Backcountry Access Tracker — Avalanche Beacon Review

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Avalanche Beacons

Avalanche Beacons

WildSnow Beacon Reviews Intro and Index

Backcountry Access Tracker DTS was the avalanche beacon breakthrough in using more than one antenna. Unlike all other early beacons, this enabled the searcher to use the unit as a directional signal finder. Revolutionary is a weak word for this, as directional capability not only quickened searching for most users, but significantly reduced the need for constant practice.

Backcountry Skiing

BCA Tracker Avalanche Rescue Beacon

With minor modifications over the years, Tracker DTS still remains one of the easiest beacons to use. The upcoming Tracker 2 [review since posted here] will address some of the Tracker’s shortcomings, while still remaining true to the Tracker’s original intentions (meaning Tracker 2 will keep it simple by not including complex multiple-burial marking/masking features).

Interface and Controls
To turn on the Tracker, you depress and turn a switch at the back of the housing. To switch over to Search, hold down a centrally located button for about two seconds (big red button in photo above). This is a one-handed operation. On the upcoming Tracker 2, you’ll pull out a large sliding switch at the bottom of the beacon.

To revert to Transmit, press the same centrally located button that was used to switch over to Search. Same reversal of action with Tracker 2, except that the switch will simply bump in so that it is flush with the housing, as opposed to pressing a button. Or, with either beacon, each time you turn it on you can set to revert to Transmit automatically after five minutes (no memory of this setting, it needs to be activated each start-up).

Search interface is simple: LED distance readout and five LED directional indicators, along with a button for Special mode. Tracker 2 adds an indicator light for a multiple burials.

How It Works: Initial Signal Acquisition through Pinpointing
Both the Tracker DTS and Tracker 2 start off with digital audio, LED distance readout, and one of five LED directional indicators, and stay that way all the way down to 0.1 meter.

How It Works: Multiple Burials
Pressing the Special Mode button narrows the search angle (e.g., in an attempt to exclude an already found beacon) and simultaneously releases any lock on the strongest signal. The Tracker 2 will add a light to indicate (in BCA’s words) “the presence of a multiple-victim burial and whether other victims are within close proximity of the one being pinpointed.” Since I have not yet tested the Tracker 2, I am unable to assess exactly how that indicator’s behavior will differ from similar indicators on other beacons.

How Well It Works: Initial Signal Acquisition through Pinpointing
Initial signal acquisition range is on the short side, yet typical for all-digital multiple-antenna beacons: Tracker, Ortovox D3, and ARVA 3 Axes (except when switched into optional analog mode) all have very similar range results.

In my mind the Tracker is still the master of the single-burial secondary search phase, i.e., fast processing, reliable behavior, and no distractions. Back in September 2007, when I entered a beacon contest (of NSP Eastern Division avalanche instructors), I grabbed a loaner Tracker since I knew the secondary search phase would be the major factor. The initial signal acquisition range wouldn’t matter much since I knew the approximate burial area and could just run to it. Multiple burial features would only be a potential distraction because only one beacon was buried. And the pinpointing would be easy since the beacon would be just barely buried under some leaves.

Despite not having used a Tracker in years, I won handily: the second-place finisher was about 50% slower than me.

But okay, how much slower was second place in actual time? Well, about 53 seconds compared to my 35 seconds. Does this kind of advantage in the secondary search phase matter compared to other features? Decide for yourself.

Tracker is also the most tolerant of erratic behavior. If you find yourself waving your beacon around a lot (though you probably shouldn’t) Tracker still works reasonably well. I remember once when my wife and I were running practice searches in a park that had only a few inches of compacted snow, so we could travel fast on foot. I would carefully and methodically zig-zag back and forth until I received the signal, then patiently follow it in. “No — watch this!” my wife exclaimed. She just ran back and forth as fast as she could, and barely slowed down once she acquired a signal, proceeding much more slowly only once she was on the verge of the pinpointing phase.

Tracker 2 is supposed to have even faster processing. Although that certainly won’t be a drawback, I’m not sure what the practical benefits will be of increasing the processing speed for the beacon that already seems to have the fastest processing speed of any model.

