How to Choose an Avalanche Transceiver

An avalanche transceiver (aka an avalanche beacon) is an essential piece of gear if you plan to travel into avalanche territory. In this article we'll discuss the different types of transceivers and how they work.

Mammut Barryvox S, one of the most complete and best avalanche transceivers on the market. Photo credit Mammut

Snow and Winter Outdoor Safety

Winter safety in the mountains is fundamentally related to understanding snowpack and its behavior.

It is not enough to carry the right equipment: snow science requires proper training to avoid accidents as much as possible. Training must be provided by experts. This article is not a substitute for a practical course, which is essential. Our safety is fundamental, and proper training to face the winter mountain with guarantees is basic.

Essential Snow Safety Gear: Shovel, Probe and Transceiver

In avalanche terrain, you should always be prepared with the right rescue equipment-shovel, transceiver and probe. Optionally you may also want an avalanche airbag pack.

  • Probe
  • Shovel
  • Avalanche Airbag Pack
  • Avalanche Transceiver

In this article we're going to focus on avalanche transceivers. You can consult these other articles for more information on other types of avalanche safety gear:

We will now explain its key features and functions, current technologies, and highlight the important factors to look out for when purchasing this crucial piece of basic winter mountain safety equipment that is the avalanche transceiver (or “avalanche beacon”).
Mammut Pack Barryvox S Europe-Transceiver, Probe and Shovel Set

What is an Avalanche Transceiver?

Avalanche transceivers or beacons are devices that can do essentially two things:

  • Transmit a pulsed radio signal
  • Receive a pulsed radio signal

That is: if someone is buried under the snow by an avalanche and has a transceiver attached, we will be able to locate him with a transceiver in receiver mode by following one of the flow lines of the radio wave it emits. For this reason, it is essential that all members of the group carry the device.

Flow line of the signal emitted by a transceiver. Source: Mammut
Therefore, these devices are very important in the search for avalanche victims buried under the snow. In addition to locating the victim, they help to carry out the different phases of the search efficiently, thus saving valuable time for the probing and shoveling phases.

How Does an Avalanche Transceiver Work?

While skiing, the group should have their transceivers in send / transmit mode. If an avalanche occurs and people are trapped, the rest of the group then switches to search mode. From there, and once the signal has been captured, the device indicates the location of the victim by means of a directional arrow, and a number that indicates the distance to the victim. In addition, it emits a tone or beep that gets louder and faster as the signal strength increases.

The direction arrow helps us stay on the path of the flux line until we can no longer reduce the distance (numbers on the screen). At this time, the secondary search phase begins. Once located, if it has a marking function, we will mark the victim (never before having dug them up), so that our device no longer takes this signal into account if there are other people to rescue.

Are there compatibility issues between different brands and/or models of transceiver?

Absolutely NOT.

All devices on the market use the international standard frequency of 457 kHz, regardless of make or model. They are all capable of searching and finding a buried victim anywhere in the world.

Until about fifteen years ago there were two different frequencies, one for North America and one for Europe, but it was agreed to use only one frequency: 457 kHz.

This means that, whatever the brand and model, you can use your device without worrying about its compatibility with that of the rest of the group and rescue groups, both in your area and in any other part of the world.

Characteristics to Take Into Account When Buying an Avalanche Transceiver

1. Antennas

Regardless of our level of experience (something we will talk about later, and which is fundamental in our choice), our transceiver should have 3 antennas, since they are the ones that will provide us with the distance information in 3 dimensions.

The one- and two- antenna models are no longer manufactured, and those who still have some, should pdate them, because their performance is much less reliable than the current ones, and they waste precious and vital time. Approximately 73 percent of avalanche victims die from asphyxiation, and the three-antenna models have reduced these fatalities by a remarkable number.

In competitions, beacons with fewer than three antennas are not allowed.

  • The main antenna (Y) is in charge of emitting the signal (in transmit mode), and in receive mode it is the antenna with the longest range.
  • The second antenna (X) is in charge of orienting the signal giving the important information about the direction to follow
  • .
  • The third and last antenna (Z) is in charge of providing the burial depth information in the fine search phase, to avoid the multiple peak effect. This occurs when the buried transceiver is not in the same position as ours and the maximum peaks of the signal are not just above the victim. With the new technologies implemented in the most modern transceivers, and the incorporation of the third antenna, this no longer occurs.

