Buy the Right Beacon for the Job, and Practice!
By Jaime Musnicki, NOLS Instructor
(Originally posted in The Leader, Fall 2010)
As we find ourselves sliding towards another winter in the northern hemisphere, avalanche safety is sure to be on the minds of backcountry skiers and riders. One of the numerous important pieces of avalanche safety gear is an avalanche transceiver, also known as a beacon. Whether you are a seasoned backcountry skier who is looking to replace an older model or a new devotee of the magical powder experience, read on to learn about some of the latest beacons on the market.
Tracker DTS by Backcountry Access
The beacon of choice for NOLS’ winter backcountry skiing and snowboarding programs for the past two decades, this two-antennae digital beacon is intuitive, easy to use for single-burial searches, and is great for novices (like NOLS students). Having also used this beacon to practice and teach multiple burial techniques, I can attest to it being a great tool in these scenarios as well. Priced at around $290, it is the most affodable beacon in this review.
Tracker 2 by Backcountry Access
Released in the U.S. last season, this much-anticipated three-antennae beacon is even more intuitive than the original Tracker and has one of the fastest microprocessors on the market today (important for processing the signals received by the three antennae and turning them into distance and direction readings). Improvements over the Tracker DTS include a more accurate distance reading that is closer to actual meters, a comfortable harness system, and the third antenna that helps cut out the “blanks” during the fine search, thereby increasing potential search efficiency. Priced at around $335, it is also one of the most affordable three-antennae beacons out there.
Barryvox Pulse by Mammut
The well-reputed Pulse differentiates itself from the Tracker 2 in the realm of multiple burials, as it has a special “marking” function that helps the searcher locate and differentiate between signals from multiple buried avalanche victims, and an arrow that points you in the correct direction when searching. On the down side, the Pulse has a slower processor than the Tracker 2, which can be frustrating and confusing if you want to move faster than the processing capabilities of the beacon. Additional “pros” for the Pulse include its ability to switch into analog mode for searchers who are practiced with analog transceivers and regular software updates from Mammut retailers. The Pulse retails for around $450, making it noticeably more expensive than its Tracker 2 peer.
DSP Smart Transmitter by Pieps
Like the Pulse, this three-antennae beacon also has a “marking” function that facilitates multiple burial searches. You may find the “bells and whistles”—a thermometer, compass and altimeter—either convenient or unnecessary and distracting. The buttons are also not very user-friendly for bulky-gloved fingers. On the plus side, the DSP has an impressive range while searching, noticeably better than either the Tracker or the Pulse. Retailing for $450, the DSP is also on the more expensive end.
As a long-time NOLS winter instructor, I would be remiss not to warn you that any beacon is only helpful if you’re also carrying a shovel and probe, have proper avalanche training, have diligently practiced searching, are traveling with competent partners, and have read and are following the manufacturer’s guidelines (especially the guidelines for maintaining battery power, which can make all the difference). A common misconception is that advanced beacon technology means less hands-on training. In reality, you should be practicing more with the newer technology in order to work out the quirks that inevitably come with the more complicated equipment. Now grab your transceiver and get practicing. Winter is upon us!
This review was completed with the assistance of former NOLS instructor Sarah Carpenter, co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute.