Beacon Philosophy & New Barryvox Units for 2017

Post by blogger | January 10, 2017      
Barryvox Pulse on left, new Barryvox S on right. Same size, new features.

Barryvox Pulse on left, new Barryvox S on right. Same size, same price, new features.

Okay kids, avalanche beacon theories of evolution. Operative word: “urgency.”

As one of the few, the proud, the brave who actually ski toured before widespread acceptance of electronic avalanche rescue beacons, I’ve got an overall sense of how things have progressed. My recollection is that early theory of avalanche rescue assumed buried victims had a longer grace period before suffocation than what we now know to be true.

For example, it was assumed you could tie into a brightly colored string known as an “avalanche cord,” which was then followed to your burial location as you lay there dreaming about your next Florida beach vacation. Presumably this was done by pulling the string up out of the snow, eventually tugging on the victim and interrupting their reverie.

As you can imagine, theory was not practice. The string could get wedged under snow blocks, and was 100% likely to get broken or tangled if any vegetation was present. Not to mention the challenge of skiing with a string whipping around your legs. I’d imagine the avalanche cord might have saved a life or two over the years, but not to any measurable extent of improving avalanche safety for the overall ski touring public.

Another example: It was not uncommon in the early days, when beacon use became more accepted, for skiers to not carry a shovel or a probe. The assumption was you’d just dig that Florida dreamer out with your hands and a ski. It took a few preventable tragedies to put a stop to this.

Thus, through past decades, specious theories of avalanche rescue have made way for real world vetted methods. Biggest events in that vein: Invention of the actual electronic locator, then, the digital multiple-antenna beacon. Both were quantum leaps. But one part of the equation still remains a challenge, though we continue to hone in on the solution. That being the fine search.

If a victim is buried near the surface, you can often walk your digital beacon into their location within the distance of a shovel blade or better. Increase burial depth, and you may reach a wall of confusion that despite all sorts of “fine searching” is ultimately solved using a spiral pattern with your avalanche probe. The fine search is time consuming and confusing for many people, often involving use of an archaic “grid” pattern method that isn’t much different than what we were doing 35 years ago. Only back then we had beacons with audio signals I remain convinced were easier to utilize than flashing lights and tiny confusing LED icons.

Yes, still room for improvement. Still room for beacons that make the search process as seamless as possible. Still room to better utilized hearing instead of eyesight.

Yesterday here in Utah, at Outdoor Retailer, we got to check out a couple of new beacon offerings from Mammut that clearly do continue the positive trends mentioned above. Efforts are being made to speed up that annoying and downright dangerous final fine search, and audio signals are not an afterthought.

Indeed, we were shown that “high fidelity” sound is part of most search procedures. Most useful is perhaps that of having two different beep tones when you’re tracking two buried beacons. Of course, noise is part of how other brand beacons operate, some with it more useful than others. In the case of these new Baryvox units, sound is most certainly not a cute racket pretending to be something useful, but rather carefully designed audio intended to be an integral part of how your brain receives information from the beacon.

Audible search beeps are available with both beacons. Mammut calls this “acoustic search guidance.”

BarryvoxS with larger icons. The running man tells you the victim is far away so get a move on!

Barryvox S with larger icons. The running man tells you the victim is far away so get a move on!

The new beacons are the Barryvox and Barryvox S. Mammut kept the basic functions of both the Element and Pulse beacons (respectively), with goals to improve the simplicity, ease of use and the performance of both beacons. On first glance, it appears they did a good job approaching those goals. Following is a combo of what we observed in a quick session, and what we were told by the marketeers. Our comments in parenthesis.

Barryvox S: Designed for single burials, or extremely difficult multiple burials involving signal overlap. Compared to its predecessor the Pulse, the Barryvox S has higher performance overall, a simpler user interface, and new background programming that makes searching easier and faster.

