Older avalanche beacon? If you’ve read my avalanche beacon reviews, then you probably already know what I think of older non-directional designs that have only a single antenna. But what if you have a modern directional multiple-antenna beacon that’s been in use now for several years?
If you receive a firmware upgrade for your Barryvox, Ortovox, or Pieps beacon, then the upgrade process also runs some diagnostic checks. But otherwise, and even in addition to that, you can run some simple yet valuable tests along with your backcountry skiing partners and their beacons.
The following test protocols were inspired by a beacon retirement article I was asked to provided feedback on for the American Avalanche Association’s The Avalanche Review. I’ve started with the edited testing list I originally provided for that article, and then expanded the exposition in many key areas, as well as targeted it overall for the backcountry recreationalist.
1. Initial Signal Acquisition Range:
This varies enormously among different models, so ideally you should compare the results from your beacon to those of an identical model. First, set up a target beacon. Start with your beacon in Transmit mode, positioned well outside of its receive range. Then switch your beacon to Search and walk at a moderate pace toward the target beacon. Note the distance, turn your beacon back to Transmit (this is important!), and repeat the test a couple times. Now (ideally), run a few trials with a beacon model identical to yours.
Note that how you position the two beacons relative to each other (the coupling position) will affect the distance, so be consistent when comparing different units. Also, don’t be alarmed if you find variations of several meters between trials, even for the very same beacon unit — this is perfectly normal (albeit somewhat confounding).
2. Transmission Range:
This is very similar among different models, so just about any other beacon will work as a comparison unit. (Note though that if you use a BCA Tracker DTS or T2 model as the target, its transmission antenna is at a 45-degree angle to the long axis of the housing, so you need to set it up diagonally. Also, the Ortovox 3+ and new “S1+” — as opposed to the original “S1” sans positive operator sign — can switch the transmission from the antenna that is at parallel to the housing’s long axis to the antenna that is perpendicular to the long axis, so their coupling as a transmission target can be uncertain.)
Repeat the prior test for initial signal acquisition range, but this time you’re swapping the Transmit units, not the Search units.
3. Physical Damage to Casing and Harness System:
This is pretty obvious, so no special techniques here. In general though, if something looks suspect, then suspect the worst.
4. Battery Compartment Corrosion and Looseness:
Batteries can leak corrosive acids over time (even if you do replace them regularly, as well as remove them during the off season), and the battery contacts can develop looseness and other problems (especially if you regularly replace and then remove the batteries). Consider using DeoxIT to keep the contacts in good condition.
5. Broken Antenna:
To test for a possible broken antenna (on a directional multiple-antenna beacon), set up the target beacon (in Transmit) and your test beacon (in Search) so that they are in optimal coupling alignment, i.e., pointing directly at each other (although see prior note regarding use of a BCA Tracker DTS/T2 or Ortovox 3+/S1+ as targets). Put them far enough apart so that your test beacon is outside the pinpointing/fine phase, yet still well within the initial acquisition range. The center directional indicator on the test beacon should display. If not, you have either a broken secondary antenna or some other major problem — either way, such a problem consigns the beacon to target-only practice instead of normal backcountry skiing use.
6. Auto Revert:
If your beacon has an auto-revert function, does it actually revert to Transmit after the specified amount of time? Note that in some models, the amount of time is fixed, and in others it’s programmable. Also, in some models the amount of time is based on however long the beacon has been in Search, and in others it’s how long the beacon has been in Search without any major movements (i.e., as would happen to a searcher buried in a secondary slide).
7. Frequency Drift
Check for transmission frequency drift with another beacon that has such a capability. As of this time, that includes: Pieps DSP, DSP Advanced (but not the new DSP Tour); Barryvox Pulse, Element; Ortovox 3+, S1, S1+.
This test is particularly important with older Ortovox F1 units, which have a tendency over the years to drift outside of the international standard for avalanche beacons, 457kHz +/- 80Hz. Unfortunately, you can’t test for frequency drift with the range tests previously described, since different beacons have widely varying abilities to pick up a drifted transmission. (In other words, just because Beacon Model A can find Beacon Unit Z, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Beacon Model B can find Beacon Unit Z.)
8. Practice, Practice, and Practice Some More:
Many modern beacons have so many advanced functions that some problems might turn up only by running lots of search exercises. Fortunately, this is just another compelling reasons to practice, practice, and practice some more — which is a good thing (especially with your backcountry partners)! Just don’t raise a false alarm if a beacon’s marking/masking/flagging features sometimes works really well and sometimes works not so well. This variability is an inevitable result of signal overlap, and is especially compounded when searching for older F1 units.
Also, while you’re at it make sure your avalanche probe’s tightening cord isn’t frayed or nicked, that the tension is appropriate, and that all the ferrules are aligning as they should. I’ve seen plenty of old well-used probes from an old loaner fleet fail during probe line exercises at avalanche courses. By contrast, a shovel is a pretty low-maintenance and durable piece of gear, but make sure all those little pins (both for connecting the shaft to the blade, and for connecting the two sections of an extendable shaft) are properly seated.
(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, he works as a financial economics consultant.)