Now, about that pinpointing phase. Tracker has a small box size, but with only two antenna it suffers from short duration false readings (nulls and spikes) you have to work past. A bit of practice takes care of this — it’s not a big deal. Tracker 2 will have three antennas. Problem solved.

How Well It Works: Multiple Burials
With the Tracker DTS, a multiple burial can be detected only by the distance readout and directional indicators jumping around between more than one signal. Tracker 2 will confirm any such suspicions with an indicator light.

With no marking/masking feature, you have to use your Three Circle or similar skills or strategies to find a second beacon if the first beacon cannot be turned off immediately. The Special mode can help, although back when my wife and I regularly practiced multiple-burial searches with our Trackers (with a method of our devising that was similar to the Three Circle when it came out later), sometimes we used the Special mode, and sometimes we didn’t.

BCA has conducted significant research in trying to advance its case that the marking/masking features of the competition will seldom be used. On the contrary, my own published research and analysis shows that multiple-burials are surprisingly (at least to me) common.

Nonetheless, BCA has some interesting points on the potentially limited circumstances under which a marking/masking feature will make a difference.

What to conclude? All the other beacon companies –- i.e., ARVA, Barryvox, Ortovox, Pieps (leaving out S.O.S., which makes only an old F1 knockoff) – have beacons with a marking/masking feature for multiple burials. BCA argues that the costs of such features in terms of potential user confusion outweigh the benefits in terms of the likelihood they will ever add speed to a search.

Consider your travel style and possible search needs, and draw your own conclusions about the need for fancy multiple-burial features. For example, consider a large party (perhaps guided or with time issues) that may out of necessity expose more than one person at a time to avalanche hazard. Or consider the guy who skis with only one or two companions and is fanatical about exposing one person at a time to avy hazard. Different styles, different solutions.

Overall: To What Kind of Person Does This Beacon Appeal?
Tracker appeals to a user who wants a relatively simple directional beacon, and doesn’t want to bother with any special multiple-burial features or other complications. As such, its only direct competitor is the D3 (plus the ARVA Evolution+ where available). Above all, Tracker is VERY easy to use, and thus the perfect unit to hand a companion who has little experience with beacon searches.

Overall: What Thoughts Go Through My Mind If a Partner Has a Tracker DTS
“My partner had better be well-practiced and skilled for a multiple-burial scenario.”

For Tracker DTS only (and not for Tracker 2):
“My partner need to have practiced resolving small variations (nulls and spikes) while pinpointing.”

In summary, we’re optimistic that the soon to be released Tracker 2 will be a fine beacon, and we can easily recommend the Tracker DTS as an easy to use and time-proven unit.

Manual

Shop for Tracker DTS Avalanche Rescue Beacon

WildSnow Beacon Reviews Intro and Index

(WildSnow guest blogger Jonathan Shefftz lives with his wife and daughter in Western Massachusetts, where he is a member of the Northfield Mountain and Thunderbolt / Mt Greylock ski patrols. Formerly an NCAA alpine race coach, he has broken free from his prior dependence on mechanized ascension to become far more enamored of self-propelled forms of skiing. He is an AIARE-qualified instructor, NSP avalanche instructor, and contributor to the American Avalanche Association’s The Avalanche Review. When he is not searching out elusive freshies in Southern New England or promoting the NE Rando Race Series, he works as a financial economics consultant.)

Comments

36 Responses to “Backcountry Access Tracker — Avalanche Beacon Review”

  1. Bryce December 31st, 2008 11:09 am

    Shameless plug: You can shop for the Tracker DTS Avalanche Rescue Beacon at randogear.com, too. Call for the wildsnow price. (See our banner in Lou’s top menu bar.)

  2. Nick December 31st, 2008 11:35 am

    For what it is worth, here is my take as a new entrant into BC skiing. The only beacon experience I had ever had before was on guided trips (e.g., CAT, Heli) and they traditionally gave clients these to wear/use. Obviously because of the simplicity.

    Having started to make the switch into bc skiing, I went with my only frame of reference and purchased a Tracker 2. I have begun to do beacon drills and find it very easy to use. It will be interesting to see what my instructors recommend/use in my upcoming Level 1 course. That should also provide a good test of my beacon skills.

