If you’ve spent $ 500 on the fanciest avalanche transceiver in existence but you don’t know how to use it, it’s not going to do you much good. In the event of a slide, that little beeping box is your lifeline—the only form of communication between you and your potential rescuers when you’re separated by layers of snow. Also known as a beacon, a transceiver is just one part of a complete avalanche safety kit, which should also include, at the minimum, a probe and shovel.
Another essential component of avalanche safety is education, which we will discuss in more detail below. A course taught by a qualified instructor is the best preparation for trips into the backcountry’s variable snow conditions. This article is a basic primer on beacon use. It is not intended to replace formal avalanche training.
When and How to Wear a Beacon
If you’re venturing into the backcountry or sidecountry—anywhere not groomed or controlled by professionals, including beyond the gates at a resort—everyone in your group should wear a transceiver. Should you or your ski buddies become buried in an avalanche, the devices emit pulsing radio signals out to a certain radius (usually between 40 and 80 meters) and communicate with one another to broadcast their locations.
Holly Walker, an apprentice ski guide with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides and a former ski patroller at Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort, opts to wear her device in-bounds, too. Though it’s uncommon, in-bounds slides do happen. “Ski patrol works very hard after storms and snowfalls to perform extensive avalanche control, yet they can’t control every little piece of micro-terrain in a ski resort and predict every hazard. I wear the beacon for that extra bit of security,” Walker says. “There’s an inherent risk to just being in the mountains. If we have all these tools to be safe, why not use them?”
A transceiver comes with a harness that typically straps around your waist and over one shoulder. It should be worn underneath shell and insulation layers, so you don’t have to remove the device when you heat up—and to offer the device extra security in the event of a slide. “I put a base layer on, and then I put my transceiver on right after that,” Walker says. She uses the Mammut Barryvox S ($ 500), which also reads vital signs like heart rate and chest expansion and contraction—another reason she keeps it close to her body. Always wear your beacon facing your body to help protect the screen, Walker says.
The only other acceptable place to wear or carry a beacon is in an internally sewn, beacon-specific pants pocket. Outdoor Research Skyward II AscentShell Pants (women’s and men’s, $ 299) and Helly Hansen Men’s Sogn Cargo Pant ($ 200) are two pairs with these designated pockets, and both have loops inside to clip your device to. If you’re carrying your beacon in your jacket or in an externally sewn pocket sans harness, there’s a chance that pocket could rip in a slide and you could lose the beacon—which happened during a 2018 incident in British Columbia. Still, Liz Riggs Meder, the director of recreational programs at the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), wears hers in her harness and advises her students to do the same.
Wear your beacon away from other devices that emit signals or are powered by batteries, such as phones, radios, GPS watches, and electric glove and boot heaters. If you need them with you, turn them off or switch them to airplane mode. Be mindful about the location of snacks with foil wrappers, magnets on pockets, and even season passes with RFID chips because they can all lead to passive interference as well. Riggs Meder says to keep these items in your backpack or in pockets on the other side of your body, at least ten inches from the beacon, to reduce interference.
Choosing a Beacon
There are a few things to look for when you’re buying a transceiver. Make sure you get a three-antenna digital model; any device with only two is outdated. The third antenna, included in all models currently on the market, provides an extra data set to more accurately triangulate a buried person. “Having a modern beacon is the foundation of reducing search times as much as possible,” says Riggs Meder.
As long as your device is a current make, is digital, and has three antennas, the rest is preference. A couple have Bluetooth for software updates and setting tweaks. Some have a way to flag a found person before moving on to another burial if multiple people were caught in the slide. Very few use lithium batteries because they tend to lose life suddenly. “You don’t have to buy the most expensive, top-of-the-line, professional device,” Riggs Meder says. “The best one is one you can afford to buy new and will practice with regularly.”
If something goes wrong—like the beacon unexpectedly turns off in your pocket—contact the manufacturer. When it comes to knowing when to retire your beacon, look to its manual. The suggested time frame is usually around five years. To help keep others safe, do not resell old transceivers—recycle instead. Ortovox runs a retirement exchange program, and Backcountry Access upcycles old transceivers to create training checkpoints.
The power button will vary from model to model, but when you turn your transceiver on, it’s likely going to beep initially and then flash a small LED throughout the day to let you know it’s still transmitting. When you turn your device on at the base of the hill, start in send mode, regardless of which model you use. It’s good practice to check with your group before you set out to make sure everyone’s devices are on and functioning properly. A beacon check involves evaluating battery power and toggling between searching and sending modes.
Your device’s screen will display the remaining battery life. Both Riggs Meder and Walker replace batteries at home before they dip to 50 percent. REI recommends replacing at 75 percent. This is important because you want to have enough battery life for the whole time you’re in uncontrolled terrain, especially if a search or recovery mission is long. But as always, check the manufacturer’s instructions for how often the batteries in your specific model should be changed.
Avoid mixing the type (lithium with alkaline, or old with new) or brand of batteries you use in your device, as their voltages can vary, which can cause battery leakage and corrosion. Carry a set of spares in your pack for backup. When the season is over and you’re stowing away your beacon, pop out the batteries to prevent corrosion. It’s worth letting the battery compartment dry out after a particularly wet tour, too.
Developing your mountain sense is a lifelong pursuit, and there are many levels of learning. If you’re a complete beginner, start with some online resources and books. Avalanche.org, Know Before You Go, and Avalanche Canada’s Avy Savvy all offer a free introduction to avy safety. The books Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, by Bruce Tremper, and Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering are both full of helpful information.
You’ll also need to work on the fundamentals of how to stay safe and comfortable while moving efficiently through mountainous terrain. If you don’t have a trusted mentor to show you the ropes, consider signing up for an introductory course in ski touring, a few days of guided skiing, or some other training that’s not limited to snow safety.
Then sign up for an in-person course. A good place to start, Riggs Meder says, is AIARE’s avalanche rescue course—sort of like a CPR class for backcountry travelers. “It’s really all about getting familiar with the baseline stuff,” she says.
Once you know the basics, put your new knowledge to use in a controlled setting. AIARE offers two levels of industry-standard avalanche preparedness courses—AIARE 1 and 2—that teach everything from hazard management to snow patterns to rescue techniques. AIARE 1 is a stand-alone course for beginner backcountry travelers looking to take up touring, while AIARE 2 is for more experienced travelers wanting to deepen their competency.
If you have already taken a course and want to brush up on transmitting and probing on your own, several avalanche-safety groups, such as the Utah Avalanche Center, the Taos Avalanche Center in New Mexico, and the Summit County Rescue Group in Colorado, have buried beacons in public training sites for practicing in model rescue situations.