Tasked with transmitting your location and helping you search for buried victims, an avalanche beacon (also called a transceiver) is an essential piece of gear for backcountry exploration. Whether you’re a skier, snowboarder, snowshoer, or snowmobiler, having a functional and capable beacon is crucial for staying alive in the event of a slide. But with so many options on the market and a growing assortment of features to choose from, it can be difficult to know where to begin. To help, below we break down the best beacons of the 2023 season, including simple entry-level transceivers, intermediate-friendly models, and feature-rich options for guides and patrollers. For additional information, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Editor’s note: There are inherent risks to traveling in avalanche terrain, and we do not condone the use of a beacon—or any avalanche safety tools—without proper education. Visit the AIARE website to learn more and sign up for a Level 1 avalanche class.
- Best Overall Avalanche Beacon: Backcountry Access Tracker3
- Best Avalanche Beacon for Beginners: Ortovox Diract Voice
- Best Beacon for Avy Professionals and Advanced Users: Mammut Barryvox S
Best Overall Avalanche Beacon
Weight: 7.6 oz.
Max range: 55m
Battery: AAA (3)
What we like: Great battery life and range in a streamlined package.
What we don’t: No Bluetooth tech or rechargeable battery; avy professionals might want a few more features.
Backcountry Access (BCA) is one of the leading brands in avalanche safety, and their beacons are known for their straightforward interfaces and user-friendly designs. The third iteration of the popular Tracker series earns our top pick for 2023 by checking all the right boxes for recreational backcountry users. Alongside a great battery life (250 hours in transmit mode) and competitive signal range (55m), you get features like a multiple-burial indicator and optional motion-sensing auto revert, which adds an extra dose of assurance in the case of a secondary slide. Add to that a slim, pocket-friendly shape and reasonable price tag, and it’s no secret why the Tracker3 is a best-selling beacon year after year.
For those in the market for their first transceiver, the Tracker3 is a really nice choice. It’ll run you $10 more than the PIEPS Powder BT and doesn't include bluetooth connectivity, but we appreciate the BCA's sleek and simple design; and unlike beacons from PIEPS and Black Diamond, there are no known reliability issues (or voluntary recalls) of the Tracker3. Patrollers and guides can certainly get an upgraded interface and better battery life and range in a model like the $550 Mammut Barryvox S below, but the Tracker3 is a nicely equipped option at a good price point. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that BCA also makes the Tracker S ($300), a slimmer and lighter version of the Tracker3 with a stripped-down feature set, including no upgradable software or motion-sensing auto-revert function.
See the Backcountry Access Tracker3
Best Avalanche Beacon for Beginners
Weight: 7.4 oz.
Maximum range: 50m
Battery: Rechargeable lithium-ion
What we like: Rechargeable battery and voice commands that allow you to keep your eyes on the scene.
What we don’t: Middling search range; not everyone will like the verbal prompts.
Last year, we saw the highly anticipated release of Ortovox’s Diract Voice: an innovative avalanche transceiver that sets itself apart from the rest of the market in a key few ways. First, as its name suggests, the Diract Voice uses verbal commands to direct your beacon search, allowing you to keep your eyes on the scene instead of fixated on the device (key commands include “run,” “walk,” and “go down to the snow surface”). Second, Ortovox’s newest transceiver has a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, while every other beacon here runs off of alkaline batteries. In an era when most headlamps and GPS devices have already switched over to rechargeable power, we’re excited to see the start of this shift in the beacon world.
For beginner users, these unique additions make the Diract Voice a very attractive option. Those new to avalanche rescue might find the verbal directions especially useful—studies have shown that in an emergency, voice cues can be processed more quickly than visual cues. On the other hand, experienced backcountry-goers might not want the added assistance, and the Diract Voice doesn’t stand out in terms of search range or advanced capabilities. But if you’re just starting out, the Ortovox is an inventive new offering and comes with user-friendly features like Bluetooth connectivity and a light sensor that switches it back into send mode when darkness is detected (as in the case of a secondary avalanche)... Read in-depth review
See the Ortovox Diract Voice
Best Beacon for Avy Professionals and Advanced Users
Weight: 7.4 oz.
