Turbocharge Your Trailhead Beacon Check

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | October 26, 2015      
BCA Tracker3.

BCA Tracker3, like any beacon it’s only as good as the skill of the user.

I always vow to practice beacon search with my avalanche transceiver, but like flossing my teeth, it doesn’t happen enough. Sometimes at night I wake with a start. Worse than the recurring nightmare of rotting teeth, I wonder if I’ll fumble during the panic of a slide. Then my mind wanders to my partners. I assume their devices will work and they’ll know a few simple things that help with a search situation, but how can I be sure?

During a beacon refresher course, BCA offered tips that put my mind to rest.

Before we start ski touring, we routinely check to see if everyone’s beacon is on and transmitting. By adding a few quick steps, the entire party can be better prepared if the unthinkable — an avalanche — occurs.

  • Keep spare AA and AAA batteries in your car. At the parking lot, check the charge level of everyone’s beacon and swap fresh batteries if necessary. We like our beacons to show at least 60% battery power before starting a day trip. Weak batteries might lessen range (see comments below for clarification), but more importantly it’s good to have reserve power for unplanned circumstances. Also, cold batteries can have much less power, so having some reserve electricity could be necessary during a lengthy search in colder weather, when your beacon is away from body warmth.
  • If there are different brands of beacons in the group, make sure everyone knows how to turn each beacon off from transmit. During a rescue, you may have people who lose their ability to handle their beacon due to hysteria or shock, and you’ll need to turn their beacon off so their rogue signal doesn’t compromise your search. Likewise, in the case of a multiple burial you’ll want to know how to turn off a victim’s beacon after they’re extricated. Most beacons are intuitive in terms of the on/off, but folks in a panic situation and unfamiliar with a given beacon can easily fail this basic task (google “tunnel vision”). Doing the “simple” practice of everyone learning to turn off every beacon in a group calls attention to the very real problem of “rogue” signals during a search — and a little practice goes a long ways in preventing compromised performance during a real event.
  • At the trailhead have everyone except the leader turn their beacons to search mode. Have each person pass by the leader to check their readings.
  • Reverse roles: leader flips to search mode while others pass by in transmit mode.
  • Keep your trailhead rituals simple, but don’t neglect priorities.
  • During the practice session with BCA, I demoed a Tracker3. It is by far the simplest beacon I have ever used. Just slightly bigger than a cell phone, it’s one of the lightest too. If you need to upgrade, we recommend it.

    Be ready for the season — buy a new BCA Tracker3 here.


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    43 Responses to “Turbocharge Your Trailhead Beacon Check”

    1. Bill October 26th, 2015 11:55 am

      What did you find so difficult to use about the Mammut Element or Pieps Sport?

    2. Lou Dawson 2 October 26th, 2015 12:09 pm

      Hi Bill, we re-worded that. We were trying to make the point that the group needs to be able to turn off _other_ member’s beacons, and in a panic situation even the simplest switch could be fumbled. We’d actually agree that most beacons are pretty much equal in the simplicity of the on-off switch. Even the Tracker 3 could be fumbled by someone who didn’t know where the on-off switch was. Lou

    3. Denis October 26th, 2015 12:30 pm

      Lisa, could you expound on the battery level?

      “At the parking lot, check the charge level of everyone’s beacon. Weak batteries lessens signal strength, which can make searches much more difficult.”

      It was my understanding that even at low battery level indicated by the beacon, the beacon was capable of performing to spec for quite a long time. The only beacon I have tested that failed to do this was a first generation Tracker. All my tests were “backyard” and not scientific, what is the truth about battery level? Den

    4. XXX_er October 26th, 2015 12:53 pm

      One group i ski with everyone leapfrogs past that 1st guy who is in recieve each stopping 100yds up the trail to be the next reciever, so everyone can test how their beacon receives each beacon in the group as it comes towards them on the skin track, a good time to do this is early on at about the time people are needing to stop & shed a layer anyhow

    5. Denis October 26th, 2015 1:25 pm

      I just found this at BeaconReview.com:

      Digital transceivers display the strength of the batteries on the screen. Some manufactures say that there is still enough reserve in the batteries to operate when the battery level displays 0%. Here are a few manufacture’s statements regarding their battery indicators:
      The Mammut Pulse manual says the beacon will send for at least 20 hours and then receive for one hour when the battery indicator displays 20%.
      The Pieps DSP Sport/Pro manual says that when the battery indicator (a bar) is empty but not yet blinking, you can transmit for at least 20 hours and then receive for one hour. That manual also states that when the DSPs’ battery is 1/3rd charged, it will transmit from between 20 and 120 hours. That’s a ridiculously imprecise range. The older (i.e., yellow) DSP’s displayed the battery’s status as a percentage.
      The BCA Tracker3 manual says that you should replace the batteries “before reaching 40 percent.”