  • 3-antenna beacon with a marking function (but of course).
  • Search: 70m range, 70m search strip width (That’s somewhat the modern standard for range, in our opinion).
  • Same size and weight as the Pulse (shew, it didn’t grow!)
  • Larger screen, 2.2″, backlit, readable with polarized lenses (excellent).
  • Rescue: Fast signal pickup, improved signal retention in multiple burials, improved signal separation for reduced overlap. (Signal pickup is an interesting issue. It’s often not as slow as you think, but it interrupts the flow of your emergency procedures and can seem stiffling when you’re in panic tunnel vision mode.)
  • Smart-phone-like navigation. Easier user interface uses a scroll-bar in combination with one button (“easier” is of course a relative term, and smart phones are not always easy).
  • “Auto Guidance” offers continued search guidance during signal overlap. The beacon pre-maps the flux line and the motion sensor is able to tell where along that line the user is, so in the event of signal overlap the beacon is able to continue the search un-interrupted. (We are so over multiple burial features, but whatever, perhaps this helps in the event of spectators running around with their beacons still switched to transmit).
  • “Smart Search” uses sensor technology to optimize the fine-search for all users. The evolution of “intelligent fine search” is easier to use and reduces the fine grid-search to an absolute minimum. (This is the good stuff, Mammut says it works by telling you when to change direction while gridding, thus getting you to the probing stage faster).
  • “Pro Search” menu option activates user preferences along with “Alternate Search” mode to easily solve the most difficult multiple burial searches, as well as analog with 80m Search strip/90m range. Easier interface and “intuitively ergonomic” navigation opens this functionality to many recreational users. This function provides a definitive, reliable indication of when to switch to an alternate search strategy: i.e. micro strips, micro box.
  • Uses 3 AAA batteries, alkaline or lithium
  • MSRP: $490
  • Barryvox2 offers various features to pinpoint probe spot.

    Barryvox2 offers various features to pinpoint probe spot. In our opinion, speeding up the fine search is about a thousand times more important than your multiple burial features. Kudos to Mammut for addressing this, though we suspect there may be a time in the closer future when avalanche beacons work so well they eliminate the need for a probe. I know a few active backcountry skiers who feel this might already be the case, and have verified during practice sessions (with use of a single ski pole sans basket for quick probing after a properly done fine-seaerch). In our opinion jury is still out on that, but it’s food for thought. Dogma has no place in all this, everything is evolving at a rapid pace.

    Barryvox: a more basic beacon that will appeal to those who place the highest priority on simplicity and value. Again, this is the replacement for the Element model.

  • 3-antenna beacon with a marking function
  • Same size, weight and price as Element
  • Larger screen, 2.0″, backlit, readable with polarized lenses
  • Search: 70m range, 70m search strip width
  • Simplest user interface, operates with one button.
  • New firmware provides fast signal pickup and reduces the incidence of signal-overlap during multiple burials for a smoother, uninterrupted search.
  • Uses 3 AAA batteries, alkaline only.
  • MSRP, $350

    Both new beacons feature:

  • Large new switch locks in the center
  • When you switch the beacon on, it is already in group check mode. Push a button and it goes into transmit. (We assume it times out into transmit mode if you don’t manually switch)
  • Improved battery compartment. All terminals are replaceable in the event of battery acid corrosion. (Interestingly, the battery compartment is not hermatically sealed. Mammut says this has become the better option due to condensation problems in sealed battery compartments. We tend to agree, as we see little need for an avalanche beacon to be completely immersion proof, while funky battery performance due to corrosion or other factors are real issues.)
  • Available October 2017.


    30 Responses to “Beacon Philosophy & New Barryvox Units for 2017”

    1. Rar0 January 10th, 2017 7:38 am

      IMHO Mammut Barryvox are the best out there already. The ease of use, the dummy-proof design and the performances are juste great I’m curious to get my hands on one of these next year for a try. The “Smart Search” looks like a great improvement.

    2. Paul S. January 10th, 2017 9:56 am

      I have an older Barryvox (6-7 years?) that has worked very well for me, but it’s about time to replace it. I’m excited for the new Barryvox! The replaceable battery terminals is an issue I’ve had in several pieces of outdoor electronics over the years.

    3. Kristian January 10th, 2017 10:15 am

      Lithium batteries won’t corrode. Lithium are much better at low temperatures and last much longer.

      Avalanche beacon manufacturers do not recommend lithium batteries because they show good voltage until shortly before they die. Mammut has apparently engineered for this in these two new beacons.

    4. Matus January 10th, 2017 12:07 pm

      I agree with the multiple burial vs speed of pinpoint search. I doubt that there is more than 5% users that are actually able to use multiple burial mode in practice under stress.

    5. Jeremy C January 10th, 2017 1:46 pm

      I’m also in the Barryvox is best camp, but it sounds like they have improved it in every aspect.

