[updated November 2011 for new ARVA models]
Since my original beacon overview introduction back in 2008 the market has changed sufficiently enough over the past three years to merit an updated overview for backcountry skiers.
Once upon a time, all beacons were very similar: they went Beep. That is, a beacon emitted a radio signal, and when switched to search, it allowed the user to listen in.
And that was about it. Volume controls (one early beacon didn’t even have a volume control), earpiece setups, and LED lights provided some variation, but the core functionality for backcountry skiing use was all very similar. Users who practiced thoroughly and frequently became capable searchers, but otherwise even a straightforward single-burial search really wasn’t all that straightforward for the typical backcountry skier — resulting in tragic stories of beacon searches that took long enough to compromise the survival of otherwise recoverable victims.
Cue BCA back in 1997. A little over a quarter-century after the first avalanche beacon had been invented in the U.S., American ingenuity shook up the Euro-dominated market with a true breakthrough. With two receive antennas and digital processing, the original DTS Tracker could direct the searcher to follow the flux line toward the victim. It was awesome, like something out of Cupertino, only better.
Despite such a breakthrough, the multiple-antenna design encountered skepticism at first from backcountry skiers and ski mountaineers, mainly because of its shortened initial signal acquisition range and the lack of analog acoustics for distinguishing between multiple burials. Some companies added digital processing to single-antenna designs. Then Pieps in 2003 introduced signal separation and marking/masking for multiple burials on its DSP. Even more innovative beacons followed, and price points were all over the map. Beacon comparisons were very much an apples-and-oranges exercise.
Avalanche Beacon Reviews & Shopping Chart
|ARVA Evo3+||$279||MR, WS!||Web||Manual||Shop|
|ARVA 3 Axes||$399||MR||discontinued|
|BCA Tracker DTS||$290||IL, DA||Web||Manual||Shop|
|BCA Tracker 2||$335||IL, WS!||Web||Manual||Shop|
|Barryvox Opto 3000||$300||IL||discontinued|
|Barryvox Element||$350||MR, WS!||Web||Manual||Shop|
|Ortovox 3+||$349||MR, WS!||Web||Manual||Shop|
|Ortovox F1 Focus||$199||SA, NR||Web||Shop|
|O Patroller Digi / D3||$249||IL||Web||Manual||Shop||Ortovox Zoom||$250||IL||Web||Manual||Fall 2012|
|Pieps DSP Advanced||$550||MR||Manual||discontinued|
|Pieps DSP Tour||$350||MR, WS!||Web||Manual||Shop|
|Pieps Freeride||$200||SA, NR||Web||Manual||Shop|
|Pieps Vector||$600||MR||Web||Fall 2012[?]|
NR = Not Recommended for the typical backcountry recreationalist.
WS! = WildSnow.com recommended all-rounder beacon, e.g., what your one choice would be within each brand when asked by the non-skiing partner of a new backcountry or an old one looking to upgrade, with enough money to buy a modern design at retail, but without knowing anything more about the skier.
All beacons have three antennas unless otherwise noted.
But now, going into the 2011-12 season, each price point now features more beacons with similar features. At the same time, the range in prices is even greater, and the features at the very highest end of the price points vary widely. Hence the “convergence and divergence” in our WildSnow.com blog post title.
I’ve split up the more detailed discussion into three categories of beacons, all of which have three antennas (with the second antenna providing the directional indicators, and the third antenna eliminating spikes/nulls in the final search phase):
– Only an indicator for the presence of a multiple burial (with prices centered around a bit over $300).
– A marking/masking/flagging feature after finding the first victim in a multiple burial (with prices around $350).
– Max technology (and max price).
Before getting into the details of the available three-antenna beacons, a few quick sentences on the single- and dual-antenna beacons still available for backcountry skiing.
The Ortovox F1, first introduced in 1989, is still available with only relatively minor changes. As I wrote in the beacon series introduction three years ago, I’ll believe that certain grizzled vets out there are capable with such a single-antenna acoustical design. But as one internet poster commented, “I don’t trust anyone with an older-style beacon unless he has a gray beard.” Cost savings can be especially tempting with the many available used F1 units for sale, but be especially wary of frequency drift (which can be reliably tested with many feature-laden modern beacons).
The original BCA Tracker DTS is still available with its core functionality although with many welcome tweaks along the years. And the original design is still capable. But the price differential for even BCA’s own Tracker2 is relatively small.
Far more recently, in 2008, Pieps introduced the Freeride. As the name implies, this is marketed toward the sidecountry scene. With digital processing, yet only a single antenna and no analog acoustics, along with the shortest initial signal acquisition I’ve ever tested, this is essentially a budget “Find Me” beacon. When removed from its relatively heavy and bulky harness, the Freeride is by far the lightest and smallest beacon, so it certainly appeals to rando racers and ski mountaineers counting every single ounce. And its low price point will appeal to lift-served skiers who want some extra peace of mind if buried in a rare in-bounds avalanche, and hope the patrol will be on scene by the time they ever have to start searching for someone else. But for backcountry skiers, more capable beacons (even from Pieps itself) are worth the extra cost and what we recommend here at WildSnow.com.
Indicator-Only for Multis
Paying on average a little over $300 gets you three antennas, which means the beacon not only shows directional indicators but also resolves any nulls/spikes (i.e., erratic readings) in the final search phase. An indicator light will come on in the presence of more than one signal, so you’ll at least know that you’ll have to deal with a multiple burial. But how you deal with that complicating second signal (or even more) is for the most part up for you to determine, since any additional features are very basic, if any. The acoustics for these beacons are digitized only, so you can’t use your own ear (and engaged brain) to distinguish between the qualities of the different signals. Initial signal acquisition ranges tend to be on the shorter side.