      Looks like the best thing is to test the beacon you use. Den

    6. ptor October 26th, 2015 3:03 pm

      I like doing a beacon check at the top of the last run of the day. Never know how cold etc. affects the drain rates of batteries in different models after the whole day out. Also doing this gets everybody back thinking about the situation again when tired and thinking about beer ahead, glorious sunset, concerned wife etc.

    7. Lisa Dawson October 26th, 2015 3:13 pm

      Denis, thanks for the informative link.

      It’s my understanding that beacons will operate with low batteries, but the signal strength of the transmitting beacon would be weaker with low batteries.

      Another problem of low battery strength is that the batteries could run out during the search. A buried victim with a dead battery would be toast.

    8. Lisa Dawson October 26th, 2015 3:21 pm

      XXXer, that’s a clever way to handle it!

    9. Edge October 26th, 2015 3:47 pm

      All transceivers will continue to send a useable signal at low battery power. We’ve found that the transmit power is about 10 percent less with a Tracker when it’s at 5 percent than when it’s at 100 percent. However, when you stack this up with a poor transmitter (ie not sending at 457 +/- 80Hz, poor antenna orientation, lots of background noise), you can lose nearly 50 percent off the maximum (aka “marketing”) range of the searching beacon. This is why, even though most beacon companies, claim greater than 50m receive range, they suggest a search strip width (diameter) of about 40m (twice the “worst case” range–or radius–you could get).

      Keep in mind that battery power readings are highly dependent on temperature. If you check your batts at room temp, then leave it outside for a few hours, the battery power will be a LOT lower. Hence the wide range in specs Denis mentions. And hence BCA’s conservative guideline to switch batteries at 40 percent (we don’t know what the temp is when you check your batts).

      Great idea to learn how to turn off and go into search mode on the various models of beacons–mainly because in both exercises and in real life situations, there’s always somebody on scene in transmit that doesn’t know they’re transmitting. It can be more reliable to go ahead and change modes for them than to expect they know how to do it themselves. You and your friends might know how to use your beacons, but that doesn’t mean everyone else does…

    10. Lou Dawson 2 October 26th, 2015 3:50 pm

      I’m pretty sure Lisa is correct. The RECEIVING beacon will do ok with lower battery level, but as the power drops in the TRANSMITTING beacon, range can reduce.

      What could mitigate that is if the sending/transmitting beacon has some sort of capacitor or something that sucks power from the batteries between each pulse, but I’m sure there is a practical limit to that.

      I know 2-way radios pretty well, and the transmitting 2-way with 1/2 battery power will experience significantly reduced range of transmission.

      We’ll wait till the experts chime in. Perhaps I’m totally wrong about the beacon…

      Main thing, as we’ve mentioned before in other blog posts, it’s preferable to keep batteries freshened up to a higher level, personally I try to keep them at a minimum of 70%. After all, this is a personal safety device not a headlamp.


    11. Lou Dawson 2 October 26th, 2015 3:54 pm

      Hmmm, Edge’s answer seems like some of both? Range _is_ reduced eventually, but not a whole lot?

      Edge, how can the transmitting beacon keep virtually the same watt radio signal transmission with reduced battery voltage? Some sort of sophisticated capacitor system or something?

      Thanks, Lou

    12. Lisa Dawson October 26th, 2015 3:54 pm

      Edge, you’re the expert. Thanks for chiming in.

    13. Lou Dawson 2 October 26th, 2015 3:55 pm

      Re cold weather battery level. Keep beacon in pocket or next to body under clothing = non issue. Assuming you do your beacon search as fast as you’re supposed to!

    14. Denis October 26th, 2015 4:05 pm

      Lisa, I copied this from the Pieps site in 2006, as I had purchased a DSP in 05. You should find the last line interesting. I am not advocating people running around with 01% battery remaining, but I do advocate knowing how your beacon performs. Needless battery replacement is not good for the pocket book or environment. The ETSI EN 300 718-1 standard does not allow a beacon signal strength to diminish within 20 hours of minimum battery warning to protect the foolish consumer. All beacons do not perform the same, put some old batteries in and find out what yours will do. Den

      From the Pieps site:
      According to the standard, every avalanche beacon should have built-in flat-battery detection. If a flat battery is displayed, a beacon must be able to transmit for at least another 24 hours at +10ºC and ready to receive for 1 hour at -10ºC according to the STANDARD.
      The PIEPS-DSP indicates a flat battery by displaying 01% i.e. after which the unit can still function efficiently for at least 24 hours in transmit mode and 1 hour in reception mode.

