Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
Pre-season steps to a fully functioning beacon
It’s 8:00 pm and you are trying to get your gear together for that first tour of the year — do you know where your beacon is? And if you did finally find it buried in your sock drawer or the deep dark recesses of your backpack, is it ready for the season? To prevent last minute panic, here are 6 things you can do before that first day to ensure this crucial tool is up to the task.
(Note: Your shovel and probe are also important and even though we will not be focusing on those two pieces of equipment in this post, we encourage you to check their condition before your next adventure )
Step 1. Find it! Hopefully you were able to locate your beacon before diving into this post. We recommend you store it in a safe and dry place, not close to anything sharp or heavy.
Once you find it, inspect the unit for any physical damage such as cracks in the plastic on edges and corners, and any fraying on the string that would attach the beacon to the harness or pants pocket.
Step 2. Note the brand and model of your beacon. Do some research and decide if it is time to upgrade to a newer model or stick with what you have. A few checks to help you decide:
— Is it part of a recall?
— Have any users been repeatedly complaining about a functionality issue?
— Has the manufacturer’s warranty expired?
— Does your beacon have less then 3 antennas?
— Was your beacon used and fairly cheap when you purchased it?
If your beacon older than five years, we’d suggest checking the range and accuracy often, and consider replacing it. If it’s older than 10 years, replace it.
If you decide to replace your old beacon, consider keeping it for personal rescue practice or donating it to your local avalanche center or an avalanche instructor for training purposes. Other than a fairly current unit in top condition, we do not recommend you resell or gift a used beacon. In the case of an outdated unit, it might be best to decommission (use an approved beacon decommissioning hammer) and discard it.
Step 3. Check to see if your beacon software needs an update. Updating beacon software is important; it provides new features as well improvements to your beacon without having to replace it. Decision to revert from search to transmit, increase of search strip perimeter, improvements for dealing with interference are all examples of what can be covered in a software update. Software updates typically aren’t frequent but are important. Depending on the brand, there are different ways to go about this:
Here is a helpful website with compiled information that keeps track of beacon software updates.
Step 4. No matter what the current battery status tells you, put in a pair of brand new batteries. In most cases, use alkaline non-rechargeable batteries, do not use lithiums. When you do this, check to see if there is corrosion or anything else suspicious happening in the battery compartment. For example, the battery contacts can be fragile.
If you find a bit of corrosion primarily on the batteries, and not on the electrical contacts inside the battery compartment, and the beacon is working as expected, don’t get too concerned. However, if corrosion has occurred on surfaces inside the battery compartment and can’t be carefully removed, you should contact your manufacturer to see if the beacon can be replaced. If it can’t, you will need to purchase a new one. To help prevent this, remove beacon batteries before lengthy storage periods. Corrosion can interfere with the electrical connection, and can be tricky; your beacon may appear to function normally but power down unexpectedly.
To remove a small amount of corrosion from the beacon’s battery contacts, use a pencil eraser, and snap the batteries in and out a few times. Know that once corrosion has begun, it may not be possible to entirely renew the battery contacts. So, again, remove batteries during long periods of storage.
Once the beacon is switched on, inspect it for again for physical and functional damage, specifically the screen and the mechanism for switching between modes. If you use a harness, inspect for any damage as well.
Step 5. Check that your beacon works in both transmit and search modes. You will need two beacons to check both modes.
Next, check that the beacon’s range is still what the manufacturer specifies. Ensure you have minimal signal interference during the test; devices such as cell phones should be turned off. Place one beacon in transit mode about 100 meters away. With your beacon in search mode, slowly approach the other beacon. Observe at what point your beacon picks up the transmitting beacon. The number you should see depends on the range of your beacon, with most modern beacons’ range being 40 – 45 meters. If your beacon fails this test, meaning the signal is not picked up at all or is picked up at a much lower number (~20), it may be due to the transmitting beacon. Attempt the same test with another unit and see if the issue persists. Don’t forget that the signal may vary depending on the angle between the beacons during your test. Try approaching the transmitting beacon from different angles (rotate the orientation of the beacon you’re holding) to explore and test the signal variability.
Check out this helpful video from BCA.
Step 6. Does your beacon have an auto-revert (AR) function? If so, make sure that it functions as expected, and you are entirely familiar with it, as AR can compromise a search. For more details on auto-revert, consult your beacons’ manual or the manufacturer’s website.
After you’ve carefully gone through the suggested steps, your beacon should be all set up for the upcoming season. If not, contact your manufacturer to get more information about how they can help. Remember: it’s up to you to master your beacon’s functions. Check out WildSnow’s avalanche education resources list. Practice rescue scenarios regularly and consider taking an Avalanche Rescue refresher course every few years.
Ready, Set, SKI!