Maximum range: 70/95m (digital/analog)
Battery: AAA/lithium (3)
What we like: Top-of-the-line search range and feature set; clear visual interface.
What we don’t: Expensive and overkill for most recreational users.
Most of the beacons here appeal to recreational users, but ski guides, patrollers, and avalanche professionals need additional functionality. Specifically, this includes better search range, increased battery life and processing speed, detailed display graphics, and state-of-the-art features like a U-turn indicator to keep them searching in the right direction. Within this category, the Mammut Barryvox S is head and shoulders above the rest, with a 70-meter range (95m in analog mode), up to 400 hours of battery life, and a clear visual interface with intuitive, animated instructions. And importantly, despite all of these add-ons, it’s still competitive with the Tracker3 above in both weight and size.
The Barryvox S is the priciest option on our list, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best match for everyone. Simple is often safer for beginners and recreational users, and many backcountry-goers will want to stick with options like the Tracker3 or Diract Voice above (or the standard Barryvox, which we outline below). But for professionals who use their beacon on a daily basis, it doesn’t get much better than the Barryvox S, which really shines in complex scenarios with multiple victims. Customization is another selling point: you can configure acoustic and visual settings, adjust the auto-revert function, and personalize your home screen. For those who will utilize the features, the Barryvox is an exceptionally capable backcountry companion.
See the Mammut Barryvox S
Best of the Rest
Weight: 7.8 oz.
Maximum range: 60m
Battery: AAA (3)
What we like: Cheaper than the Tracker3 and features Bluetooth connectivity.
What we don’t: Battery life icon is a bit ambiguous.
Based in Austria, PIEPS has been a leader in snow safety research and development for over 50 years. Since being acquired by Black Diamond in 2012, their products—which include beacons, probes, shovels, airbags, inclinometers, and more—have become widely available in the U.S. The Powder BT (also marketed as the Black Diamond Recon BT) is an updated version of PIEPS’ popular DSP Sport, with notable modernization coming by way of Bluetooth functionality, which allows the user to seamlessly update software and pair the beacon with the PIEPS app. Similar to the Tracker3 above, it’s a feature-rich yet easy-to-operate beacon that covers the bases for intermediate users.
Black Diamond and PIEPS issued a voluntary recall for the Powder BT (among other beacons) in the summer of 2022 due to issues with the search/send switch. While most devices are unaffected (BD estimates that 0.02% of beacons sold in North America are defective), it’s important to run through the steps to determine if your model operates properly. But recall aside, our gripes of the Powder BT are few: It is fairly hefty compared to the competition, and we do wish the battery life indicator was more specific (it’s shown as a three-tiered icon rather than a percentage). We rank the Tracker3 higher for its slimmer profile, simple interface, and time-tested track record (the Powder BT was released in late 2018), but the PIEPS is a well-made alternative with some modern upgrades. For a more affordable design for those just starting out, it’s worth checking out BD’s simplified Recon X ($300), which is set to hit the shelves later this winter.
See the PIEPS Powder BT
Weight: 7.4 oz.
Maximum range: 70m
Battery: AAA (3)
What we like: User-friendly display screen and impressive range.
What we don’t: Some users report issues during fine search.
Mammut avalanche beacons have a solid reputation among snow sports enthusiasts and professionals, and the Barryvox is another well-made and reliable transceiver. Reaching up to 70 meters, it offers one of the broadest search widths and largest receiving ranges on the market, and the backlit screen is easy to read and interpret with a variety of helpful images (many will find this superior to the LED display of models like the Tracker3 above). And this might seem like a minor detail, but we love that the switches are large enough to operate while wearing bulky gloves or mittens. Taken together, the Barryvox offers most of the quality and usability of the high-end Barryvox S above, but in a simpler package that’s competitively priced at $385 ($165 less than the “S”).
