An avalanche beacon (or, more accurately, an avalanche transceiver) is a critical piece of gear for your survival in the backcountry. It needs to be reliable and you need to know how to use it effectively in high stress situations. In this article, we choose an overall best avalanche beacon for 2018 based on current availability. I’ll give you a hint – it isn’t the beacon in the image above. I will also look at the best beacon for people on a budget and the best for new backcountry skiers.
The criteria taken into consideration are range, speed, single burial search, multiple burial search, fine search, ease of use, value, and the additional features of the transceiver.
Beacon Technology – A Story of Three Antennas
Single Antenna Beacons
Once upon a time, and not all that long ago, avalanche transceivers had but one lonely antenna. Under perfect conditions, single antenna transceivers perform just fine, but they quickly fall short. In search mode, if the flux lines of the buried beacon are not aligned with the searching beacon, the range is significantly reduced. Single antenna beacons don’t give you any indication of direction and most don’t display a range. In this day and age, these dinosaurs shouldn’t even be considered when you’re heading into the backcountry.
Two Antenna Beacons
After the era of single antenna transceivers came (big surprise here) 2 antenna beacons. The antennas are mounted perpendicular to one another, and greatly enhance the beacon’s ability to pinpoint a burial. The signal strength from each antenna is used in a calculation to narrow down the location. The first beacon with 2 antennas (antennae?) was the Backcountry Access Tracker DTS, which was released in 1997. It has 5 lights at the top that indicate the direction you should go when searching. What a revolution! The Tracker DTS quickly became the beacon of choice for many due to its ease of use.
Although the Tracker DTS is still sold today, over 20 years later, dual antenna beacons are not without their limitations. Where they fall short, along with single antenna beacons, is in the fine search. A fine search is when you are trying to pinpoint the exact point of the strongest signal. Beacons with 2 antennas can experience what are called ‘spikes’ in the signal. The result of this is that the beacon may give a false reading during your fine search. It’s pretty obvious that this is bad news. In shallow burial scenarios this isn’t much of an issue, but where it really creates problems is when the burial is deep.
Three Antenna Beacons
Nearly all modern beacons have 3 antennas, and have directional and distance indicators. The third antenna is used only in fine search to resolve the spikes I mentioned above. Three antenna transceivers have all of the advantages of 2 antenna transceivers, but don’t have any issues with fine search. In deep burial scenarios, a 3 antenna beacon has much higher accuracy than a 2 antenna beacon.
You’ll also find advanced features such as marking/flagging burials (useful in multiple burial situations) and deep search mode on some transceivers. If you’re looking for a new avalanche beacon in 2018, I would highly recommend a 3 antenna beacon.
Range: how far from the burial the signal can reliably be detected.
Speed: how quickly the beacon interprets a signal. During fine search especially, some transceivers can experience delays while processing.
Single Burial: how well the beacon allows a user to pinpoint a single buried victim.
Multi Burial: how well the beacon allows a user to pinpoint multiple buried victims.
Fine Search: how accurate the fine search mode is. This is a crucial piece.
Ease of Use: is the beacon user friendly or confusing? Would someone unfamiliar with your beacon be able to pick it up and immediately be able to figure it out?
Value: cost vs. performance.
Additional Features: common additional features include an inclinometer, auto revert-to-send, marking/flagging, group check, compass, etc. Beacon manufacturers must be careful to ensure these features are easy to use and do not hinder searching for a buried partner.
The Best Avalanche Beacon in 2018
After much careful consideration of top of the line avalanche transceivers available in 2018, we have a winner. But first, let’s discuss the losers. The losers in this case are still excellent transceivers and would be an excellent choice for backcountry ski touring.
Before I announce the big winner, let’s talk about the 2 beacons that were close seconds. Either of these would be a great choice for backcountry skiing and only narrowly lost out on the championship.
The first runner up is the Backcountry Access (BCA) Tracker 3. This is the third iteration of the famous Tracker DTS, and now has 3 antennas, a slick mobile-phone like shell, and is fully featured. With a range of 50 meters, and offered at a lower price point than most top of the line beacons it also provides great value. The downsides are that the display screen is barely adequate, and the un-marking feature can be a bit wonky.
The second runner up is the Pieps DSP Pro Ice. It has a range of 60 meters, excellent battery life, is fully featured but still very easy to use. The marking functions make multiple burial situation a breeze (or as much of a breeze as they can be). One oddity that most Pieps beacons suffer from is that the battery life is displayed in thirds. The other minor negative is that it’s around $30 more than the Pieps DSP Pro, and the only noticeable difference is a different plastic case. It’s up to you whether that’s worth it. That said, this is a solid beacon that would serve you well.