      Since the 3.0 software the current Barryvox has had the ability to use lithium batteries, and since the 4.0 software it has had the intelligent fine search. If the new Smart Search is better than the current intelligent search it will be very impressive.

      The easily readable screen sounds like a great improvement, but I’m hoping they have improved the processor speed (no more stop messages), and also its susceptibility to electronic interference.

    6. Jonathan L January 10th, 2017 2:18 pm

      I feel like that guy, shouting, “Get off my lawn, kids,” but black on grey LCD screens, icons I have to remember, really? I took my AVI 1 with 9 ski patrollers and me. They had every known state-the-art beacon. I finished 2nd on the search course with my F1. Red, Yellow, Green. Progressive beeps. A curved form to sit on my hip all day. I’ve practiced with it, I know it, I don’t think about it.

      In inclement weather or darkness I don’t want to be trying to read a digital screen, I don’t even want to have to look at it. Then we had two of these magic new beacons switch from search to send on their own cause they were still too long or something gumming up the group searches. Call me unimpressed.

      And yeah, I am now an aging mountaineer. I need reading glasses to sharpen my ice axe. And I’m not going to be able to see any of the details these electronic wonders are showing me unless I stop to dig out glasses.

      Multiple burials? I am 99% out with a single partner. I’m not running a heli service

      Okay, I’m done ranting. But really, Lou, are they better? I’m no luddite, I’m carrying a PLB, I’m on Dynafit, I wear carbon fibre underwear with titanium underwire support, but the new generations of beacons seems to have abandoned good design and common sense for bells and whistles that will be an impediment 90% of the time.

      I get that if you were starting out now, you would have different choices. But KISS seems to be far more important than cute icons and metric readouts.

      I’m gonna go shout at some pedestrians now.

    7. Marc January 10th, 2017 2:39 pm

      How many “aging mountaineers” does it take to change a light bulb?

      None! They don’t want anything to change.

      Bring on the new Barryvox!

    8. Kristian January 10th, 2017 2:42 pm

      Jonathan L – best post ever.

    9. Kristian January 10th, 2017 2:50 pm

      I always really liked the BCA beacons with red LED lights, because I have had GPS LCD screens freeze up and not work at cold temps.

      Is that true also for beacon LCD displays or do they do some additional technology to prevent that?

    10. Jack January 10th, 2017 3:09 pm

      Ok, I’m an engineer, so I have a well known prejudice in the direction of complicated. That said why not a beacon that: pairs through blue tooth with other beacons. Drop beacon A on the snow at the center of the gross search. Walk around with beacon B in a circle, then a spiral around beacon A. Let the machines figure out the most probable burial position by exchanging messages over blue tooth. If you carried two beacons, a single person could do this. A guide could always carry two.

      Beacon manufacturers might like it as they might sell more beacons and a forward looking manufacturer might capture an emerging inter-beacon communication protocol.

    11. Paul S. January 10th, 2017 3:35 pm

      Jack, Bluetooth is a black hole. If any beacon company wanted to implement this functionality, they would want to do it with their own low-energy RF interface. The Bluetooth standard is always changing and does not actually do a very good job of providing interoperability.

      I am also an engineer, and think that the simplest solution that works is the best!

    12. Jack January 10th, 2017 4:07 pm

      I’ll stay neutral w.r.t. bluetooth and I admit that complicated isn’t always better and that’s a relative statement. For example, a personal rescue beacon talks to a satellite and identity and position information is processed through a complex rescue center. Pretty complicated. Leaving technology on the floor that might save lives would look pretty foolish, especially if somebody does it.

    13. Kristian January 10th, 2017 4:29 pm

      Ok, last post, I promise. Garmin Rino Radio/GPS’s have had this feature for many years. You can poll and see the location and tracks of other Garmin Rino users. Maybe Garmin could license this technology and/or create their own avalanche beacon.

    14. DavidB January 10th, 2017 4:33 pm

      Jonathan L. me too.

      Great post. I was the guy for my F1 at my avi course 8 years ago and it was old then. Damn airline just managed to smash it in my luggage last year. Need a new one and need glasses for reading but not for skiing, perhaps the icons are large enough.

