Skiing or snowboarding in the backcountry can be an awesome adventure, but with this activity comes the calculated risk of experiencing an avalanche. Even seasoned backcountry explorers can't always predict an avalanche, so you should always be prepared in case you're ever caught in one. To improve your chances of surviving an avalanche, always venture onto unpatrolled terrain with experienced backcountry skiers or snowboarders, and use air bags to prevent being fully buried or an AvaLung to prevent asphyxiation if you are buried. However, these precautions will mean nothing if people can't find you. Using a personal avalanche beacon gives you the life-saving chance the search and rescue team will find you in time. Ninety percent of the time, avalanche victims will survive if they are found within the first 15 minutes. This number drops below 30 percent after just 18 minutes. An avalanche beacon like the S1+, Mammut Element Barryvox or the Arva Link will help searchers find you quickly.
Also known as personal locator beacons (PLBs), these devices give searchers a better chance of locating victims who are buried under heavy snow. If an avalanche occurs near you and you're lucky enough to avoid it, you can save victims by putting your transceiver into search mode, locating buried people and digging them out. You should practice using your PLB before heading off-piste so you'll be comfortable enough using the display to quickly find avalanche victims. You may also want to take a class that will teach you the basics of PLBs and avalanche safety. For more information, read our articles on personal avalanche beacons.
All avalanche beacons share one similarity: They transmit your location using radio frequencies so your rescuers can find you. However, not all transceivers work the same so there are certain features to look for. Make sure to buy a device with multiple antennas since its signal will more accurately pinpoint location than a single-antenna device.
Transmit & Receive Features
Transmission is the basic element of any avalanche beacon. Modern beacons function with multiple antennas, and the best ones use three. So if you are the one buried by an avalanche in a weird position, all the beacons we reviewed will transmit your location at least 130 feet. LCD screens display easy instructions for finding one or multiple buried victims. Look for a beacon that will help you locate more than one person at a time. Also, find a beacon with a large search radius; a device that lets you mark and track multiple victims at once is best. Digital beacons use multiple antennas and process the signal into both an audible beep and a visual display.
The best personal locator beacons have a soft rubber coating around them. This lets you have a firm grip on it, and it protects it against any falls. Look for beacons that can withstand below-freezing temperatures and that have a battery life of at least 200 hours when in transmit mode. Large digital screens make it easy to see the instructions for finding victims when you're in search mode. Some of the best avalanche beacons also feature an intuitive switch that toggles between receive and send modes, making it easy to start searching for victims in an emergency.
Help & Support
The best manufacturer goes well beyond over-the-phone support, although that is good to have. Whether you are a beginner or an avid adventurer through the backcountry, look for a product whose website offers avalanche safety classes. These classes can be online or at a store, but they should teach you how to use an avalanche transceiver as well as correct search techniques if you are trying to locate survivors. Also, look for a device with an industry-best five-year warranty.
These beacons should never take the spot of your own research, training and cautious exploration, but they are an added benefit. In an instant, the deep powder you've come searching for can loosen and slide, gaining speed and momentum as it engulfs everything in its path. Even if you're a cautious, experienced skier or snowboarder, you could be swallowed by an avalanche and end up buried under feet of snow and debris. In that event, your only hope is that rescuers get there, find you and dig you out before you're the victim of one of the most common – and most powerful – natural disasters. Our lineup of beacons will help you choose an easy-to-use device you can rely on in an emergency.
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