(Please note, as of 2010 we are keeping these reviews current by doing constant updates. Unlike the old days, because of firmware updates/changes a given unit of the same model can change dramatically over the course of its model life. Thus, a constantly updated website is the ONLY way these tools can be properly reviewed. We’ll try to make that happen.)
Editor’s note from Lou: For years I’ve wanted to include detailed avalanche beacon reviews here at WildSnow. But with only one of me doing most of the writing, I didn’t have time. Jonathan Shefftz volunteered for beacon duty. He’s an avalanche course instructor, frequent contributor on a number of skiing websites, and has a good eye for detail. His reviews look great. We’ll publish them in a series, and make sure they get linked well so you can find them later. First, his introduction:
“So what is the best avalanche beacon?” All of us have probably either asked or been asked this question. Traditional answer: “the one you own and practice with on a regular basis.”
I disagree. No, I’m not saying you shouldn’t practice, but rather that almost all users will be better off with a directional multiple-antenna beacon.
Yes, once upon a time all we had were analog-only single-antenna models such as the F1, VS 2000, Optifinder, etcettera. And I’ll believe that certain grizzled vets out there (Lou?) are capable with their old beacons. But as one internet poster commented, “I don’t trust anyone with an older-style beacon unless he has a gray beard.” Same here.
Therefore, my complete answer to, “what is the best avalanche beacon?” is a directional (i.e., multiple-antenna) beacon, with a design you feel comfortable with, and which you can afford — and which you practice with regularly! Therefore, this series focuses on each beacon’s design and likely appeal.
In our Wildsnow.com I’ll abstain from any ratings or rankings other than the occasional recommendation, but will assess how well a beacon works given its design parameters. I’ll also refer to some of my range test results. But because of how much this testing can vary, range is an inappropriate thing for a review to focus on.
Likewise I’ll not make a big deal out of weight (sorry Lou), as all beacons heft within three-and-half ounces from lightest to heaviest. I’ll also not comment on user manuals, as how your mind responds to information is an individual trait. (Instead, before you buy a beacon, I recommend that you download the user manual from the company’s website, then decide for yourself if it works for your style of thinking and learning.)
Battery life is quite similar among these models. (Pieps DSP has been reported as draining batteries more quickly than other models, but that’s a battery meter issue we’ll cover in the DSP review.) Thus, we’ll spend little time on how long batteries last.
Another issue is radio frequency interference (“RFI”). With so many different electronic devices carried by backcountry recreationalists these days, complete testing of every possible device is infeasible so I’ll cover this briefly here. I have found that a *transmitting* cell phone (CDMA band) or FRS/GMRS radio can cause interference to varying degrees in some (but not all) beacons. But no beacons suffer RFI from an on-yet-not-transmitting phone or two-way radio.
Far more importantly, playing an iPod will cause RFI to vary degrees in *all* avalanche beacons at close range. My general conclusions with RFI are: Be very careful if deciding to call for help while simultaneously searching with an avalanche beacon; and if you are touring with any brand of avalanche beacon, never listen to an iPod. (I am very serious about this: the potential for an iPod to be inadvertently left on and then cause interference in a beacon search is dangerous.)
Disclaimers: I have no background whatsoever in electrical engineering, so please don’t ask me about the why/how behind the inner workings of all these beacons! And although I appreciate the price discounts extended to me as an AIARE-qualified course instructor and NSP avalanche course instructor, I am neither sponsored nor employed by any beacon company.
That’s it for now, look for individual reviews to be published over the coming weeks.
(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.)