A big concern about the Barryvox is its performance during fine search: some report that the beacon can grow jumbled during multiple-burial scenarios (the manual recommends users slow down their search until the beacon can separate the signals). In spite of this weakness, the Barryvox has one of the best marking functions among mid-range beacons—it’s particularly better than the Tracker3 above. But with such a detailed screen, you don’t get the outright simplicity of the Tracker3, and Mammut has yet to integrate Bluetooth connectivity (as seen in the $45-cheaper PIEPS Powder BT above). That said, Barryvox users are a devoted bunch, and it’s a great value for budding to advanced recreationalists.
See the Mammut Barryvox
Weight: 7.4 oz.
Maximum range: 50m
Battery: Rechargeable lithium-ion
What we like: Rechargeable battery means you can ditch the AAAs; great harness design.
What we don’t: Pricier than the alternatives; shorter search range than most.
Ortovox’s Diract Voice above has received a lot of attention for its use of verbal instructions during search, but the German company also offers a more traditional alternative in their standard Diract. These two models are largely identical save for a few key differences: The Diract does not use verbal commands, is offered in a slightly different base color (gray rather than black), and retails for $60 less than the Diract Voice. For those in the market for an intuitive and sleek Ortovox beacon without any added frills, the Diract is a solid choice.
How does the Ortovox Diract compare to the similarly priced Mammut Barryvox above? The Mammut has a much larger receiving range, and many will appreciate its more glove-friendly buttons (the Ortovox has an easy-to-toggle send/receive switch, but the membrane-style function button might be difficult to operate with large mittens). On the other hand, the Diract is certainly the more modernized device, with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery (the Barryvox uses AAAs), Bluetooth connectivity, and an innovative harness design that makes it easy to extract the beacon in a hurry. We give the slight edge to models like the Barryvox and Tracker3 above for their reliable track record, but Ortovox has a strong history of high-quality transceivers, and the Diract looks to be no exception.
See the Ortovox Diract
Weight: 7.9 oz.
Maximum range: 60m
Battery: AAA (3)
What we like: Lots of customizable features made easy with smartphone connectivity.
What we don’t: Expensive and overkill for most.
Most riders will opt for Black Diamond's recreational-focused Recon BT (identical to the PIEPS Powder BT above), but the advanced Guide BT is tailored to avalanche instructors, ski patrollers, and guides. As with the Recon, you get a simple interface that prioritizes ease of use, but the Guide BT takes it to the next level with increased battery life, analog functionality, greater customization, and an integrated inclinometer. In addition, you get high-level features like vibration upon first signal detection, which allows you to take your eyes off your beacon to look for clues like strewn poles or gloves.
Like the Recon above, the Guide BT (and identical PIEPS’ Pro BT) is one of the many beacons that was affected by Black Diamond’s voluntary recall. Again, this is a slight inconvenience, but the reality is that most devices are in perfect working order and it’s a simple process to check your beacon for malfunction. In terms of best uses, it’s worth remembering that simple is often safer: While the Guide BT is a premium option, we think it’s overkill for everyone but industry professionals or those who really enjoy geeking out on snow science. If you’re shopping within this category, we give the slight edge to the Barryvox S for its greater range, analog mode, innovative feature set (including U-turn indicator), and svelter dimensions.
See the Black Diamond Guide BT
Weight: 8.5 oz.
Maximum range: 70/80m (digital/analog)
Battery: AAA (3)
What we like: High-end features at a mid-range price point.
What we don’t: Lacks modern additions like Bluetooth connectivity.
