After writing that I’d have beacon test results up sometime in the future, it’s already almost a year later before it actually happened. My apologies. That’s a whole lotta futuristic planning… However, I didn’t just want to test out two or three beacons, either. All told, we (skimo.co and t&w.com) got 6 into this test: the Arva Neo, BCA Tracker, Ortovox D3, Ortovox S1, Ortovox X1, and the Pieps DSP.
Taking the planning phase into reality, on a very hot day recently, J-Bo and I spent a whole lotta time getting cooked by the sun and eaten alive by bugs in a field. (I forgot the bug spray in my car) No one asked us to do this. We did it of our own choosing, because we wanted to gather some data. Specifically, we were curious about the range(s) of various avalanche beacons produced by various manufacturers. And we were obviously curious about the very beacons we choose to wear around ourselves. We devised a simple test to provide some simple results, a basic apples-to-apples comparison.
That said, here’s what we did:
- Chose a field with relatively low interference from radio towers, cell towers, etc.
- Turned off our personal phones.
- Laid out a measured climbing rope in a relatively straight line in the field.
- Measured and marked off different length increments.
- Used a tape measure to measure the distances between these increments. (No beacon’s results provided a ‘hit’ beyond the rope length of 211 feet.)
- All measurements in feet, rounded to the nearest foot.
- One tester handled the beacons, laying them sideways, horizontally, or holding them vertically, after placing them into transmit mode. We switched up the ‘seeker’ and ‘buried’ function.
- The other tester started off at the far end of the rope, walking towards the beacons with the ‘test’ unit switched to receive. Beacons were held at navel height, level, in the usual search position.
- A reasonable signal strength merited a stop. That was indicated by more than three audible sounds, combined with visual indications of a received signal (lights, numbers) as relevant per beacon. One without the other did not merit a stop.
- The received signal length was measured at this stopping point.
- All batteries were measured as being fresh and fully charged. At one point I suspected a weak signal might be due to weak batteries. This was not the case.
- As we had no duplicate beacons, we didn’t test any beacon’s ability to locate itself. J-Bo came up with some clever averages to fill in this gap, but I omitted these in the interests of only presenting measured data.
To be sure, there are a thousand things one could say about this test and its accuracy as regards each individual beacon. For example, beacons work best on concentric circles, so walking in a straight line towards the signal probably favors one beacon design over another.
The beacons are mostly all of different ages and have provided different levels of service life prior to the test.
Aside from Arva, who supplied the Neo beacon, the others were supplied by J-Bo, myself, or friends. These are off-the-shelf performances; the beacons were bought as you would buy a beacon. For the most part, there should be no ‘special’ models with enhanced range designed to give superior performance. (I already gave the Arva caveat).
Now to the data. Some of these are two antenna, and some three antenna, beacons. All are digital; if you want to use an analog beacon in the backcountry, please ski with someone besides me or J-Bo.. We were, as you might be, shocked at some of the data. Particularly the beacons that allowed us to get close enough to the other during search mode to tally the thread count on the other’s socks before receiving a solid signal. If it’s time for you to upgrade your beacon, this chart may be helpful. Don’t take it as gospel, however. As mentioned, a thousand factors could affect the performance you’d get in an actual avalanche rescue scenario. Starting with your ability to remember to switch your beacon to ‘receive’ from ‘send’ during a panicky moment..
Remember there are a ton of considerations behind the purchase of an avalanche beacon. This chart is simply one more thing you might think about. Draw your own conclusions.