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Why You Need an Avalanche Beacon

I find that this question is quite similar to one you’ll often hear children ask of their parents, “Why do I need to wear a seatbelt?” The simple answer in both cases is: You don’t. However, this doesn’t mean it’s the smart or safe thing to do.

Above Photo:  Backcountry Athlete Angel Collinson touring in the Alta backcountry, Utah
Shot By: Re Wikstrom

Wearing an avalanche beacon in the backcountry, just like wearing a seatbelt in a car, is common sense (not to mention lawful in the case of seatbelts). While neither will stop an avalanche or a car crash from occurring, they will greatly increase your chances of survival and well-being if such an event were to take place.

Avalanche beacons, also known as transceivers, are a class of active radio beacons which operate at 456 kHz. Specifically designed to find people in avalanches, this type of radio device can be switched between a transmitting and receiving radio signal; i.e., the signal can both transmit a location and search for another signal. Hence, these devices can help rescuers locate buried victims.

Like I said before, avalanche beacons won’t prevent avalanches, but they can help transform a rescue from searching for a needle in a haystack to a step-by-step operation.

Statistics from the Utah Avalanche Center show that in avalanche fatalities nationwide, 67%, or approximately two thirds, of the victims were not carrying basic rescue gear. Considering that 93% of buried avalanche victims survive if dug out within 15 minutes, it’s hard to understand why backcountry users are not carrying basic rescue gear that they know how to use. The UAC likens these statistics to “the number of drowning victims who don’t wear a personal flotation device.”

It’s important to note, however, that over 50% of fully buried victims, even those wearing a beacon, died as a result of the burial or injuries sustained in the avalanche. A beacon is common sense, but don’t be lulled into a false sense of security—avoidance and avalanche safety training are the key. If you’re planning on heading out of bounds to play in the snow, take an avalanche course.

Now that we’ve dealt with the obvious, let’s delve into the ambiguous. The more important question you should be asking yourself is, “Do I need an avalanche beacon?”

I initially asked myself this question several years ago on my first solo ski season away from Australia. I was nineteen and in a stroke of brilliance I decided to spend the Australian summer skiing in the French Alps. It was my first day skiing in Chamonix. Despite being warned of the safety precautions one must take while riding in Chamonix, it was only as the towering mountains came into view that I realized how far down the rabbit hole I had wandered. I was out of my depth. Thankfully, I used common sense, and by the end of the day, I had signed up for an avalanche course and bought an avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe. I ski with them pretty much every day.

Since that first season, I’ve created a sort of personal checklist to help answer this sometimes very confusing question: “Do I need my avalanche gear?” After skiing with my avalanche gear every day for two seasons in Europe, I moved to Salt Lake City where I spent my days lapping the tram at Snowbird. Whenever skiing inbounds I left all my gear, including my beacon, at the bottom of the tram. Who needs avalanche gear when you’re inbounds? However, I would zip past and pick up my pack every time I even considered taking a little hike or dipping out one of the backcountry gates. It also had all my super-delicious snacks in it, so it was quite the important backpack! This continued for a whole winter, until I heard of a tragic event where a skier was killed inbounds in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Despite having skied in the backcountry for several years, I never considered how dangerous inbounds could be.  A group of the victim’s friends made a point of wearing their beacons every time they went skiing. It’s a rule of thumb that I have now adopted, no matter where I am.

So when should you use an avalanche beacon? Generally speaking, anytime you are riding out of bounds or in the backcountry. It’s common sense and respectful to your group and other backcountry users to be wearing one. Beyond that, the choice is up to you. Just like clicking in your seatbelt, you have to use your own powers of deduction to make the best safety choices available to you at the time. BCA says it best, “The best way to say safe is through knowledge.”

Some of My Past Beacons

BCA Tracker DTS Beacon

Backcountry Access Tracker DTS BeaconMy first beacon was the BCA Tracker. The Tracker is a great, user-friendly piece of machinery that has helped even the most unscientific student like myself search and rescue potentially buried friends in training. Its large buttons and switches mean that even the clumsiest of us can switch between “sending” and “receiving”’ modes. It also has a nice, big LED screen that even the blindest old bats can read. I used the Tracker for more than six winters. I decided to upgrade after practicing a multiple-burial scenario with a friend. We found the difference between the Tracker (dual antenna) and the Mammut Barryvox (triple antenna) considerable, especially as the dual antenna required a much slower search pattern. I also personally wanted a smaller beacon that would sit more comfortably under my ski jacket.

BCA Tracker 2 Avalanche Beacon

Backcountry Access Tracker 2 Avalanche BeaconThe Tracker 2 is the big brother of the original BCA Tracker, this fine little beacon has many of the great attributes of the original, plus a third antenna, and minus some weight. I tested this baby a few times during training sessions and found it great to use, but I decided to spend the extra money on the Mammut Pulse Barryvox.

Mammut Pulse Barryvox

Mammut Pulse Barryvox Avalanche BeaconI’m not going to deny that I dreamt of this puppy for nearly two winters before I got the money together to buy the Barryvox. I’ve spent a lot more time learning how to use it, and I still have a lot more work to put into mastering some of the more advanced settings this winter. In terms of functionality, it’s the first beacon I’ve had that I can wear all day and forget I’m wearing it. Without getting into the technical specifics, I’ve found the Barryvox to be much more efficient and accurate when searching for buried victims. I also find the functions for multiple burials second to none and simple to use.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which brand of beacon you have, as long as it has battery charge and you know how to use it.

Click here to learn more about avalanche danger and to find a class near you.

How a Beacon Search Works