At the premium end of Arva’s lineup is the Neo Pro, a beacon purpose-built for professionals and jam-packed with features and functionality. Similar to top-shelf models like the Mammut Barryvox S, you get an impressive 80-meter search range (70m in digital) and next-level features like a U-Turn alarm and motion sensing revert-to-transmit mode. The Neo Pro also offers a neutral standby mode that keeps the beacon from both transmitting and receiving for a period of time (ideal in teaching environments), and as we alluded to above, you can easily swap between analog and digital (a useful feature for multiple burial situations). And all this performance is fairly easy to access, with the Arva’s up and down buttons and intuitive interface.
At just $360, the Neo Pro is a real steal compared to other pro models like the Barryvox S and Black Diamond Guide BT. At the most basic level, you get fairly similar technologies—including a large search range and the ability to switch between analog and digital—but the Mammut and BD tack on a variety of bells and whistles: for example, the Barryvox S features an LCD screen, and the Guide BT comes with Bluetooth connectivity and an inclinometer. Further, the Arva’s battery life lags far behind, and is more similar to the recreational models in its price range. Most snow travelers will want to stick with more familiar models from BCA, PIEPS, and Mammut, but the Neo Pro a nice middle-ground option for pros who want to save money or recreational users who are interested in taking their skills to the next level.
See the Arva Neo Pro
Weight: 7.6 oz.
Maximum range: 55m
Battery: AAA (3)
What we like: Our top-rated Tracker3 with a more durable case and larger LED display.
What we don’t: Those couple extra features don’t strike us as worth the jump in price.
BCA’s Tracker3 has been one of the most popular and well-regarded beacons for years running, and the Tracker4 builds off the popular design with a few key updates. Importantly, you get all of the innards of the Tracker3—including an identical feature set, processing speed, and search range—with a revamped exterior featuring a rubberized, over-molded case and a larger and brighter LED display. We haven’t personally experienced or heard of any issues with the durability or handling of the Tracker3, but the latest “4” is even more robust and easy to use.
The Tracker4’s cosmetic improvements are undeniably nice, but it’s up to you whether or not they’re worth the extra $40. Those who appreciate the burlier case might want to check out the PIEPS Powder BT above (or the identical Black Diamond Recon BT), which costs less at $340 and includes a better flagging function that doesn’t shut off after a minute, as well as Bluetooth connectivity. But we understand that beacons are a highly personal choice, and if you’re partial to the Tracker design or BCA brand, the Tracker4 is a solid all-around option—and especially for those that are hard on their gear.
See the Backcountry Access Tracker4
Weight: 5.6 oz.
Maximum range: 50m
Battery: AA (1)
What we like: The lightest fully featured beacon available.
What we don’t: Send/receive dial can be difficult to toggle with gloves on.
Most beacons prioritize search ranges, battery life, and innovative functions above all else, but not the Black Diamond Recon LT. Touted as the lightest fully featured beacon on the market (4.8 oz. without batteries), the Recon LT’s main focus is minimalism, making it a great choice for ounce-counting skimo racers, ski mountaineers, and other weight-conscious backcountry-goers. But importantly, it still packs in all the functionality most backcountry-goers need, including flagging for multiple-burial scenarios, a fairly large LED screen, and bluetooth connectivity.
The Recon LT’s 50-meter circular range can’t compete with the 70 to 90 meter ranges of some of the top beacons above, but it’s fairly standard among devices at this price point. We do wish the send/receive dial was a bit easier to operate (you’ll likely have to take off your gloves) and the single AA battery won’t deliver as much power as the three AAAs standard in most transceivers. In the end, it comes down to the question of whether or not these small shortcomings are really worth lightening your load by just a few ounces. We’ll stick with more well-rounded options like the BCA Tracker3, Mammut Barryvox, and Ortovox Diract above; but for the sleekest safety system available, look no further than the Black Diamond Recon LT.