If we combine the three antennas we have a complete signal.

2. Ease of Use

The second most important characteristic after the number of antennas. The complexity and ease of use of the beacon should match your level of experience as a user.

In reality, it's not about the device, it's about us. All transceivers are easy to use.... if you are familiar with them, if all their functions have been sufficiently practiced, and if the rescue protocols are well known. If we buy one with complex functions, as we will see later, and these are beyond our knowledge and experience, we will be slowed down.

Whatever transceiver we have, we have to practice until its use is completely intuitive.

We will discuss this topic in more detail later, when classifying transceivers.

3. Processing Speed

After the antennas and the ease of use that comes with having a device that matches our experience and practice, the next most important factor when buying a transceiver is its processor speed.

If time is money in the search for an avalanche victim, the speed of the processor will allow us to move quickly without saturating it and without skipping flow lines.

There are models that need to be stopped in the middle of the search because they saturate or crash the processor. With experience, and knowing our transceiver, we can avoid this by not forcing the device.

4. Range

It is important, but not as important as antennas, speed and ease of use. As there are different brands and models, there are different range ranges, between 40-100m.

The greater the range of the transceiver we have, the wider the search bandwidth, so theoretically we can search a larger area in a shorter time. Especially if we have sufficient search experience; otherwise, in such a large area, it can be complicated.

We should always take as range the range marked by our manufacturer on the back of our transceiver. The basic information on the main phases of a rescue protocol, which must always be followed, appears there.

There are cases in which this information does not appear on the reverse side; if we do not know what it is, we should take 40m as the range.

Searching with the transceiver for a person buried by an avalanche. Photo: Juanjo Frutos

Other Functions of a Transceiver

1. Digital vs Analog

Digital and analog transceivers vary in the way they allow us to interpret transmitted and received data.

The digital transceivers are the vast majority that we will find, if not all of them in the market today. They have these advantages:

  • They use multiple antennas and microprocessors to translate data visually on a screen, as well as audibly through beeps.
  • It indicates the distance and direction to the victim
  • .
  • Quickly adapt to multiple signals
  • .
  • More additional functions are included (multi-victim, marking function, scanner, clinometer, etc.).

The analog transceivers were the first to be invented.

Analog signals are indicated by audible beeps that increase in frequency and intensity as we approach another transceiver or victim. They have no display and no directional indications on the screen. In general, these devices have a greater range for both sending and receiving the signal, but they are much less practical and require more knowledge and experience to be used correctly and effectively, so their use is not recommended except for professional rescuers and very experienced users.

In fact, anyone who has an analog-only transceiver should pdate to a digital one as soon as they can.

Yes, there are models, the more technical ones, which are digital and analog. Practitioners can employ the analog signal as an additional aid in searching for complex scenarios where multi-victim and/or tagging are not available. Some of these models allow both signals to be used at the same time helping to solve problems, as is the case with the Mammut Barryvox S.

2. Multiple Burials

Most devices are easy to use when it comes to searching for a single victim, but what happens when there is more than one?

The marking function of a transceiver will allow us to isolate the signal of a victim we have found, so that we can focus on the next burial. We cannot mark a victim until we have unearthed the airway and chest. Then, we will be able to mark your signal.

The marking function in scenarios with multiple burials is important in facilitating the search for the different signals.

Sometimes, these functions are not available due to the complexity of the situation forcing to carry out other search methods for multiple burials. We have the micro-band method and the three-circle method. These methods need to be familiar and practiced, regardless of the transceiver model we have.

3. Group control

The group control function is also interesting, as it allows us to ensure that all members of the group have their transceivers turned on, and that they function correctly, both in transmit and receive mode.

4. Device and Battery Self-monitoring

Currently, all transceiver models available for purchase include the device's self-monitoring function, which allows us to check that there is no error, and battery monitoring.

