The original Tracker DTS was the breakthrough pioneer in using more than one antenna to provide directional indication: in other words, a beacon that directs you where to go, instead of leaving it up to you to interpret varying signal strength in relationship to various combinations of your position and orientation.
If the preceding sentence sounds complicated, that’s because searching with the ancestral analog-only beacons was indeed complicated. That’s why the original Tracker was such a pioneer (i.e., in making it all less complicated), becoming and remaining by far the dominant best-selling beacon in its native North America even over a decade later after its introduction. And as such, even a vintage version of the original Tracker is one of the few backcountry skiing products (other than nearly any model of from its time that is still an effective choice today.
The long-awaited new Tracker 2 addresses some of the original Tracker’s shortcomings, while still remaining true to BCA’s original ease-of-use intentions (and successes). I greatly enjoyed handing my Tracker 2 to students at avalanche courses and responding to their standard question of “how do I use this?” with a quiet stare intended to convey “just look at it for a few seconds to figure it out.”
So with BCA’s further improvements upon the original Tracker’s strengths, what is there to criticize? The competition (Ortovox, Barryvox/Mammut, and Pieps) would point to the Tracker 2’s lack of a multiple-burial marking/masking feature (as opposed to its “Special Mode” that narrows the search angle window).
BCA’s two-pronged answer is that such a feature inevitably entails additional design complications that can confuse a user, and that such a feature is highly unlikely to be needed. For the former, read my other reviews of the competition, try them out, and decide for yourself. For the latter, this is a far more complicated issue, involving statistics, tradeoffs, and personal travel tendencies. Some interesting articles on the subject are available from the American Avalanche Association in this issue of The Avalanche Review.
Interface and Controls
To switch the Tracker 2 to Transmit, turn a switch 90 degrees at the back of the housing. How to tell at a glance the beacon is transmitting? Look for the blinking red light. Also, the beacon will beep periodically if kept in Transmit for more than 8 hours to remind you that it’s still on and potentially wasting batteries if your tour is complete. Ditto, it will periodically beep when in Search for more than 30 minutes (or perhaps to chastise you if you’re taking so dangerously long in finding your partner?).
Perhaps the beep after 8 hours operation feature could be taken as congratulations for being on a nice long tour, but in Lou’s case, he shared that many of his backcountry days exceed 8 hours, and to him the beeping was simply annoying and confusing, as in “why is my beacon suddenly doing this beeping thing, is something wrong with it?”
To switch over to Search, pull out a large sliding switch at the bottom of the beacon. To revert to Transmit, just bump in that same large protruding switch, which will also trigger a warning sound. Note that the beacon cannot be turned directly to Off while still in Search. (The Tracker 2 also has an automated revert-to-transmit feature — after five minutes in Search, with a warning sound for the final 30 seconds before reversion — but like the final iteration of the original Tracker, it must be selected upon each start-up.)
ARVA beacons pioneered this switch design, but BCA’s version is much better executed, with a switch that is very easy to grasp, and with just the right amount of resistance, as well as very clear labels. During my range tests, even a relatively quick round with a limited set of models entails about a hundred Transmit<>Search switchovers. Previously I’ve felt that each model’s switch had its pros and cons, but the Tracker 2 switch is my all-time favorite by far, and exceedingly obvious too even to a panic-prone inexperienced user. This may sound like a trivial consideration, but read the all-too-frequent accounts of real searches being fouled up by a mobile “rogue signal” from a “searcher” still in Transmit and you might reconsider.
The search interface is super simple: distance readout and five directional indicators (as with the original Tracker, all LED, which some users find easier to read in certain lighting conditions, as compared to most competing models’ LCD screens), along with a deliberately subtle button for Special mode and an indicator light for a multiple burial.
Also, although the size and weight are just a bit under the original Tracker (about an ounce and half with the harness included), the shape is significantly more ergonomic when in a user’s hand for searching. The housing is also rubberized, except for the battery compartment door. (Just be careful when opening that door not to get too carried away with backing out the screw, as it can be inadvertently removed entirely.)