    For my current needs as an entrant into BC skiing, I think this serves perfectly. It is easy to learn on and develop your searching skills. Most of my bc skiing will be with guides or very small groups. In the later, I will likely be the person who is “fanatical” about only exposing 1 person at a time to avi terrain. Therefore, risk of mutiple burrial is mitigated as far as humanly possible.

    However, as I advance my skills, awareness, time in the backcountry, etc…., I may be inclined to purchase a different beacon.

    I guess my conlusion is the same as above: this seems like the best beacon for the entrant into backcountry skiing with little to no prior beacon use/training.

  3. Lou December 31st, 2008 11:40 am

    It’s the only beacon the three in our family use, mostly because it’s indeed so easy to use. Only thing I don’t like about it is the size and weight, but that’s true of most other beacons as well.

  4. Randonnee December 31st, 2008 12:02 pm

    Thanks Jonathan for the interesting articles.

    We recently bought the Tracker which was on sale at REI. My wife’s M1 is 9 years old, it continues to function well but I thought it time to replace it especially with the sale price. I have heard from lots of users how easy the Tracker is to use. As a matter of fact, my 9 year-old daughter picked it up and was searching effectively within 30 seconds without even reading the instructions.

    Even with that, the recent tragedies remind us of the real issue. That is, avoid being caught in an avalanche at all. Transceivers, probes, and shovels are again demonstrated to be tools of desperation and last resort and often of no help in saving a person caught in an avalanche.

    The state of the art transceiver is easy to use, and I will utilize it for that small margin added to the probability of survival in an avalanche.

  5. Jonathan S. Shefftz December 31st, 2008 12:35 pm

    Minor clarification in one of the comments:
    “Having started to make the switch into bc skiing, I went with my only frame of reference and purchased a Tracker 2.”
    – I think you mean original Tracker, not Tracker 2.

    And thanks to Randonnee for emphasizing again the critical bottomline in all of this, i.e., avoid getting caught in the first place!

  6. Bill Bollinger December 31st, 2008 2:06 pm

    I helped at a number of tranceiver clinics where several types of beacons were available for use. While the staff and gudes were fans of Ortovox it became very clear people with the tracker ( and Barryvox later) were far more effective in finding the prize. People with some of the old Pieps were generally lost.
    I could just not figure out the strap on the tracker.

  7. Jonathan S. Shefftz December 31st, 2008 5:30 pm

    “I could just not figure out the strap on the tracker.”
    – Is this referring to the old all-strap harness system? As one of the instructors at my AIARE ITC joked, “The easiest beacon to use; the hardest to put on.” (This was as even some AMGA mtn guides grabbed loaner Trackers during a class exercise and puzzled over how to use the older design.) But since Fall 2004, the Tracker has used a tether & pouch system, which is pretty typical these days.

  8. Lou January 1st, 2009 6:35 am

    The original Tracker straps were like some kind of insider engineer’s joke or mechanical intelligence test, the ones available now are elegant and effective.

  9. Bill Bollinger January 2nd, 2009 11:17 am

    Ya, once the Barryvox came out I guess they figured the joke was over and came out with something you did not get laughed at trying to put on. To me the original tracker was a real advancement in ease of use though. Watching some of the people searching with the old Pieps (not new)- and at times ortovox-really drove in the need for something easy to use and the tracker fit the bill.

  10. Mark January 2nd, 2009 11:45 pm

    Always good stuff Jonathan (from MA, right?). I’m anxious to get ahold of a Tracker 3.

  11. Michael Carver January 3rd, 2009 12:39 pm

    I would love to buy the tacker 2 but since I need a Beacon for the ASI class at end of the month, I went with the Tracker 2. I have always rented or borrowed beacons and the tracker was the first beacon that was intuitive. It reminded me of the transition from using a radio direction finders while flying to a moving map GPS. Thanks for the no non-sence advice.

    I do have one question unrelated to this post.