The importance of the choice of the transceiver and its correct use in an avalanche rescue

The first thing to emphasize is that in the search for avalanche victims, time is of the essence. Therefore, the more familiar we are with our transceiver, the more proficient we are in using it, the faster we will be.

This is more important than the device we have.

We have already seen that there are differences in features, functions, processing speeds, range ranges, etc., but the bottom line is to be proficient with our transceiver. A very professional model is useless if we are not agile in its use. We have to practice as much as possible, it is essential and vital to feel comfortable with our devices.

In addition, we should be humble and honest with ourselves when buying one. If we are not going to be able to practice with it, if we are inexperienced, buying a more advanced and complex model will exceed our level, which can be counterproductive.

The best transceiver is the one you can competently and quickly in a high stress situation, such as real rescues, because you are fully familiar with its operation and peculiarities.

Buying a more expensive transceiver with more features that we are not used to handling will not help us find a buried victim any faster...unless we take the right path, and practice and train. The recommendation of a simple transceiver to a beginner is not to stagnate there: it will help him/her at the beginning, and he/she should progress and learn as he/she goes along. Our safety depends on it.

Therefore, there are different types of transceivers, with functions depending on the users.

Types of transceivers according to functions and user groups

Today all devices are more intuitive and faster to operate than those of fifteen years ago. So where does the difference lie? In that they are now designed for each user group.

This allows us to choose our transceiver according to our level of experience and skills.

1. New Users

As we say, if you are a novice user who only goes out a few times each season, and you are not very fluent with this type of equipment, it is not very advisable to buy an ARVA with many functions, designed for more experienced users with a more advanced level of skills and knowledge.

You may not take advantage of the more advanced features, and these may lead to confusion and wasted search time.

There are devices for the less experienced, such as the Ortovox Zoom+, which are basic and easy to use.

This is not to say that you don't have to train and practice a lot with them!!!! Simply put, their simplicity will allow us to use them effectively according to our level of knowledge and practice. It is a basic search model with no major functions.

Ortovox Zoom+

2. Intermediate Users

If you are already an intermediate user, or plan to advance your rescue knowledge and skills through training and practice, look for the next step: a simple model with a couple of additional functions, such as a wider search range, marking function or multiple burials.

Here we can find some devices with an excellent quality-price ratio, such as the Mammut Barryvox, Pieps Micro or ORTOVOX 3+ models.

Pieps Micro

3. Advanced Users

And if an intermediate or advanced user wants to continue learning and advancing their rescue skills, and use some of the more complex functions, we can choose a model such as the Mammut Barryvox S.

Those who choose a transceiver from this range, and after the necessary practice, will be able to use functions such as automatic search-emission mode switching capability, victim unmarking function, specific group control functions, analog-to-digital function, or scanner function, among others.tic, victim unmarking function, specific group control functions, analog-digital function, or scanner function, among others.

Mammut Barryvox S

Final Considerations

The Importance of Batteries

The batteries we use must be new and of high quality, and of course they must be replaced before they run out in the middle of a rescue.

How often we change the batteries depends on each manufacturer's recommendations. We recommend changing them when they are between 50-75 % of charge. That way we guarantee sufficient battery power in case of a rescue.

All batteries must be changed at the same time, and they must be of the same brand. Never use rechargeable or lithium batteries, unless recommended by the manufacturer. There are very few models that support lithium batteries.

The level of autonomy is affected differently depending on the mode used: in broadcast mode they consume less battery power, and in receiver mode they consume considerably more.

It is always advisable to carry spare batteries. We will avoid the problems that arise if someone forgets the batteries, or if a battery starts to run low.

But remember: batteries are changed just in case, not when the transceiver is needed, and suddenly we see that there is no battery, or that it is going to run out very soon. At that point, time is critical.

How often should we check the transceiver

? Transceivers are very delicate electronic equipment that must be treated with care due to possible damage or breakage of the antennas.

It is advisable not to store them in cold areas and close to metallic elements, as this may detune the antennas and cause signal drifts.

Over time, all transceivers become detuned and affect the ability to search for victims. Therefore, it is recommended to send the transceiver every 3 years to the manufacturers' technical services to verify the correct functioning of the device.

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