How It Works: Initial Signal Acquisition > Secondary Search Phase > Pinpointing
The Tracker 2 starts off with digital audio, LED distance readout, and one of five LED directional indicators. The directional indicators shut down in the final “fine” search at a 2.0 distance readout (which as with all beacons can differ significantly from the actual distance).
How It Works: Multiple Burials
Tracker 2 has an indicator light for more than one received signal, and the light will blink if both received signals and the searcher are all within close proximity.
Also, 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. Note that the Special mode button has been deemphasized in position, contour, and coloring as compared to either of the two previous housing designs for the original Tracker. Upon a quick glance, a user might not even realize the button is there, or can be pressed. This is by intent, to prevent searches from being compromised by inadvertent use of this feature, and based on BCA’s conclusions from its research that those multiple burials that do occur would only rarely benefit from a multiple-burial-specific feature.
How Well It Works: Initial Signal Acquisition > Secondary Search Phase > Pinpointing
The range for initial signal acquisition depends upon, well, how you define initial signal acquisition. In optimal alignment coupling (i.e., the target beacon’s transmitting antenna is pointing directly at the searcher’s direction of travel), the Tracker 2 displays consistent distance readouts at a range on a par with the Barryvox Pulse and the Ortovox S1. But the directional indicators kick in at only a couple meters earlier than the current version of the original Tracker (whose range has been boosted a bit over its decade-plus existence).
In suboptimal alignment coupling (i.e., the target beacon’s transmitting antenna is pointing perpendicular to the searcher’s direction of travel), the Tracker 2 displays both distance readouts and directional indicators at a range on a par with the Barryvox Pulse and the Ortovox S1, but in a noticeably more jumpy and inconsistent manner. This behavior disappears once the searcher picks a direction and starts following it. (In other words, the target’s flux line is 90 degrees to the searcher, and once the searcher becomes aligned with the flux line, everything is matched up.) This behavior also disappears once the searcher gets within the same range of the initial signal acquisition for the original Tracker.
Conclusion (translation?) of the prior paragraph? I don’t see these differences in range performance as a compelling reason to use the Pulse or S1 over the Tracker 2. But if you place a very high priority on range, then the Pieps DSP is still the directional range champ among multiple-antenna models, although the Pulse has a somewhat obscure single-antenna analog-only mode that outdistances even the DSP.
The original Tracker was still the master (at least in my mind) of the single-burial secondary search phase, i.e., fast processing, reliable behavior, and no distractions. BCA claims the Tracker 2 has even faster processing, the goal being smoother searches with no lags or temporary display pauses. The Tracker 2 certainly works well in this area, although the original Tracker was already fast enough as far I could tell. Most importantly, remember that a transmitting beacon sends out a signal only once every second, so a search beacon can never update its directional indicators and distance readout faster than once per second. Some of the more complicated competing models that try to separate out signals can indeed exhibit noticeable lags, but this is usually only for multiple burials. Overall, the Tracker 2 does indeed offer fast processing, but any improvements upon the original’s admirable performance in this area are hard to both achieve and perceive.
In general though, the Tracker 2 is also the most tolerant of erratic behavior. If you find yourself waving your beacon around like a parade flag, well, first off all, you shouldn’t, but if you’re going to, the Tracker 2 is probably your best option (besides behaving in a more controlled manner).
In the final “fine” search phase, the Tracker 2 has a commendably small box size, and the third antenna eliminates nulls and spikes, a notable and important improvement upon the original Tracker.
How Well It Works: Multiple Burials
The Tracker 2 has an indicator light to confirm the presence of a multiple burial. A single Ortovox F1 beacon will cause the Tracker 2 to ghost, i.e., to indicate a false positive for the presence of a second signal. (The Pieps DSP has this same problem — two different aspects of the F1’s transmission pattern can confuse a searching beacon into concluding that the single signal of an F1 is coming from two different beacons.) However, the ghosting is only with the indicator light — the distance readout and directional indicators will behave as they should.
The indicator light will then blink if the searcher and more than one victim are all in close proximity. In other words, the indicator light means you have to search for more than one beacon, and a blinking light means the search is about to become especially difficult. In a few simulated close-proximity configurations, the light blinked reliability.