      When a trip is started, there should be a display of at least 01%. There is no problem whatsoever if e.g. more than 70% or only 5% is displayed.

    15. Edge October 26th, 2015 4:29 pm

      Lou, a voltage regulator keeps the transmit power even, despite decreasing battery power level.

      Interesting, but unimportant point: with low battery power level in the searching transceiver, you can experience a few extra meters of receive range. A lower internal “noise floor” in the searching beacon means a weak signal far away is a little easier to separate from the noise.

    16. zippy the pinhead October 26th, 2015 5:07 pm

      When you talk about a modern avalanche transceiver “receiving” it’s doing a lot more than just that. The transceiver is at that point actually in “search mode” which is significantly more complicated than simply receiving a radio signal.

      The microprocessor inside the searching unit is chugging away at complex mathematical calculations which consumes battery power.

      Think about how hot the microprocessor in your desktop/laptop/smartphone/etc gets when it’s working. With that in mind, it’s easy to imagine that this effect would cause an avy transceiver in search mode to burn through AAA batteries a lot more quickly than one which is simply transmitting.

      I’m no expert, but that’s my take.

    17. Lou Dawson 2 October 26th, 2015 5:15 pm

      Good point Zippy. Perhaps we just need to acknowledge that all beacons need to have fairly fresh batteries. Contrary to my view that it’s more critical for the transmitting beacon, perhaps it’s more important for the receiving beacon due to the needed processing power!

    18. Lou Dawson 2 October 26th, 2015 5:17 pm

      Edge, you can’t get something out of nothing. I’m pretty familiar with voltage regulators/converters. Sure, you can take a weak battery at e.g., 9 volts and make 12 volts from it, but the amount of current/amperage/watts that can provide is limited. Right? Lou

    19. zippy the pinhead October 26th, 2015 5:27 pm

      I did a bit of digging (no pun intended) and found this on BCA’s faq page for avalanche transceivers:

      How long will the battery power last in a Tracker?
      Minimum 1 hour in search mode after 200 hours in transmit mode (approximately 250 hours in transmit only, or 50 hours in search only). This is the standard all beacons are required to pass for European approval.

      From this it seems that, indeed, search mode consumes significantly more juice than transmit mode.

    20. Lou Dawson 2 October 26th, 2015 5:34 pm

      I stand corrected! Too used to my handheld radios…

    21. Kristian October 26th, 2015 6:21 pm

      Speaking of handheld radios…

      It would be nice if Avalanche Transceivers came with beefy re-chargeable battery packs so that you could plug into USB and have 100 percent charge for every single day tour.

      And standardize on larger capacity AA size so that you could replace the rechargeable battery pack on long multiday tours.

    22. Lou Dawson 2 October 26th, 2015 7:11 pm

      Indeed Kristian, it is indeed plain weird that beacons don’t have a rechargeable option. Perhaps something to do with the CE standards and such. BCA pretty much ignored my carbon fiber shovel handle mod, perhaps I’ll get their attention when I convert a Tracker 3 over to USB recharge?

      Nicad works well re cold temps, alkaline pretty much sucks. Somewhat weird we’re supposed to be using alkaline in our beacons. But then, it’s been weird a long time…

      Joking aside, one could always load up their beacon with a set of rechargeable AAA cells. Battery life indicator would probably be meaningless, but what if they were charged once a day?


    23. Jim Milstein October 26th, 2015 8:07 pm

      Lou, you probably mean NiMH. NiCad is unknown to younger readers.

    24. Lou Dawson 2 October 26th, 2015 9:03 pm

      I like Ptor’s idea, kind of “reverse thinking.”

    25. Matt October 26th, 2015 9:13 pm

      I’m sorry Wildsnow but saying this beacon is superior to others on the market amazes me. If you can’t mark a victim and then move on to the next in a multiple search the beacon is useless and in no way superior.

    26. Wookie October 27th, 2015 1:44 am

      Oh man….here we go again…..

