I remember the exact moment I turned my beacon to search. Not a drill, the real horrifying thing. My body snapped into overdrive and fear pulsed with every pounding heartbeat. One thing I didn't have to worry about was figuring out how to use my beacon. I moved fast, but carefully read the signals, following my transceiver's increasingly louder beeps and smaller numbers, signaling that I was getting closer to my buried friends. That little blinking device in my hand was the only clear message I had in a sea of debris, commotion,
Later, amidst unbearable grief—the avalanche was too massive, too devastating, and three of skiing's finest perished that day—I quietly thanked myself for all those beacon hide-and-seek drills I'd done with friends in snowy parking lots. At least I had that. Suffice it to say, don't wait until you need it to learn how to master the search function on your beacon. Practice, practice, then practice some more. And do everything in your power to make sure you'll never need to use it. Here are four beacons—all built with advanced triple antennae for better transmission—worth practicing with.
$290 | Arva-Equipment.com
The only new beacon on the market this winter, Arva's Evo4 is designed for entry-level backcountry skiers. It's affordable, unpretentious, and gets the job done. It's also idiot proof. There's no chance you'll forget to turn your beacon on with the Evo4—put the harness around your chest and an attaching clip turns the power on. At the trailhead, it allows you to lead a group check to make sure your partners' beacons are up and running. The search mode is as straightforward as it gets. Follow arrows and decreasing distances and you'll be probing and shoveling in no time. It took a bit longer than other beacons to initially identify more than one signal, but once it registered multiple victims, it was easy to find and flag them. Only bummers: It feels big and clunky compared to some of the thinner beacons in the test and it doesn't automatically switch back to transmit if you're caught in a slide while searching.
Backcountry Access Tracker
$335 | BackcountryAccess.com
Known for being one of the most user-friendly beacons on the market, Backcountry Access' Tracker is now in its third, even smarter version. The Tracker3 is small and light, about the size of a deck of cards. Heading into the backcountry? Switch the dial to TR for transmit and a blinking light confirms you're good to go. Slope just slid? Turn the dial to SE for search and red arrows and a distance, in meters, clearly directs you to the victim. For multiple burials, a big picture mode lets you see all the signals and how far away they are—an understandable, clever overview—and one tap suppresses a signal once you've located the first one. If you've never used a beacon before, consider this one. It couldn't be simpler to operate.
Mammut Pulse Barryvox
$490 | Mammut.ch
The Mammut Pulse Barryvox feels like the Swiss-made machine it is—sleek, calculated, concise. It's built for avalanche professionals and mountain guides, but it's surprisingly easy to use. At startup, you'll get a satisfying triple beep and blinking red light when your beacon is sending a signal. No confusion there, or anywhere else. Searching is intuitive—clear numbers and arrows lead the way, a beep gets louder the closer you get, multiple victims can be spotted and flagged. When you've zoned in on the victim, a symbol appears on the screen indicating it's time to probe. If you don't move for four minutes while in search mode, it'll switch back to transmit in case of a secondary avalanche. Plus, the harness was the most comfortable and secure of any we tested. This beacon was the priciest of the bunch, but for good reason: It'll help you be a smarter, faster rescuer.
Find the Mammut Pulse Barryvox on evo.com.
$369 | Ortovox.com
Ortovox's 3+ is the company's top seller and the best choice for recreational backcountry skiers. The on/off switch isn't exactly intuitive (who knew 1 meant on and 0 meant off?) but everything else is clear. Flashing bars on the screen show you're in transmit mode. If you're buried, Ortovox's patented Smart Antennae Technology determines what position you're in, then switches to the best transmission antenna to help your ski partners find you faster. That's a feature other beacons don't have. To search, pull apart the sliding arrows at the top and follow the easy-to-translate numbers and directions. The 3+ was the best performer for multiple burials—the screen instantly shows you how many signals are in the field and quickly grabs onto the closest one, then lets you flag one signal when you're ready to move to the next. The 3+ also comes with auto switchover if a rescuer is caught in a secondary slide and built-in RECCO reflectors as a back-up rescue tool.
Photos by JP Van Swae