Mountain Skills: Why You Should Upgrade Your Avalanche Transceiver

Imagine your best friend buried under frozen avalanche debris. Precious minutes have passed, and you are still fumbling around on the debris surface because the outdated transceiver you are searching with is unreliable and malfunctioning.

According to Dale Atkins, former president of the American Avalanche Association and a 30-year avalanche professional, any transceiver more than 10 years old should be retired, even if it has hardly been used. “The electronics and capabilities of modern units are superior to older units,” Atkins says. “Your life and the life of your friend are worth the investment, and modern units are far superior in all other aspects than old single- and dual-antenna units.”

Way back in 1997, Backcountry Access introduced the Tracker DTS—the world's first digital, multi-antenna transceiver—and they've since released two more Tracker options. Own something older? Time for an upgrade. [Photo] Jim Harris

Way back in 1997, Backcountry Access introduced the Tracker DTS—the world’s first digital, multi-antenna transceiver—and they’ve since released the three-antenna Tracker2 and Tracker3 options. Own something older? Time for an upgrade. [Photo] Jim Harris

For those clinging to old transceiver, adapting to new technology and features is far less complicated than venturing into avalanche terrain, but don’t be confused: new technology is no substitute for education. For the old-school, search times will be faster, easier and more efficient with a three-antenna transceiver.

Professional and recreational backcountry travelers come up with a whole host of reasons for not needing a new transceiver. Some say they’re really familiar with what they have and that adapting to new technology is too complicated. Others say they are well practiced with a dated transceiver, and still more argue that new transceivers are too expensive. When one of your partners is buried, would you be willing to spend a few hundred dollars to excavate them in a timely manner?

Technology is constantly evolving, and here is what makes a three-antenna transceiver better than your outdated single- or dual-antenna transceiver:

  • Frequency Drift – a common phenomenon wherein transceivers, over their lifetimes, gradually stray from their 457kHz frequency and may not be recognized by digital transceivers operating on the actual 457kHz frequency.
  • Antennae can and do break, which may compromise signal strength and directional arrows.
  • By creating a three-dimensional layout, three-antenna transceivers no longer succumb to unexpected “spikes” while pinpointing. They are therefore more accurate with deep burials.
  • Advanced features such as marking, flagging or signal suppression may simplify the search process for practiced users in the unlikely event of a multiple burial scenario. It should be noted that these advanced features can and do fail in rare scenarios due to signal overlap, and alternative techniques such as micro search strips need to be learned.
  • Now that every avalanche transceiver manufacturer in the world offers a three-antenna transceiver, even dual-antenna transceivers are becoming obsolete.
  • While not yet an industry standard, as both guides and educators, when clients arrive with single-antenna analog transceivers, we issue three-antenna transceivers while they are under our professional care.

Time to Upgrade?

If you answer yes to any of the following questions, then it’s time to upgrade your transceiver.

  • Has the manufacturer’s warranty expired?
  • Does your transceiver have fewer than three antennae?
  • Does the manufacturer offer a more recent or updated model?
  • Does your employer provide your outdated transceiver?
  • Was your transceiver purchased used on the Internet because it was the cheapest one you could find?
  • Is your transceiver more than 10 years old? (Professionals who use their transceivers heavily might want to consider an upgrade more frequently.)

Pre-Season Checklist

For those already on board with a three-antenna transceiver, here is a quick, self-guided, pre-season checklist for additional piece of mind.

  • Insert new batteries and check for corrosion, loose terminals and that the compartment door seals properly.
  • Inspect the unit for physical damage such as a cracked case or broken screen.
  • Check that all buttons, switches, display arrows and numbers are functioning.
  • If your transceiver has an auto revert function, check that it works. Check your user’s manual to see how your transceiver is programmed.
  • Know the manufacturer’s suggested range for your transceiver and perform a range check prior to heading into the backcountry. Anything less than 30 meters is an unacceptable range. There are many variables that affect the range of a transceiver and exact numbers will vary.
  • Visit your transceiver’s manufacturer website to determine whether or not your transceiver has the most up-to-date version of firmware.
  • If you are at all unsure of your firmware version or the transceiver’s condition, or if the unit is more than five years old, return it to the manufacturer for a diagnostic test.