    27. Pascal October 27th, 2015 4:21 am

      The explanation given to us in good old Europe while training avalanche rescue :
      The advice : Always have spare batteries, not rechargeable ones, plain branded batteries ( not the cheap ones ).
      The explanation : batteries are giving the energy more progressively than the rechargeable ones, tending to stop all of a sudden. This is why alkaline is the choice.
      Next advice hence, keep the device near to your body, first it is supposed to be there while ascending or skiing, second the warmth doesn’t let the battery power being lessened by the cold.
      The only problem would be searching for long times, and here come the spare batteries in the game, knowing that the consumption is higher in search mode because of the computing involved.
      So know your device, what it does and don’t assume it is designed to function anyway anyhow, it’s a machine, it’s yours and your life may depend on it.
      And another information, keep all radio devices and electronics an arm length away from the beacon while searching. They cause disturbance in receiving the signal.
      Thanks Ptor for your suggestion

      All this in the name of feeling free in the mountains ! Enjoy your skiing up and down.

    28. Lou Dawson 2 October 27th, 2015 6:57 am

      Matt, yes, we’ve always thought Tracker was superior in various ways, depending on model and year. On the other hand, I read back through Lisa’s post and don’t see anything that states the Tracker is overall superior. This is a blog, our writing is mostly opinion, I’m glad we can still amaze people (grin). That said, I’m totally in agreement that if specific marking-masking multiple burial features are important to your style of skiing and situations, then a beacon with those features would be superior.

      My priorities, in rough order of importance: durability, size, weight, simplicity and an auto-revert that uses more than a timer to ascertain when to turn the beacon back to transmit. I actually don’t care whether my beacon has ANY multiple burial features or not, and I usually forget how to use those features anyway as I try to focus my practice on how blazing fast I can find and probe one buried victim, when seconds make the difference between life and death.

      I’m fully aware that some backcountry skiers truly do ski in groups where a multiple burial is a real possibility. I’m assuming that would change beacon choice and practice style. Fine.

      Moreover, it is indeed true that one can encounter other groups in the backcountry who do ski with less care and perhaps more likelihood of a multiple burial. We run into that situation quite often in Europe. I of course adhere to the ethic of being always willing to help others. In that sense, I’m perfectly comfortable that I could perform in a multiple burial situation with my Tracker.

      In the end, I feel that multiple burial features have mostly been used as a marketing ploy in the beacon wars, and have very little real-world practical need. Further, it could be argued that the vast majority of skiers do not know their multiple-burial features well enough to even use them during a real rescue, when tunnel vision and panic set in, and the “button-less” search is the way to saving lives.

    29. Lou Dawson 2 October 27th, 2015 7:05 am

      Regarding battery life, it’s all well and good that beacons can operate at super low battery power, but we stand by our recommendation that batteries be swapped often and kept fairly fresh. I’ll compromise and just say “60%” power is about where I’d swap. As for cost of doing so, and environmental impact, in our case we have plenty of devices that use AA and AAA batteries, so it’s easy to just cycle the partially charged batteries over to those devices.

      Again, my assumption that the _tranmitting_ beacon was more critical as to battery power was wrong. The receiving beacon uses a lot of juice because of the digital processing. Thing is, no way to know which is going to be which! Which says to me, simply keep the batteries fairly fresh and don’t look back.

      We’ll edit Lisa’s post to clarify our “trailhead” stance on battery life. Main thing, keep some fresh batteries in your vehicle for those times when you or a friend discovers they’ve got a beacon that’s been left on or otherwise drained.

    30. Jack October 27th, 2015 8:49 am

      Take this with a grain of salt, as my experience is a tiny fraction of others on this site AND I would recommend some form of “skier avalanched” drill, equivalent to a sailing “Person Overboard” drill. I’ve run those drills while sailing and it is amazing how quickly tossing a clorox bottle with a counterweight and a Sharpie smiley face focuses everyone’s attention. Both crew and skipper make good and poor judgement calls and weaknesses in procedure and execution are revealed usually in the very first drill.

    31. See October 27th, 2015 9:32 am

      Hat overboard drills (probably a variation of what Jack is describing) are useful because they are unexpected. I guess the skiing analogy would be to have “surprise” beacon drills. Maybe hide a beacon during the climb, and then spring a surprise drill on the group during the descent.

    32. Lisa Dawson October 27th, 2015 11:15 am

      Jack and See, both are good drills. Thanks.

      I’ve also learned that it’s okay if the tracks to the hidden beacon are obvious. The idea is not to intimidate, especially when dealing with beginners. Having success with an easy drill builds confidence and then you can make the scenarios progressively harder.

      I always like doing drills during hut trips. Once we hid a beacon on the way to the outhouse so no one would have to an excuse to skip it.