This market segment is dominated by the BCA Tracker2 but the Ortovox Patroller Digital (essentially the previous D3 but with a more basic harness system) has similar features, and at a lower price point for the 2011-12 season.
Beacons with Marking/Masking/Flagging
Pay not much more, typically around $350, and you get all of the above plus some sort of marking/masking/flagging feature. In the presence of multiple signals, the beacon will not only let you know what you’re up against, but will try to distinguish for you between the different transmitting beacons, i.e., “signal separation.” So once you’re right at the first signal, you press a button or flick a switch, then the beacon leads you to the next signal, while suppressing the signal from the first victim you’ve already found. The goal is that a potentially complicated multiple-burial search is reduced to a sequential series of relatively straightforward single-burial searches.
Sound almost magical? When it works, yes indeed. Does it always work so easily? Not necessarily. (The details have to do with the difficulties of separating those signals, since the beacon spec was never designed for such a goal — the Canadian Avalanche Association has been publishing a series of articles by Rob Whelan that explains the details, which unintentionally happen to be related to the “convergence and divergence” in this blog’s title.)
Sidebar: Is the multiple burial feature over rated, and how much should you focus on this as a feature?
It bears mentioning that if you actually do have multiple people buried in an avalanche, the likelihood of digging them all out alive is low — no matter how good your beacon technology. Why? Because it may take too long to shovel vast quantities of snow. More, just how often does such a scenario arise? If you’re ready for even more uncertainty and controversy, some additional reading on the subject is available in this issue of The Avalanche Review from the American Avalanche Association. Also, here at WildSnow.com we believe that possibly the best proven avalanche lifesaver for backcountry skiers is the backpack airbag system (which doesn’t take the place of a beacon, but may even be more effective at saving lives). Please see our Avalanche Airbags category for details. The Black Diamond Avalung breathing device also bears mentioning, though the jury is out on how the triad of avalanche survival technology, eg., beacon/airbag/Avalung should be implemented, as in, how much of this stuff can one backcountry skier carry and deal with?
Some of the beacons in this category have other added features too, although they still tend to be (as a broad generalization) relatively limited, so as to distinguish them from their pricier siblings. Sound on most models is digitized only, with no option for analog acoustics.
This market segment didn’t even exist with widespread distribution until Ortovox pioneered it for the 2010-11 season with its 3+. And now for 2011-12 it’s joined by the Pieps DSP Tour and Barryvox Element (which is very similar to the “Basic” profile mode of its more expensive Pulse sibling, although that “Basic” mode is actually quite feature-laden). The new for 2011-12 ARVA Evo3+ combines features from various discontinued ARVA models to offer marking/masking at a much lower price point, and now with much stronger U.S. distribution, along with the new for 2011-12 ARVA Axis (which is essentially the “Novice” mode of its more expensive Link sibling, similar to the relationship of the Element to the Pulse).
Max Technology Beacons
Spend more money and what do you get for backcountry skiing avalanche safety? The answer to that varies widely among these models. Most of these models include a frequency tester for your buddies’ beacons, and an option for analog acoustics. The initial signal acquisition range is often tweaked noticeably. Some of these models in a multiple-burial search provide an overview of different signals and allow you to choose which one to head toward first, instead of whichever the strongest signal is that the beacon automatically locks onto at the start of the search. As for other features, I would say let your imagine take you away, but some of these features are far more than you can imagine.
Similarities to their less expensive siblings also vary widely. The Pieps DSP and (recently discontinued) DSP Advanced (which despite the name adds on only some functions entirely unrelated to avalanche safety) are probably the most similar to their less-expensive sibling (the DSP Tour, new for 2011-12), using the same housing, but adding on a scan feature and frequency tester. At the opposite end of the spectrum through (in pretty much every regard, including unfortunately price at ~$600), is the new for 2011-12 Pieps Vector, which adds GPS functionality so that the search is enhanced by . . . well, I’m not going to promise anything more until I actually use one of these!
The Barryvox Pulse shares a nearly identical housing with its less-expensive Element sibling, and the “Basic” profile on the Pulse has very similar functionality as the Element. But the Pulse’s “Advanced” profile has even more functionality (including fore/aft differentiation and true analog acoustics mode). Note that although the “Pulse” name is derived from the relatively limited triage-related functionality on the separate “W-Link” frequency, that could be expanded in the future. The ARVA Link shares many features with the Barryvox Pulse, including the W-Link (although only to assist in signal separation, not for “vitals” transmission).
The Ortovox S1/S1+ deviates the most from its less expensive 3+ sibling, and indeed from pretty much any other beacon. Instead of the typical directional indicators, the large screen of the clamshell housing provides a graph-like display of all the victims’ positions relative to the searcher (including fore/aft differentiation). Given the inherent complications of flux lines, this isn’t quite like a buried treasure map, and individual reactions vary widely, but it is definitely compelling for some users. For 2011-12, the S1 becomes the S1+, allowing the beacon to switch transmission to a second antenna (like with the 3+) so as to avoid a suboptimal vertical signal transmission (though the beacon still can’t do anything about the searcher being in a suboptimal position in the horizontal plane, so initial signal acquisitions distances when searching for an S1+ will still vary widely with some searching beacons, but less so compared to other target beacons in use for backcountry skiing).
(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.)