See the Black Diamond Recon LT
|Backcountry Access Tracker3||$350||7.6 oz.||55m||3 AAA||250 hours||No|
|Ortovox Diract Voice||$450||7.4 oz.||50m||Rechargeable||200+ hours||Yes|
|Mammut Barryvox S||$550||7.4 oz.||70m||3 AAA||300 hours||No|
|PIEPS Powder BT||$340||7.8 oz.||60m||3 AAA||300 hours||Yes|
|Mammut Barryvox||$385||7.4 oz.||70m||3 AAA||300 hours||No|
|Ortovox Diract||$390||7.4 oz.||50m||Rechargeable||200+ hours||Yes|
|Black Diamond Guide BT||$500||7.9 oz.||60m||3 AAA||400 hours||Yes|
|Arva Neo Pro||$360||8.5 oz.||70m||3 AAA||250 hours||No|
|Backcountry Access Tracker4||$400||7.6 oz.||55m||3 AAA||250 hours||No|
|Black Diamond Recon LT||$350||5.6 oz.||50m||1 AA||200 hours||Yes|
- What is an Avalanche Beacon?
- Send and Receive Modes
- Search Range and Width
- Digital vs. Analog Beacons
- Avalanche Beacon Functions
- Weight and Dimensions
- Durability and Waterproofing
- Batteries and Battery Life
- Bluetooth Connectivity
- Carrying Case and Strap
- Software Updates
- Avalanche Safety Courses
- Completing Your Backcountry Kit
An avalanche beacon, also called a transceiver, is an essential piece of gear for backcountry travel in snow-covered terrain. In short, this battery-powered device allows you to both find and be found in the event of an avalanche by sending or receiving signals over an electromagnetic frequency (the international standard frequency is 457 kHz). All modern beacons operate digitally using three antennas (some have analog modes as well) and are powered by either AA or AAA alkaline batteries. Every member of a party must have their own beacon—stored in an easy-to-access location like a body harness or zippered pant pocket—and proper training on how to use it.
In general, beacons can be broken down into two categories: those ideal for recreational use and those geared towards professionals such as ski guides, avalanche course instructors, and pro patrollers. If you’re new to backcountry travel, simpler is almost always better when it comes to your beacon. In the event of a slide, the last thing you want is to be swapping through settings and wasting time trying to find search mode. And cost almost always correlates with complexity, so those just getting into backcountry adventuring definitely don’t need to spend up for the most premium model. Avalanche professionals, on the other hand, often benefit from the advanced features and functionality that come with more expensive models like the Mammut Barryvox S ($550) and Black Diamond Guide BT ($500). In either case, however, the best beacon is the one that you know how to use.
An avalanche beacon has two main modes: send and receive. Every beacon’s default is send mode (also known as transmit mode), meaning that it is transmitting a signal outward. This is to ensure that in the event of a slide, the beacons of buried party members will continue to transmit a signal, and remaining party members and rescuers will then switch their beacons to search mode to locate their partner(s).
In search or receive mode, visual and audio messaging directs rescuers towards the buried victim(s). Most beacons have a legible screen that displays arrows and numbers—denoting distance and direction to the victim’s transmitting signal—and a speaker that sounds alerts (that increase in cadence and often pitch) so you know when you’re getting closer without constantly looking at your beacon. In the case of Ortovox's innovative Diract Voice, rescuers receive verbal cues to direct their search (such as "go down to the snow surface" and "you were closer"). Some screens are more detailed than others—the Mammut Barryvox S, for example, has a bitmapped screen that can display advanced graphics—but remember that simple often means safer.
Most avalanche beacon manufacturers claim a search range between 50 and 70 meters. This is the maximum distance from which the beacon will be able to pick up a transmitting signal. Entry-level models like the Ortovox Diract Voice have a maximum range of 50 meters, whereas the top-of-the-line Mammut Barryvox S reaches up to 70 meters (or up to 90m in analog mode). Oftentimes, brands will distinguish between search width (side-to-side range) and maximum search range (out in front of you), although the two numbers are always within the same ballpark.