Get Tuned Up

If you’re still unsure about upgrading your transceiver, know this: three-antenna transceivers are easier to use and are becoming more affordable. A new transceiver is only going to make you faster at something you already know and practice. The old adage holds true; the best function test is practice, and then practice some more.

“Upgrading our brain is just as important as upgrading our gadgets,” says IFMGA-certified guide Tim Brown, “and rescue skills might fade more quickly since we don’t use them as often.” By training regularly with friends and coworkers you’re more likely to run into scenarios that may raise a question about search strategies and a transceiver’s function. Regular practice with touring partners will allow time to critique one another’s skills, and this process will offer piece of mind insuring that you and your partners are tuned up and have transceivers that are operating correctly. And while solid rescue skills are important, a modern AIARE or AAI Level 1 avalanche course focusing on decision making may help you avoid being caught in the first place.

The bottom line? Three-antenna transceivers will soon be the industry standard, and recreational users, as well as industry professionals, educators, guides and outfitters need to follow suit in upgrading. Let’s get with the times: someone’s life may be at stake, and it may be your own.

Joe Vallone is an IFMGA/UIAGM certified mountain guide living in France. He sold his soul, went ex pat, and now calls La Grave, France home. Read more about Joe at provallone.com.

David Dellamora is an AIARE course provider and has AMGA ski and rock training. He resides in Summit County, Colo. where he is an educator, mountain guide and, recently, a father. Learn more about David at rockymountainguides.com.

Comments

  1. Hey Guys,

    Great timing on this article. WWA and our SnowSchool program is looking for retired beacons. Here is the skinny:
    SnowSchool needs your outdated beacons!

    The SnowSchool program is designed to introduce underserved K-12 students to the wonders of winter. We need your retired beacons to help develop a portion of our science curriculum for middle/high school science students. These beacons will never be used in avalanche terrain nor part of any backcountry expedition. In their retirement they will be used in a very short but fun awareness building activity (think Easter-egg hunt) around the Nordic Lodge at Bogus Basin SnowSchool. The objective of this experience is to illustrate a day in the life of a snow scientist. BCA Tracker beacons are ideal but any beacons are helpful. Donations are tax deductible!

    Questions? Contact-
    Kerry McClay
    Office: 208-336-4203
    kmcclay@winterwildlands.org

    Mail beacons to-
    Winter Wildlands Alliance SnowSchool
    910 Main Street, Suite 235
    Boise, Idaho 83702

  2. Just because it’s new does not always mean that it’s better. I have never had a problem finding a buried transceiver with my Pieps or Tracker2. The same goes for cars, electronics, etc.. Since I own multiple transceivers this would be a costly investment to replace only to be told that I need to do it again when the next greatest transceiver comes along.

    • The Tracker2 is a three antenna beacon, so no problem there. In my tests during guide training, I found that the old tracker 1s (in good working order) seemed to have no problem with single burials, and do pretty well with widely spaced burials. But put three packs buried a meter deep within 3 meters of each other, and the Tracker 1 simply fails. I have no problem giving Tracker 1s to clients who will probably never see a multiple burial on their own. However, a professional – be it a guide or a patroller or anybody who professes even a basic level of expertise – must have the modern gear. So, the question is: do you view yourself more as a client? or a professional?

    • Quite clearly says older than 10 years. T2 is not a decade old and is triple ant.

  3. well if you dont have one Then an old version must still be better than nothing or am I wrong on this one?

    But else i agree that the Technology moves fast – and that the new models are easier to use..
    As long People dont Think it Will do all the work, training is still a Big part of being able to find victims under the snow

  4. Is frequency drift a significant issue apart from in devices with crystal oscillators? My understanding was that in those devices it’s a serious problem and particularly dangerous as it’s worse in cold conditions. When I read the article it seems to lump that in with older two antenna devices where I didn’t think it was an issue. I’d have thought a crystal oscillator was more likely than not to have drifted at this point unless it’s been refurb’ed, unless I’ve got that all wrong!

    That’s a minor detail of a great article though!