    33. Herf October 27th, 2015 12:54 pm

      Very much related to power and range, the 457kHz frequency is a very long wave (650m). Therefore, beacons are operating in the near-field. Most radios are operated in the far-field so the rule that half power will halve the range applies there. In the near-field the range falls off at a very different, exponential rate. At half-power, it would be about 6dB and would correspond to about 6 meters range reduction in transmit (relative to about 60 meters of ‘marketing’ range).

      Also, if the battery is displayed at 50%, it does not necessarily say that the power for the transmitter is at half. It just says it’s about halfway to its useful life for meeting things such as transmit power regs, receiver operation at cold temperature, etc. The avalanche beacon typically uses more power in Receive mode vs. transmit, due to display considerations, radio operation, transmitter modulation, etc.

      And Edge is right, the receiver tends to actually ‘get’ more range at lower battery power due to a lower electromagnetic noise floor.

      Again related to near-field operation and design, the (small) loop antennae have <0.1% effective height. Doubling the size of the antenna or the power would not improve transceiver operational range much.

      Disclaimer: I have a Tracker bias, but think the info is mostly factual for all avalanche rescue transceivers.

    34. Lou Dawson 2 October 27th, 2015 1:18 pm

      Herf, thanks, I’m aware of “near field,” had no idea that beacons operate in the near field. Also interesting about the antenna. How much bigger would it have to be to make any difference? Are beacon makers creating SAR beacons that have optional add-on large antennas for wide range searching?

      If I’m understanding correctly, full wave length for 457 is about 654 meters!?


    35. Herf October 27th, 2015 1:32 pm

      Lou . . . the near-field boundary is defined as [wavelength/(2*pi)], 656/6.28 or ~100 meters.

      There are products, e.g. I think one from Ortovox, that hang a very large antenna from a helicopter that extend the search range. An ideal effective height for an antenna at 457kHz, would be about 328 meters.

    36. aaron October 28th, 2015 10:46 am

      The only scary catch I’ve hand in a beacon check was someone running rechargeable AAs…they only registered at a handful of meters.

      I learnt from local forestry consultants who run GPS with AAA in the winter that the best quality alkaline batteries are vastly superior in cold than cheap ones. Swap early and put those 2/3 AAs into your headlamp for nighttime exercise.

    37. Tom F October 29th, 2015 2:40 pm

      Anyone with experience care to compare a Tracker 3 to the Arva Neo?

    38. JRD October 29th, 2015 3:13 pm

      I’ve noticed my Tracker shows 99% for the first several days I use it. So however the beacon tests remaining battery power, it isn’t able to exactly predict how much life has been used (and therefore how much is left). So replacing conservatively is a good idea.

      I tend to replace my batteries at 85%, which still gives a good use period before replacing (I’d estimate more than 20 days if I don’t forget to turn it off between tours). And I just put the batteries into something less important afterwards. Although not a headlamp, I consider that pretty essential, ever since having a headlamp break on me in the middle of a dark lead.

    39. Lou Dawson 2 October 29th, 2015 3:16 pm



      Neo has amazing range. I didn’t find it any easier to use than anything else, and I don’t like the lanyard on-off divorced switch.

      I’d use it.


    40. Lou Dawson 2 October 29th, 2015 3:19 pm

      JRD, yeah, the % of battery left is only an approximation. Agree, we like to replace them while they’re still fairly fresh. Though I do get lazy sometimes, especially in during spring corn season in safe conditions. Lou

    41. Tony Thompson November 1st, 2015 3:28 pm

      Last winter while skiing with a group from Smithers BC they added a beacon check that I found useful. At the trailhead we did the usual check of beacon battery strength, turn off procedure and having one member check that all beacons were transmitting but then once we had started up the trail each skier in turn put their own beacon into receive and let the other skiers pass. This tested everyone’s beacon in both send and receive and I think gave a good opportunity to just practice the different modes of operation. It also gave each of us an opportunity to adjust clothing and packs without feeling like we were holding up the group.

    42. Lisa Dawson November 1st, 2015 5:44 pm

      Tony, thanks. That’s a neat way to do an added beacon check. Any extra little bit of practice goes a long way.

    43. Jim Milstein March 20th, 2016 7:26 pm

      I just got the BCA Tracker3 beacon (clicking through WildSnow!). It replaces my ancient PiEPS 457 with the beloved OPTI-finder. I was not fond of old Pieps. Who could be?

      Okay, back to the new Tracker3. It is so much easier and faster to use that I’ll even take it skiing.

      “You first! Don’t worry, I have a Tracker3 and know how to use it.”

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