay safe, including a carrying strap for the beacon, a probe and a shovel for backcountry exploration.
5. Backcountry Access T S Rescue Package
INCLUDES SHOVEL AND PROBE
The Backcountry Access T S Rescue Package helps users stay as safe as possible in the event of a disaster. The Tracker S transmitter features a real-time display and user-friendly interface. The beacon works on a 457 kHz frequency and is compatible with all other beacons on the same frequency. Users can search for multiple victims at once and use the suppress function to mark victims as safe once they have been found. The Tracker S displays distance in meters to each victim and features a loud audio component to signal when users are close to the victim. The beacon also includes LED lights that provide an easy to follow blinking light that will show the direction of the victim. The beacon can be purchased on its own, but we like it in the Rescue Package set, which includes a B-1 EXT shovel with an expandable shaft and comfortable T grip. The set also includes a lightweight Stealth 270 probe the features a quick locking system that has the probe ready to use in seconds.
6. Ortovox 3+ Beacon
BEST FOR BEGINNERS
A great beacon for beginners or anyone looking for a user-friendly unit, the Ortovox 3+ Beacon comes with several features to keep multiple people safe at once. The three-antenna beacon has a 40 m range and includes Smart Antenna Technology that helps boost the signal in bad conditions. The beacon is built with both audio and visual signals, making it easy for users to quickly find victims even in a panicked state. We also like that the beacon will automatically switch from search to send if left idle for two minutes. The all-digital beacon can be used to find multiple victims at once and has an impressive 250-hour battery life.
7. Black Diamond Guide BT Beacon
The Black Diamond Guide BT Beacon is a professional-grade, three-antenna beacon that has a physical switch to enable users to easily slide between off, send and search. A 60 m circular range makes it easy to quickly find multiple victims even when far away. Using mark and scan functions, victims can be quickly identified and marked as safe after found. An auto antenna switch will automatically adjust to find the best signal and a continuous carry mode means the digital beacon can also pick up analog signals. We also like that the beacon has a built-in inclinometer for reading slopes and angles while en route. The Black Diamond Guide BT Beacon is one of the few beacons that is Bluetooth friendly, making software updates even easier.
8. Pieps Micro BT Beacon
Whether you are looking for a beacon that is compact enough for kids to wear or want an option that you will forget is even on your person, the Pieps Micro BT Beacon is the epitome of small but mighty. One of the smallest and lightest beacons available, the Pieps Micro has a three-antenna design with a 40 m range. Even with its compact design, the precise beacon has an impressively large screen that features auto switches and search-to-send modes. The beacon will automatically switch from send to search if the user is unresponsive for a predetermined amount of time. Like the Black Diamond Guide, the Pieps Micro has Bluetooth capabilities. One of its most exciting features is the vibration mode, which is activated when users select the search mode. The unit will vibrate at initial detection so that users can focus on looking for victims instead of looking at their screen.
9. ARVA Neo Pro Avalanche Beacon
The Arva Neo is only the second beacon on our list to be able to boast an impressive 70 m range. The powerful three-antenna beacon uses digital signal processing to mark multiple victims and burial sites at once. The beacon can recognize analog signals and can easily be placed in standby mode, group check or it can auto-revert to transmit mode. When searching for victims, the Arva will display a U-turn when the user has passed the target. We also like that the beacon comes with a soft and comfortable holster for easy wearing on a variety of body types.
10. McMurdo FAST FIND 220 Personal Locator Beacon
BEST FOR HIKING
If you’re snow-filled activities typically take place in highly populated areas that are not prone to avalanches, a more simplified personal locator may be appropriate. The McMurdo FAST FIND 220 Personal Locator Beacon isn’t technically an avalanche beacon but can still be used in winter months when taking the dog for nightly walks, hiking in flat areas, and spending time on the slopes on hills that do not have a history of avalanches. The personal locator is easy to use and operate. The beacon has a high brightness LED light that will help others find the user in the case of an emergency. It also comes with a pouch that enables the beacon to float in water as an added safety measure.