Most avalanche instructors teach search patterns based on a 40-meter radius, meaning that any beacon here is appropriate for a Level 1 or 2 course. This is also the range in which beacons become the most reliable—you might start to get a signal from 50 or 60 meters away, but it is still likely to bounce around or disappear and come back depending on which direction you’re facing. In the end, it’s important to get to know your beacon and familiarize yourself with its range rather than relying solely on the number you read on a label or product page. Practicing with your beacon will help you determine the range at which you can reliably pick up a signal.
All current avalanche beacons operate digitally, although a few high-end models—including the Mammut Barryvox S, Black Diamond Guide BT, and Arva Neo Pro—give you the option of swapping between analog and digital modes. Without going too deep into the details, the important thing to understand here is that analog beacons can pick up transmitting signals from farther away through the use of audio transmissions (most beacons with analog capability come with a headphone jack). Before a digital beacon might recognize these audio beeps as a signal, your ear can pick them up. But in the end, these are just minor details and likely won’t be impactful in a stressful real-life scenario, and the good news is that digital beacons are much faster and easier to use than those of the analog variety.
Most modern beacons now have auto-revert functionality, which is a safety measure in the event of a secondary avalanche. Picture this: one of your ski partners is buried in a slide. While you’re searching (beacon in receive mode), another avalanche rips down from above and buries you. Now, you’re trapped underneath snow and your beacon isn’t transmitting a signal. With the auto-revert feature, your beacon automatically switches back to send mode after a certain number of minutes (generally 1 to 8) of inactivity, preventing a scenario in which searchers are buried and cannot be located.
Auto-revert functionality differs considerably among beacon models and could very well be a deciding factor in which model you choose. Some are simply time-based, meaning they revert back to send mode after a number of minutes (this could potentially happen in the middle of a search, but fortunately, most sound an alert before switching). Others have a motion sensor that detects your movement: if you’re not moving (i.e., potentially buried), they’ll switch back to sending after a short period of time (for Ortovox beacons, this period is 2 minutes). The new Ortovox Diract Voice even has a light sensor that reverts back to transmit if it detects darkness. Many beacons, like Black Diamond/PIEPS’ models and the Backcountry Access Tracker3, allow you to turn off the auto-revert function, select it upon start-up, or choose the amount of elapsed time. Given this feature’s importance in keeping us safe, we like to have the option to customize (BCA does a great job of detailing reasons for this here).
Multiple Burials and Signal Suppression
Most modern avalanche beacons have a multiple-burial indicator. This means that the beacon can detect more than one transmitting signal and will show this on the display screen (some will denote 2 or 2+ signals, but advanced models like the Mammut Barryvox S can catalog up to 4). Models like the BCA Tracker3 and new Tracker4 even indicate with parentheses if the burials are in close proximity (within 6m of the searcher). This feature is not essential, but it is certainly nice to have, and especially for those who regularly adventure with larger groups.
In addition to a multiple-burial indicator, another helpful tool to have is signal suppression, also referred to as “flagging” or “marking.” In the case of multiple burials and multiple searchers, the searchers can work together to locate one victim and then divide resources while continuing the search for a second victim. Once the first victim is located, the searcher will mark their transmitting beacon (thus silencing—or suppressing—it) and continue to look for the next-closest signal. Avalanche beacon models can vary quite a bit in how this function works: some of the higher-end options will show a list of all signals, and the user can select which signal to follow, while models like the Tracker3 can only suppress one signal and only for a minute (in our opinion, this is one of the Tracker3’s biggest shortcomings).
Self-Test and Group Check
Most avalanche beacons perform a self-test when turned on, checking to see that the antennae are transmitting a signal and the battery has enough charge. If your beacon fails its test, it should display an error code and/or sound an alert. Beacons will also show their battery life during the self-test (we outline batteries more in-depth below), and some models even let you know if they’re picking up electronic interference (such as from a cell phone).