    Background:
    This week I took my new-to-me snow wolfs into Marmot Mountain Works to have my TLT bindings mounted. ( I printed out the gig but could not get myself to drill my skis). I talked to the ski tech and showed him that the adjustment screw on my TLTs had two parts of it broken off and to please go lite on it. I bought them from a friend in the Sierra club.

    He offered to swap out my TLT heal units with brakes for Tri-step heal units without brakes. I went with this trade since the Tri-steps had the longer pins, adjustment screws that were in not broken, and had the volcanoes which I here are easier to pivot.

    Question:
    Do I need a riser plate for my toe unit? If so what should I tell him to use and how thick? Do you think a new Dynafit user will really miss the brakes?

    Note:
    I just spent a lot of money getting new Scarpa F3s, Snow wolfs and have never skied Dynafit before. I am hoping I am making the right decision. I have skied the Sierras on pair of waxless fish scale Fishers, Chillis and T2s but I found after long climbs like Ski dreams and Shasta that my legs were either tired or not up for the angle. Hopefully Dynafit and F3s tour like you say as I will be taking this rig to Ostrander at the end of the month.

    Thanks for all the info and help – a convert in progress.

  12. Michael Carver January 3rd, 2009 12:41 pm

    Correction I meant to say Tracker DTS…can you tell it has not arrived yet.

  13. Lou January 3rd, 2009 2:28 pm

    Carver, whether you drop your toe or not depends on what ramp/delta you want. Sounds like something the shop should help you figure out, as you’d need longer screws and a custom spacer anyway. That’s interesting a ski shop would cobble together a Frankenbinding for a customer — especially one with little or not experience with the product. But whatever, trial by fire and all that.

  14. Jonathan S. Shefftz January 3rd, 2009 5:31 pm

    “Do I need a riser plate for my toe unit?”
    - A Comfort/Tristep heel with a regular TLT toe unit base plate will create delta that is likely to be excessive for most skiers.

    “If so what should I tell him to use and how thick?”
    - Just get the current Comfort / Vertical ST toe unit base plate from Dynafit. (Then you’ll have a binding identical to the current Comfort, even though you cobbled it together from different setups.)

    “Do you think a new Dynafit user will really miss the brakes?”
    - No. (And read this website for custom leash ideas.)

    “I just spent a lot of money getting new Scarpa F3s, Snow wolfs and have never skied Dynafit before. I am hoping I am making the right decision.”
    - A most excellent decision! (Just be sure to watch Lou’s videos for assorted tips & tricks.)

  15. Nick January 5th, 2009 11:43 am

    Jonathan – you are correct. I mean’t to say I purchased a Tracker.

  16. Michael Carver January 5th, 2009 4:45 pm

    Jonathan, I did read about the leashes and am probably going to just go with that design.

    Since Seth the ski tech is mounting my bindings in the next day or so and does not have access to a base plate – does anyone know the difference in height between the TLT and tri step toe unit base plate?

    Thanks,
    M

    PS: Turns out the Marmot sale did not apply to Beacons so had them cancel my order. Now I am left to decide between the Tracker/Barryvox Pulse/Piep DTS Avalanche Beacons again. Depending on where I buy the best prices I can find are $280/$382/$359 in order. It seems they all have pluses and minuses, but are all pretty good.

  17. Lou January 5th, 2009 5:07 pm

    Carver, just measure the difference in height of a Comfort/ST/FT toe unit to that of a TLT, that’s the amount you want to shim up the TLT toe to use with TriStep heel. I’d do it for you but it’s hours past my bedtime and I’m in the midst of blogging an exciting product launch for publication tomorrow.

  18. Jonathan S. Shefftz January 5th, 2009 10:44 pm

    “Since Seth the ski tech is mounting my bindings in the next day or so and does not have access to a base plate – does anyone know the difference in height between the TLT and tri step toe unit base plate?”
    – It’s about 5mm. (Curiously, the heel differential between the two models is about 9mm, so the Comfort/Tristep has about 4mm more delta than the TLT.)

  19. Michelle February 17th, 2009 4:29 pm

    When will the Tracker 2 be out on the market for purchase? I want to purchase one and haven’t found a retailer who has it…

  20. Lou February 17th, 2009 4:59 pm

    Next fall? Jonathan?

