Ever wondered how they get those sick skiing shots of big mountain powder riding with the dude jumping over a pine tree? Backcountry skiing and boarding involves first climbing a mountain and then skiing or riding down it.
Sounds fun, right? Well, all that fluffy white powder comes with a price – avalanche danger.
When skiing, riding, or snowmobiling in the backcountry there are no ski patrollers coming to rescue you if you get injured. Avalanche danger is very real and you’ll be on your own to deal with any potential ramifications.
This means carrying your own supply of avalanche safety gear such as transceiver, probe, shovel and of course an avalanche beacon. In this article, we’ll talk about what to look for in an avalanche beacon (transceiver) and how to choose one.
Here are my top 5 choices with full reviews and my buying guide below
- Black Diamond Pieps DSP Pro Avalanche Beacon
- Backcountry Access Tracker 3 Beacon 2015 B-30000
- Black Diamond Pieps DSP Sport Avalanche Beacon
- Ortovox 3+ Avalanche Beacon
- Mammut Element Barryvox Avalanche Beacon
The Best Avalanche Beacons
Avalanche Beacon Reviews
If you’re looking for the absolute most robust transceiver on the market right now, this is probably it. Sharing most of the details and styling of the DSP Sport but packing in quite a few more high end features.
High contrast display is optimized for great readability in any lighting condition and the screen is kept simple with only a few readouts. Exact signal processing using any combination of three on-board antennas provides redundancy and accuracy.
Auto-search-to-send mode changes the beacon from search mode to send mode if the beacon ceases to move for a duration of time – a great backup feature.
See the Black Diamond PIEPS DSP Pro in action.
Scan function gives you overview capability of all buried beacons in the range which is one of the largest ranges on the market at 60m.
On board inclinometer is a great avalanche awareness tool and with a 400-hour lifetime you won’t be scared to use it so much as you need to! In my opinion, the Black Diamond PIEPS is the best backcountry beacon.
Like the Black Diamon PIEPS DPS Sport, this beacon runs on three antennas and three batteries. This allows the maximum efficiency in signal reception and location.
BCA guarantees at minimum one hour of battery life in search mode after 200 hours in transmit mode. That’s a really reliable number I’d feel pretty confident in.
This digital unit shows distance and direction when receiving and has a super streamlined interface featuring minimal information to make it easier to use in emergency situations which can be high stress.
Multiple-burial indicator will light up when the unit detects more than one signal in the search zone and a special use button allows for practice modes and battery level indication. This is a really cool, sleek design that will wear and use easily.
This is a solid new-age transceiver that comes from a company focused on great backcountry gear.
Black Diamond has one of the best reps in the industry and I’ve yet to see a bad product from them – this company is used to making gear people depend on for their lives.
Circular ranging technology allows the beacon to search in a more complete path.
The beacon automatically adjusts to optimize itself for multiple-burial scenarios and allows you to mark locations. Works with older analog beacons, too!
It’s also possible to keep the device software updated via a USB link cable so that you’ll have the best beacon on the market for years. Round it all off with a harness-style carrying pouch for security and ease of access.
It’s pretty hard to find a beacon packing more features than this one and the 200+ hour run time and 160+ ft range is pretty darn solid.
Like most modern three-antenna beacons, this one packs some serious firepower for searching and transmitting. Range and search width are both a little low, however, at 40m compared to the 60m range of the DSP Pro. Overall, however, the unit packs some new age features and great display.
Like the DSP Pro, the Ortovox 3+ has auto-search-to-transmit capability in case a secondary avalanche takes your group by surprise. Serlf-test function and backlit screen are some necessary features in my opinion and this unit delivers.
See the Ortovox 3+ features and functions.
Recco reflectors are gaining in popularity and you may find them featured in backcountry clothing, jackets, backpacks, etc.
The Ortovox 3+ has an emedded Recco reflector which allows search and rescue units to pinpoint the location of the transceiver with great accuracy and efficiency. This is a good thing, in case you hadn’t picked that up.
Another modern three antenna transceiver with great range and width of search. 60m range and 50m width mean you can find buried beacons faster, easier, and in a larger area.
Again, powered by the standard three battery operation and featuring a triple antenna setup for maximum transmission and reception. The unit can process, mark and decode multiple signals at once and makes searching easy with a standard digital view interface.
Video overview of the Mammut Element Barryvox.
Automatic switching is activated after 8 minutes of inactivity for some backup in case of the worst scenario. Self-test on startup and one button operation make your day in the backcountry easy, but this isn’t really any different than the other beacons we’ve reviewed.
Like the BCA Tracker 3, this unit will send for 200 hours with at least enough battery power to search for a full hour.
Updateable software is a great addition and W-Link for additional communication and search performance. Overall there’s not a lot to stand out, but a clear and robust device keeping up with the march toward better and safer gear.
How to Choose an Avalanche Beacon
Choosing a great avalanche beacon is only one step in staying safe while enjoying backcountry snow sports. Be sure to take appropriate education courses and safety courses on avalanche awareness before spending time in avalanche terrain.
Digital vs Analog Transceivers
When choosing an avalanche beacon, you’ll want to understand the difference between digital and analog transceivers.
Digital beacons use a small computer and several signal antennas to calculate general distance and direction of a potentially buried victim and their transceiver. Digital beacons usually feature a small visual display to show valuable navigational information.
Analog transceivers use a simpler setup by beeping continually once you’re within transmission distance.
These beacons can be a bit more difficult to use as the sounds can often be drown out among frantic shouting, or wind noise in emergency situations. Multiple buried transceivers can also cause detection issues for these devices in general.
Most transceivers are now digital due to their improved interface, reliability, and ease of use. Remember to always check that each member of your group has an operating and functional beacon before heading into avalanche terrain.
Some beacons, mostly newer models, feature various types of visual display. These screens usually increase the speed and efficiency with which one can use the device and navigate to buried victims.
Mostly these displays are small, low resolution panels featuring direction and rough distance to other transceivers. Be sure to check what type of information may be displayed on the screen of your chosen beacon.
Multiple Buried Victims
Today we’re lucky enough to have advanced features on most beacons which allow for searching and marking multiple buried victims. Most transceivers are not capable of this feature so be sure to look for this feature specifically if it is important to you.
Range and Batteries
Most beacons have specified ranges and effective distances set by the manufacturer. The more powerful and advanced the transceiver, the further distance and stronger signal the beacon will throw out. Be sure to use only the best batteries in your beacon and keep them replaced regularly by whatever method the manufacturer recommends.
Today most digital beacons are packing most of the same features: triple antennas, microprocessor function, multiple signal mark and search, extended battery life, and many other great improvements.
Overall, the most technical device on our list is probably the Black Diamond PIEPS DSP Pro for sheer specifications but I really like the 60m distance and 50m search width of the Mammut Element. Ortovox 3+ might be a serious contender for the Recco reflector, however.
Remember that even the best avalanche gear can’t help you if you’re not trained. Be sure to gain avalanche safety certification and practice search techniques regularly. Always travel with experienced partners in the backcountry and perform a group test before entering avalanche terrain to ensure the function of all devices.