So if that light is blinking, then what?
As with the original Tracker, the Special mode on the Tracker 2 can help, by narrowing the search angle window, and allowing a skilled user to effectively block out an already found beacon, whether instead of or combination with the Three Circle method or similar strategies. Back when my wife and I regularly practiced multiple-burial searches with our original 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. The more subtle configuration of the Special mode button on the Tracker 2 housing seems to reflect this. (As for how well the marking/masking/flagging features perform on the more complicated signal separation competition, see my other reviews, and even better, try to find a local ski shop that will allow you to demo under realistic simulations, i.e., not just inside the store.)
Overall: To What Kind of Person Does This Beacon Appeal?
The original Tracker appealed to a user who wants a relatively simple and straightforward directional beacon, and doesn’t want to bother with any special multiple-burial features or other complications. As such, its only direct competitor (and that has been available in North America) has been the D3.
Or, to quote an often-used — and unfortunately rather sexist — line, “The Tracker is the beacon you give to your girlfriend.” In other words, if your plan (as ill-advised as it may be) is to be a relatively unpracticed user (and if you don’t place a high priority on close-proximity multiple-burial features), get a Tracker, or D3.
In these reviews I usually shy away from any rankings (whether ordinal or cardinal), but the Tracker 2 is definitely a superior beacon to the original Tracker, with no apparent tradeoffs. As a user of the original Tracker said upon trying the Tracker 2: “They made it even more idiot-proof: I didn’t think that was possible.” I can’t think of any way in which the original Tracker is better than the Tracker 2 (yes Lou, the original didn’t have the 8 hours in-use beep so perhaps that’s a plus). That said, the improvements are not necessarily so significant that a skilled and experienced Tracker owner should rush out and upgrade to the Tracker 2.
The other ranking I’ll offer is that I expect the vast majority of users will prefer the Tracker 2 over the D3, mainly because the D3 offers only three directional indicators (which can lead to more jumpy behavior), and because of the perfectly designed Transmit<>Search switch on the Tracker 2. (Note that for the 2010-11 season, the D3 will lose its pouch and tether, instead taking on the all-strap harness system of the Patroller and become the Digital Patroller, though all other aspects will remain the same.)
As for the Tracker 2 versus the more complicated competition, my assistant, focusing on ease of use in a panic-prone situation, asked me, “Why would anyone other than a professional guide, you, or your friend Mark (who just passed a three-beacons-in-six-minutes exam for his L3 course buy any other beacon?” The answer (unless you’re obsessed with range) revolves almost entirely around how likely you think a multiple burial search is, and whether your effectiveness as a searcher in such a scenario would be enhanced by marking/masking/flagging features specific to multiple burials . . . and whether your effectiveness in a single burial might be hampered by the more complicated user interface that goes along with such features.
So read the reviews, check out the user manual pdf files on-line, try some demo units, and decide for yourself — personal preferences play a major role in this decision, so by all means, use a beacon that *YOU* are *comfortable* with, not the beacon that someone else says you should use.
Overall: What Thoughts Go Through My Mind If a Partner Has This Beacon
“My partner had better be well-practiced and skilled for a close-proximity multiple-burial scenario.”
“Otherwise, although in general I sure hope my partner is not an idiot, this is the most idiot-proof beacon ever, even more so than the original Tracker.”
(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.)
(Note from Lou: I picked my Tracker2 up at the OR show and have been testing it quite a bit in my more informal way in comparison to Jonathan. As always, the simplicity of the unit is my favorite part, and the faster signal processing really does result in a smooth intuitive search process without the confusing “blanks” in the readout you used to have to deal with. You can move fast, wave the thing around, and you’ll still get to your friend fast. I’m not very concerned with multiple burials being a beacon design criteria, so smooth searching, simplicity and range, those look good with the Tracker 2 so it looks good to me. It’s also a bit smaller than the DTS, which is somewhat bulky, so good on that as well. My only gripe, please loose the annoying 8 hour beep.)