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.
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.
(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.)