The Big Winner
Drum roll please…and the winner for best avalanche transceiver 2018 is the Mammut Barryvox S, which is the newest version of the Barryvox Pulse from Mammut. The Barryvox Pulse was one of the best beacons on the market for years, and the Barryvox S is better in many ways, especially performance during fine search. Check out our full review for more details.
I want to let you know up front that the Barryvox S has some fairly advanced features and is quite expensive (but on par with other top of the line beacons). If you’re not an advanced user, you could definitely consider a less expensive model like the Mammut Barryvox (no S) or the BCA Tracker 2 (more details about that one below). The Barryvox S is best suited for guides or backcountry travelers that have a lot of experience and will make use of the advanced features. That said, it’s still very easy to use, so don’t be shy if you can afford it or can’t resist its allure (that’s right, it has allure).
Range and Speed
The range of the Barryvox S is, as it should be, top notch. In real world tests, it lived up to the claimed 75 meter range, and if you flip it to analogue mode, the range increases to a staggering 95 meters. The Barryvox Pulse wasn’t the fastest performing beacon on the market, but this has been addressed in the new S. It is now one of, if not the, fastest beacon in all phases of the search. The BCA Tracker 2 and 3 may still hold a bit of an edge with their lightning quick processing, but the S isn’t far behind.
Single and Multiple Burial
In a single burial scenario, the Barryvox S is hard to beat. It gives you a clear direction indicator arrow on its fantastic screen that is quite easy to understand. It even gives you a U-turn type indicator if you’ve gone too far. The aforementioned speed helps as well – locking onto a signal is lightning fast.
The Barryvox S also shines in multiple burial situations. Flagging or marking a signal in order to concentrate on the next burial is straightforward. You can also go back to previously flagged burials in the event that you need to search for them again. When two burials are in close proximity, the Barryvox S does a great job of focusing on one signal. This is something that many transceivers struggle with.
The Barryvox Pulse was criticized for its below average performance during a fine search. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but you did have to move fairly slowly when doing a fine search. With the Barryvox S, that has all changed. It’s as fast as most beacons out there and faster than the vast majority. Nice work, Mammut. It also displays a helpful graphic to remind you to keep the beacon in the same orientation when doing your fine search.
The Barryvox S is as fully featured as they come, bar none. The Ortovox S1+ is a close second, but the Mammut has it beaten. It supports the W-Link communication channel which is useful for fleets of beacons. It is lithium battery compatible, which is surprisingly rare. One nice touch is that it takes 2 hands to switch to search mode, so doing this accidentally is basically impossible. It also has an analogue mode, as mentioned, which is useful in some situations.
It has a revert-to-send feature that can be fine-tuned as to how long it takes before reverting. The user interface is quite user-friendly, and when you first turn it on it prompts you for a group check, which is nice and easy to use. What’s neat about the group check is that you can change the detection range from 1 to 5 meters, making group beacon checks a snap.
The look and feel of the Barryvox S is top notch, and the carry case is comfortable. It’s marginally smaller than the Barryvox Pulse, but still has decent heft in your hand.
Ease of Use and Value
Although this beacon has some advanced features, it is still straight forward to use in both single and multi burial situations. The speed and clear direction indicators make searching as good as it can be. In terms of value, it is one of the more expensive beacons on the market (check the current price on Amazon), but you are getting a lot for that high price. If you’re an advanced user, a guide, or a patroller, you’ll get your money’s worth.
Best Budget Beacon
If you don’t need or want all of the flashy functions of the Barryvox S, our recommendation is the BCA Tracker2. This is the first successor to the Backcountry Access Tracker DTS, and the biggest upgrade is the addition of a third antenna. It is still super easy to use, has directional indicators, is lightning fast and has excellent battery life. Like the Tracker DTS before it, this is one of the most intuitive avalanche transceivers on the market.
It does have its limitations. The range (50 meters) is somewhat limited compared to higher end models. It lacks flagging/marking functions for multiple burial situations, and is slightly larger than a transceiver really needs to be. But…the value. So much value. At its price point, you can do no better.
Check out our full review of the Tracker2 here for more info on this excellent avalanche transceiver.
You would do well with any of the 4 transceivers described in this article, as well as with the little brother to the Barryvox S, the Mammut Barryvox. But if you’re looking for the creme de la creme, the Mammut Barryvox S is the transceiver you need in your life.
If you’re looking for information on other avalanche gear, such as probes or avalanche airbag packs, check out my other articles. The Gear Archives is a good place to start, and if you’re new (or new-ish) to the backcountry, read my Beginner’s Gear Guide to get an idea of what you’ll need.
If you agree or disagree with this beacon assessment, leave your thoughts below.