  21. Jonathan Shefftz February 17th, 2009 5:05 pm

    Last time I asked BCA, I was told I’d getting a demo unit in Dec 2008.
    I haven’t bothered asking lately, although the last rumor I heard was Fall 2009.
    (And first rumor I ever heard was Fall . . . 2007.)

  22. Lou February 17th, 2009 5:36 pm

    This isn’t the first time. Way back in ancient history, Paul Ramer announced a beacon that was way ahead of its time. He kept ratcheting up the release date, I think it went on for four years or so and never did get released. Some of us got suckered into reviewing a prototype — I should have known better and I acted like an idiot. Learned some big lessons from that one and took years to get that egg off my face.

    BCA seems much more up front than some of the other things of this nature I’ve seen. Better they do it right. But they have to watch it now as changing the release date yet again would start to look iffy.

  23. Ken October 17th, 2009 8:50 am

    I’ve been told by BCA that the Tracker 2 will be available around the end of November 2009. If the Tracker 2 will cost around $335 and the Tracker can be purchased on sale for $ 235, is it worth spending the extra money?

  24. Bar Barrique October 17th, 2009 9:49 pm

    The tracker 2 is currently advertised for sale at MEC.ca for $370 CND

    Bar

  25. Jonathan Shefftz October 18th, 2009 9:10 am

    “The tracker 2 is currently advertised for sale at MEC.ca for $370 CND”
    – Not really: it’s noted as “back ordered,” which means it’s not currently available, and has not yet been available anywhere (although many etailers jumped the gun in prior years and put it on their websites).

    “If the Tracker 2 will cost around $335 and the Tracker can be purchased on sale for $235, is it worth spending the extra money?”
    – That’s a hard question to answer, and it depends upon individual preferences and financial situations. (Sorry, but I’m an economist, so I can’t help but answer questions that way!)
    – More specifically, the Tracker2 will avoid the Tracker’s “spikes and nulls” (i.e., oddball distance readings) during the final search phase, and will also have an indicator to alert to the user to a presence of a multiple burial. How more effective will this make a typical search? Hard to quantify.
    – The Tracker2 is also supposed to have faster processing, but the current Tracker’s processing speed is already bumping against the timing of the victim’s signal (i.e., a beacon by definition can’t update its directional and distance indicators faster than the timing of when the victim sends out each “beep”), and a search in a debris field can only move so fast anyway, hence I don’t see how this improvement can be significant. Plus the Tracker2 will be a bit smaller/lighter and have a different switch for searching.
    – Then the isssue is, if you buy the original Tracker and have an extra $100, what will you spend the money on? Put it toward a Level 2 avy course? Buy an Avalung? Or buy a used rando race suit? More pizza & beer? Pay the rent? Avoid foreclosure on your home mortgage? Or just add to your 401k or IRA. So, all depends on the marginal utility of that extra $100.
    - And of course, the final complicating factor is the Tracker2 is not currently available.

  26. Ken October 18th, 2009 10:08 am

    Thanks for the insight Jonathan. I have heard that the Tracker 2 will have the ability to accept upgrades. Do you know anything about this? I think if this is the case I might have to pony up the extra $ 100 and switch from micro brew and gourmet pizza to PBR and Little Cesar’s.

  27. Jonathan Shefftz October 18th, 2009 10:15 am

    “I have heard that the Tracker 2 will have the ability to accept upgrades. Do you know anything about this?”
    - I am pretty sure that is incorrect: BCA has never made any such public statements, and they’ve never mentioned anything like that to me either. (And the available info has been quite complete . . . especially since the Tracker2 was first announced almost three yrs ago.) It would also be a rather odd feature, since it would affect only the internal processing behavior. By contrast, although the firmware upgrades for the DSP, S1, and Pulse have sometimes included such behind-the-scenes upgrades, they have also changed the functionality in major ways, but the point of the Tracker (both original and upcoming) is that the functionality is so simple & streamlined that there would be nothing to change.
    BTW, in the spirit of the more recent blog post parodying other websites, I should have written in TGR style, “depends on whether the $100 will be spent on an Avalung or instead hookers & blow.”