Many beacons also have a built-in group-check mode, which can assist with making sure all group members’ beacons are sending and receiving properly. This is a helpful tool when getting organized at the trailhead but certainly not necessary. Unless you’re consistently a group leader, it likely won’t be a deal-breaker in selecting the right beacon for you. And if your beacon doesn’t have this functionality, PIEPS sells a device called the Checker, which is an affordable ($30) and useful way to verify that all the beacons in your party are working properly.
Avalanche beacons are small enough to fit in your hand and tip the scales at around 5 to 8 ounces. In general, weight will not be a deciding factor for most, although there are a few ultralight models—namely, the BCA Tracker S and Black Diamond Recon LT—that will appeal to skimo racers, ski mountaineers, and other ounce-counters. Often, the more important spec is a beacon’s dimensions, as many prefer streamlined models that can slip into their pants pocket (our top pick, the BCA Tracker3, is well-liked for its minimalist build). On the flipside, some beacons add rubberized molds for better handling and added durability, including the new Tracker4 and Black Diamond’s Recon and Guide BT. Further, some of the larger models feature big display screens and more glove-friendly toggles, which certainly makes them easier to use. Before making a purchase, be sure to weigh your priorities and preferences on weight and size versus overall usability.
Given that beacons are designed for use in winter conditions and a lifeline when buried under feet of snow, you’d assume that they’re incredibly durable and highly waterproof. Unfortunately, however, that’s not entirely the case. Whereas some equipment like headlamps and watches are subjected to drop testing and given industry-standard waterproof ratings, beacons have no such requirements. For this reason, we recommend limiting your beacon’s exposure to the elements by keeping it safely stowed close to your body and always underneath your outer layers. Some models are slightly more robust than others, including BCA’s rubber-encased Tracker4, but most forego added durability measures.
Unlike safety equipment like a rope or airbag, avalanche beacons also do not have stated lifespans. That said, it is absolutely essential that your beacon be in good working condition. Mammut, for example, recommends that you have your beacon serviced every 3,000 hours or 3 years, where their technicians will do a far more comprehensive check than the beacon is able to do in its self-test mode. In the event that your beacon does malfunction, most manufacturers offer 2- to 3-year warranties. And keep an eye out for possible recalls too—PIEPS and Black Diamond recently issued a voluntary recall for many of their beacons (including the Powder BT and and Guide BT above) due to a faulty lock send/receive mechanism. Finally, regardless of what manufacturers recommend, our take is that it’s always better to be safe than sorry. If your beacon is having issues or you notice anything “off,” don’t postpone getting a replacement or sending it in for repair.
Avalanche beacons typically operate using AA or AAA alkaline batteries, although some (particularly those from Mammut and PIEPS/Black Diamond) can use alkaline or lithium. If you opt for one of these latter models, you’ll want to be sure that your beacon’s internal settings are set to your battery of choice. Manufacturers will specify which batteries to use and approximately how long the batteries will last—in our specs above, we’ve noted the battery life in transmit mode. Batteries last longer in transmit mode than in search, so if you’re practicing with your beacon frequently, you may notice the battery life drop more quickly.
Beacons indicate how much battery power remains either with a percentage (our preferred method) or bars. Some beacons will show the battery power only when powered on, while others will display it on the screen at all times. Deciding when to change out the batteries is a personal choice, though 50-60 percent is a good rule of thumb to ensure you’ll always have enough juice in the field. Additionally, we recommend always keeping a spare set of batteries in your repair kit, along with whatever tool you might need to open the battery case (a coin will suffice for most models). Finally, don’t forget to remove the batteries at the end of the season and put in a fresh set at the start of the next.