    15. Paddy Mc January 10th, 2017 4:51 pm

      Johnathan, I owned an original F1, and have spent huge amounts of time practicing with it. I’ve also since owned and studiously practicing with a succession of newer beacons (Tracker, Tracker 2, and Ortovox 3+). I also played with the new Barryvox Pulse today. And I can say without question that yes, the new tech is worth it. Not only is the user interface insanely intuitive (I have a suspicion that even a nearly unpracticed/untrained person would have fast search times with it), but it addresses nearly every concern you have. It’s back lit (night search is fine), it is designed specifically to be impossible to accidentally mode change, and it even has an optional “Luddite” mode where you can switch it entirely to analog, shut off the screen and have it function exactly like your F1 but with vastly improved range, and a much better transmitting antenna. I guess the main question I’d ask is how my partners feel about betting their lives on being found with 20 year old tech?

    16. VT skier January 10th, 2017 5:02 pm

      I skied in those early days too, with 80 feet of red bootlace from Teton Mountaineering for my “find the skier” avalanche cord.

      Later, when I got a European avy cord, with the arrows and distance to victim metal clips on the cord, I thought that was state of the art !
      Had one of the early Pieps transceivers, an orange Pieps 3 with an integral earplug on the old frequency (257?)

    17. Hacksaw January 10th, 2017 5:28 pm

      I think I’m correct (I’m an old avy cord guy too) no one was ever found ALIVE in the USA, via a avy cord.

    18. Hacksaw January 10th, 2017 9:59 pm

      Oops, I’m wrong there was one live recovery with a an avy cord on 12/25/69.

    19. Jim Milstein January 10th, 2017 11:49 pm

      I still have one of my avvy cords . . . actually, pieces of it. It has been repurposed as a source of thin braided cord, especially when red is wanted. I don’t recall it ever saving my life or anyone else’s. We are creatures of our culture. We do what the other kids do.

      I still believe that the best approach to avalanches is to stay out of them. I grudgingly updated my Pieps 457 with a BCA 3 last year. I couldn’t take the scorn the old Pieps brought upon me. The BCA is more fun–I can say that.

    20. Mark Dumont January 11th, 2017 12:24 pm

      I own a Barryvox Pulse. Although I’m quite pleased with it, I’ve come to realize after some recent avy rescue refresher training, involving scenarios with two buried victims, that less is more for beacons. The Pulse at times needed time to figure things out, and I think the processor is too busy trying to refine what’s it’s learning from the signals and put it up on the screen. Instead of all kinds of features and a screen, processor power should be focused on quick analysis of the signals and a quick display of what it thinks – interpret (change in) distance and location as best as possible, and let the human work things out from there. I have limited experience with a Tracker II but believe they have the right approach with basic arrows, distance read out and sounds (where you can pick out more than one). It used to be all human with analog beacons which required a lot of practice, and then digital came along, and as with most things these days, they are trying to be all computer to take out the human intuition part. I think somewhere in between is the best approach, get close enough to be happy, then use a logical probing technique that systematically covers the area (was taught an arms bent/out, compass/clock points method in my training that found victims rather fast after letting my pulse get me “close enough”).

    21. Colin January 12th, 2017 12:48 am

      Lou, it’s actually “home in.” Just took a writing seminar with one of the country’s leading usage experts. That was one of the “common misnomers” examples he used. True story.

      New Barryvox looks sweet. Was debating between Pulse and DSP Pro to replace me Opto3000 in the next month or two. May wait until October.

    22. Martin January 12th, 2017 8:17 am

      Why is it that beacons are still more or less the same size as in the old days? We are supposed to wear the things close to the body, but they are way too big to just stuff them in a pocket. Wearing the designated pouches is a pain in the a, I think. Especially when you sweat a lot and wear only a tshirt.

    23. Mammut Dave January 18th, 2017 10:36 am

      Thanks Lou and Lisa! I think most of the questions in the comments have been answered, but a few notes here for some where I didn’t see a response.