  28. harpo October 18th, 2009 11:21 am

    Someone at BCA told me that the T2 was delayed until late November or December because of cold testing (the batteries did not last long enough in cold temps.)

  29. Ken October 18th, 2009 12:14 pm

    Jonathan, I panicked and pressed the button and ordered the Tracker DTS as the Fall Sale (REI, site sponsor so I figured I could mention them) ends today. Worst case scenario I have a backup or a loaner to one of my cheap ass friends! If the Tracker 2 is released this year I will wait for the skier reviews and then upgrade in the spring. Thanks again for the information.

  30. Mark W October 18th, 2009 8:16 pm

    I wonder if BCA can make a unit with more components, 3 antennae instead of 4, smaller and lighter. For as long as it has taken to develop, it ought to be smaller.

  31. Mark W October 18th, 2009 8:16 pm

    Sorry, my mind is working in a haze of swine flu. I meant 3 antennae instead of 2.

  32. Jonathan Shefftz October 18th, 2009 8:34 pm

    A beacon’s third antenna is very (very) small, so shrinking the housing size while simultaneously adding a third receive antenna is no big deal.
    However, my understanding is that the algorithms for the third antenna can get relatively complex. But I don’t know what the specific causes of the (continuing) delays are. (Interesting though that Ortovox, Barryvox, and Pieps have been able to issue new firmware upgrades almost annually.)
    P.S. Hope you’re just joking about the swine flu!

  33. Jonathan Shefftz October 18th, 2009 8:38 pm

    “I panicked and pressed the button and [. . . ]”
    Hmm, not a good phrase to use in the context of avalanche beacon searching!
    Seriously though, there’s nothing wrong with buying a Tracker right now, especially at a discount. And as you say, even if you decide to upgrade to another model in the future, useful to have around as a spare, plus if you sell it, resale value should still be pretty strong. (Even used F1 beacons still sell for around $160.)

  34. Bar Barrique October 18th, 2009 9:56 pm

    Funny thing; after posting about the Tracker 2, I thought that I should have checked further to see that they actually had some for sale. I bought the original tracker from them when it first came out, and, it was back ordered for some time. I am looking to upgrade, and, the question in my mind is should I spend the extra $195 for the Ortovox S1 .

  35. Jonathan Shefftz October 19th, 2009 6:30 am

    The S1 is a great beacon, but it’s so different from the Tracker that the decision entails far more than the cost differential. I strongly suggest an in-person demo before upgrading from your Tracker.

  36. Jonathan Shefftz November 12th, 2009 5:05 pm

    The Tracker 2 has arrived – or at least, *a* Tracker 2 has arrived at my house.

    Initial impressions:

    - About half an ounce lighter than the original, a wee bit shorter length, about the same volume overall, but housing is nicely cut away in the center to allow for enhanced grip. (I don’t have the harness – this unit is still officially marked as a Demo model and is for now owned by BCA, not me.)

    - The pull-out tab for switching into Search has just the right amount of resistance. The tab is easy to grasp for switching into Search. (The design concept is very similar to the Arva Evolution/A.D.vanced/3 Axes models, but a bit better executed in my opinion.)

    - Search tab is mechanically blocked from being pulled out while beacon is Off, and power switch is mechancially blocked from being turned Off while beacon is in Search.

    - The beacon will beep if kept in Search for more than 30 minutes or if kept in Transmit for more than 8 hours.

    - Fine search phase seems perfect: elimination of all nulls/spikes, distance indicators down to 0.0, and directional indicators shutting down at a point to be determined. (My unit shuts down its directional indicators consistently at a certain distance display, but that distance has yet to be determined for the final production version, as mine is still a demo. In general, keeping on the directional indicators into the fine search phase has its pluses and minuse – the competition ranges from 2.0 to 3.0, with the Pulse offering a 3.0 default and a 0.3 option.)

    - Testing for accuracy of multiple-burial indicator light is ongoing.

    - Range test is pending.

    - Testing for any increase in processing speed is pending.

    Details to be published in upcoming blog.

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