Battery life can vary a great deal between models. For example, the Ortovox Diract is said to last for 200 hours, while the Black Diamond Guide BT doubles that at 400 hours (600 with lithium batteries). But while this might seem like a crucial spec to consider, it’s really not all that impactful. Think about it: if you’re averaging 5-hour tours and aren’t practicing all the time, you can get 30+ days on one set of batteries—and that’s at the low end (of course, you'll want to change them out before the battery life is too low). In fact, we’ve gone for an entire season with the Tracker3 (battery life: 250 hours) and only changed the batteries once. In other words, even the lowest battery life is still decent, and you shouldn’t be churning through batteries unless you’re getting out there every day or instructing multiple courses in a season.
In 2023, more and more avalanche beacons offer bluetooth connectivity to help you easily manage settings and update software (of our 10 picks, five have this feature). We consider this a nice addition—Bluetooth capability does make it easier to dig into advanced settings and play around with the functionality of your beacon—but it's not quite on our must-have list. In the end, most won't have too much trouble accomplishing basic tasks on their beacon's display screen.
There are two primary ways to carry an avalanche beacon: in a zippered pant pocket or in a dedicated case with a strap (usually a chest harness). Most beacons are sold with a harness included, although Arva is one exception and sells them separately. Many harnesses center the carrying case on the front center of the torso, with straps going around the waist and one shoulder. Importantly, your beacon should always be worn inside your clothing, underneath any jackets or outer layers. If you choose to store your beacon in a pocket, be sure the zipper stays closed all day (nothing else should be coming in and out of that pocket). Many backcountry-ready pants or bibs include a beacon clip, and it's highly recommended to use this feature. This helps protect the beacon from getting damaged or ripped away from your body during an avalanche.
Many of today’s avalanche beacons come with upgradable software. Some require that you take your beacon into a local shop or send it to the manufacturer for an update, while most can be upgraded via micro USB or—in the case of Black Diamond/PIEPS models—Bluetooth connectivity. Beacon manufacturers are always improving their technology, and it’s a big bonus that you can get better tech without purchasing a new device (for example, our now discontinued Ortovox 3+ was overly sensitive to cell signals in the self-test, but this was later improved in an update). Just like a smartphone or computer, keeping your beacon up-to-date will help maximize its performance.
Buying a beacon is a great first step toward realizing your backcountry goals, but it's only one of many critical factors. In addition to the gear you bring, proper avalanche safety includes learning about the intricacies of snowpack and snow conditions, being able to evaluate and safely navigate avalanche-prone terrain, and recognizing and mitigating human factors. By far, the best way to educate yourself is through an avalanche safety course, and a Level 1 course from an organization like the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) or American Avalanche Institute (AAI) is where many aspiring backcountry-goers start. And keep in mind that not only is avalanche education a great investment for yourself, but it’s incredibly important for your touring partners’ safety as well.
Beyond these introductory courses, there are a number of resources online to help you become a safer and more experienced backcountry traveler. Avalanche.org is a great place to start, and it’s also a good idea to get acquainted with your local avalanche center, where you can find the latest reports and snowpack information. Some of these organizations also provide free “Know Before You Go” talks or videos. Additionally, Backcountry Access has a number of “101” educational videos on their website, which are great for brushing up on the basics. Single-day courses like Introduction to Avalanche Safety or Avalanche Awareness Clinics are another great place to start getting familiar with the essential gear and learning the finer points of snow and weather conditions.
A beacon is just one piece of the avalanche safety puzzle and should always be accompanied by both a probe and shovel. Some skiers and riders, especially those who frequently head into avy-prone terrain, might also carry an avalanche airbag pack for extra assurance in the event of a slide. In terms of other clothing and equipment, our backcountry skiing checklist is a good place to start and details everything you need for a day on the slopes, from jackets and pants to accessories like ski socks and gloves. We've also assembled in-depth round-ups of the year’s best offerings, including splitboards, backcountry skis and boots, ski helmets and goggles, climbing skins, and much more. Adventuring in the backcountry can be incredibly beautiful and rewarding, but there are a lot of inherent risks, and having the right gear is crucial to staying comfortable and safe.
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