    Another thought, the observations in the article certainly lead to the conclusion it’s worth thinking about upgrading your gear. Equally, you might add that regular inspection and servicing is just as vital (which is mentioned in the piece). Using the example of frequency drift (excepting the pieps) mostly we can’t check for it without bench equipment. And from there I think about rating devices, and the manufacturer, on their after sales. For example, are they making sure the dealer network is well equipped and trained? Modern devices are all pretty good in this electronic age so zooming in on after service is a big deal for safety critical gear. BCA are standout for this and our local Mammut guys are equally great here in the Swiss Alps.

  5. Operator proficiency is SUPER important. I have an old Tracker 2-ant and I’m 100x faster than most people I meet with the newest 3-ant beacons as they don’t practice. Sure, get a good beacon, but get out and practice with it. Having the best gear is useless if you don’t know how to us it.

  6. A good article and perhaps a little futuristic in its philosophy but a good benchmark to strive for.

    Perhaps those business’s that are a little cash strapped buy the 3 antennas and replace over a period of time and have it as a goal in your SOPS’s that after 5 years you will have all your 2 antennas replaced.

    Of course what development will occur over that period..?…. and all of a sudden 3 antennas wont be the standard anymore….then what happens to all these excess transcievers in existence…?

    Increased developments in technology whilst good for the brands producing them as of course they get a direct sales as a result.It must be mixed with a pragmatic approach and in the case of whatever avalanche transcievers the user has must practise frequently to be on top of their game.

    Dave Macleod NZOIA,NZMGA NZ and Pragmatic Educator

  7. Ken Belanger says:

    Here in Canada, the leading country for backcountry ski guiding, we have been recommending only 3 antennae transceivers for a few years. ACMG-certified Guides and CAA members will not take clients skiing and climbing with anything less. Three antennae beacons are not “new” technology, they’ve been around for several years. The Tracker DTS pictured in this article is not a 3 antennae beacon.
    Ken Bélanger
    ACMG Ski Guide
    CAA Professional Member

    • Thanks for the insightful comment. I hope the US AMGA sop will incorporate these philosophies. I am trying to get my fellow guides and professionals in my area on board but folks are slow to upgrade their fleets.

      I absolutely agree the photo should of had a Transceiver that represents the theme of the article. I was not able to choose the photo for the piece although we did send photos and graphics that represented our ideas to support the piece when we wrote it, unfortunately they were not used.

      Outside just a ran a piece on November 4th sending a similar message.
      http://www.outsideonline.com/2131886/its-time-retire-your-old-unsafe-avalanche-beacon

    • Hello Ken,

      Thanks for the insightful comment. I think that is awesome that the ACMG is doing that. I suggested that very idea to some American Guiding organizations and even some of my fellow French guiding companies and independent guides colleagues. It seems that guides are just as reluctant to invest as are consumers for now. It’s hard to upgrade a whole fleet for mountain guides. I bought my whole fleet and I don’t receive hand outs but it’s worth the piece of mind I get when I know the reliability of the equipment and the intuitive ease of use in a clients hands. Unless the client is familiar with their own device and can demonstrate it’s functions I feel much better when we are all working with the same device especially if I am orientating the group with the devices during function checks.

      That’s awesome that ACMG is moving that way. I suggested the idea that it should be in the SOP for Americans to some of my colleagues but it didn’t seem well perceived. Like I mentioned I think professionals are just as reluctant to invest in new tech just as much as recreational users are.

      Most folks would rather have new gore-tex or goggles when the ones they have are just fine, but prefer fashion to having up to date rescue equipment when it comes to budgets.

      When I wrote this piece I did submit it with different photos that were more inline the message, but back country chose the photo in the end. I completely concur and a photo that represents the message of the content should have been used. Stock photography will always deter from an authors storyline as we regularly see time and time again in Journalism.

      Nonetheless, I hope the American Association and American Avalanche programs will start to push this idea in it’s SOP for ski guides and follow suit.

  8. Working around hydro lines I have found the digital ones way more prone to noise interference. Range is less and you can’t filter the noise out in your head as it is all done on the digital device. Further you dont hear the buss of the noise so you dont know you have an interference issue. For hydro crews it seems analog still makes sense. Anyone else got noise issues with digital? We also work in crews of two so multiples are not a concern.

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