      First, just so people are aware the “stop” message on a Pulse or Element is not a factor of processor speed, that is the beacon indicating that the signal it was locked onto is now overlapping with another signal. The signals of certain transceiver models, especially older ones (some of which are still being sold), make signal overlap more likely, so depending on the beacons being searched for overlap can be a common thing. No digital beacon can provide accurate distance or direction in this circumstance, so we tell you to wait until the overlapping signals separate, rather than send you off-course. (if you were to set up a search scenario using only modern 3-antenna beacons with a marking function to search FOR, you would find you got very limited overlap problems–most of these beacons have signals designed to limit the duration of overlap to begin with, and also each beacon model has many different signal-patterns specifically to reduce overlap–for instance, Pulse and Element beacons have 1 of 10 different signal patterns to reduce the chance of any two of them buried next to each other having overlap issues). There are various ways that different companies deal with overlap with regard to what you see on the screen of a searching transceiver, and there are pluses and minuses to each…but suffice to say we’ve tried to address this in the new beacons. Users will find that the improved signal separation will significantly improve this, and the auto-guidance feature on the BarryvoxS should all but eliminate this as an issue. I’ve had limited opportunity to really put these through their paces, but based on the 2-dozen or so practice searches I’ve done over the past couple weeks I think it’s is a pretty fair statement to make that users will see a LOT fewer “stop” messages–I have not seen one yet.

      With regard to size, beacon range is related to the length of the antenna–if you make the beacon too short, you limit the range. This is a simplification, but it’s essentially why you don’t see tiny transceivers. The carrying harness often has some features built in (to protect the screen and switch, etc), regardless I’m a pocket guy too. I carry my pulse in my pocket with the strap clipped around my belt, and have for years.

      We get asked about using GPS and other technology for avalanche beacons a lot. One main problem with this is that the GPS signals don’t travel well through snow (i.e. water), so it simply doesn’t work well for this application. Lou or someone with more radio savvy than I have could probably go into more detail, but there are a limited number of frequencies that deal with water well, and many of these are restricted by various government entities, so even fewer that work globally. This is the main reason why many of the technologies that SEEM tailor-made for this application aren’t being used already.

      With regard to complication–obviously simpler is easier, the question is whether getting the same capability from a simpler product is actually easier. Simple searches are super-easy for all beacons, it’s the (thankfully rare) difficult searches that require some alternate search strategy that require the practice becasue no matter what widget they are carrying they need to 1) identify there is a problem, 2) know what to do in that case and 3) actually execute on it. When this is all factored in, the playing field seems a lot more even in this regard, at least to me. It’s worth noting that much of the “stuff” on these new beacons talked about above is in the background, the user doesn’t have to “do” anything. The focus for us has been reducing the areas where a searcher has to “do” something without reducing capability, and then making any required navigation as intuitive as possible.

    24. Mammut Dave January 18th, 2017 11:25 am


    25. Bruno Schull January 18th, 2017 1:27 pm

      Hi Mammut Dave. I just want to say that I really appreciate your frequent, in-depth, well-reasoned responses on this thread. Thanks!

    26. Lou Dawson 2 January 18th, 2017 2:17 pm


    27. jonfats January 19th, 2017 8:45 pm

      Switching to analog eliminates the need to stop during signal overlap correct?

    28. joseph vallone January 25th, 2017 9:21 am

      Awesome response Mammut, +100 and then some.

      I was about to chime in and you were at the bottom of the thread with a more then thorough enough explanation and response to the concerns in this thread which immediately grabbed my attention.

      As for you F1 users, I won’t ski with you until you get with the times. Do you still use a walkman, or an mp3 player? Do you still have your miami vice hand bag cell phone or a smart phone? Do you still have a beta max player or did you finally get a DVD player which is practically dated tech as well? Get with the times.

      I wrote a piece a couple of years ago with a good friend about why you need to update your transceivers. Of course Backcountry chopped many of our words and part of our personalities along with photos and references that were more relevant to our message, but the article still sends a message we believe to be important.

      Out of respect for Lou and his amazing website, I will not post the link, but for the old guard that commented, if you are curious as to why you need to update your transceivers and why your argument for being so good and familiar with your F1 is not valid then I strongly suggest you find this piece.

      Do a search for:

      Mountain skills, Backcountry, Why you should upgrade your avalanche transceiver.

    29. Smooth_operator February 14th, 2017 4:16 am

      *** Joe, I’ll post it:

      totally agree with you. Get with the times oldies 😛

    30. Lou Dawson 2 February 14th, 2017 5:18 am

      Appreciate your kindness Joe, and your wisdom. I’d agree that most folks should pack a later model beacon. On the other hand, Smooth, you sound like your’e giving a helmet lecture (smile). Lou

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