If you spend any time skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing in the backcountry, you and your buddies must each carry 3 vital pieces of gear: an avalanche transceiver (also called an avalanche beacon), a probe and a shovel. A transceiver in the hands of a trained and practiced user can make the difference between life or death if an avalanche strikes.
But beware of the false sense of security that people sometimes have while wearing transceivers. They are not a substitute for thorough understanding of snow conditions, smart route-finding and a willingness to turn back if necessary.
For an overview of all your avalanche gear options, see the REI Expert Advice article, Avalanche Safety Gear.
Shop REI's selection of avalanche transceivers.
How Do Avalanche Transceivers Work?
Avalanche transceivers are devices that emit a pulsed radio signal. If one gets buried in an avalanche, other transceivers carried by the party pick up the signal being emitted from under the snow. The receiving transceivers interpret the signal into a visual and audible display that assists the search.
Transceivers are effective only when carried as the manufacturer recommends. They must be strapped around the waist or over the shoulder—worn underneath the outer layer of clothing—rather than stowed in a pack.
Each must be set to "transmit" mode while the group is underway. When buried, a transceiver set to "transmit" mode will continue sending its signal. Other transceivers in the area can then be set to "receive" mode to receive the signal.
When searching for buried victims, speed really matters. It's critical that you understand your avalanche transceiver and regularly practice using it before you ever enter the backcountry. Each manufacturer provides detailed instructions on how to use its technology. Practice using it at home and take an avalanche safety course with a qualified instructor.
WARNING: Avalanche victims can die from either asphyxiation or trauma. For those victims who are buried alive, transceivers can be highly effective tools in saving lives. There are no guarantees, however. First and foremost, you must recognize and avoid dangerous avalanche conditions.
For more information, read the REI Expert Advice avalanche basics articles.
Types of Transceivers
All avalanche transceivers intended for use in North America transmit and receive electronic signals in the same way. How they process or interpret that signal for the user to read differs among models.
- Digital transceivers use multiple antennas and a microprocessor to translate the electronic signals into a beeping tone and a visual display. The display is either an LCD or LED panel that shows distance and direction of the transmitting transceiver. The audible signal on these transceivers changes as the received signal strengthens. Digital transceivers light up or show direction on a display panel to help point toward the buried transceiver.
- Analog transceivers respond by emitting audible beeps that get louder as they get closer to the buried transceiver. Some models also use a visual indicator. Visual indicators are useful because it is often difficult to detect changes in sound volume when there is high wind or multiple buried transceivers.
Nearly all transceivers sold these days are digital models, as they are easier to use and generally faster at locating victims. Many digital transceivers include an analog mode so they can be compatible with both types of transceivers.
Frequencies and compatibility:
- All transceivers on the market today operate on the 457kHz frequency. They are compatible with one another and with dual-frequency models.
- Dual frequency (2.275kHz and 457kHz) transceivers were common up to 1996 when manufacturers made the shift to all 457kHz. These old models should be retired because they 1) Have a lower range, and 2) Use ceramic resonators which over time are more likely to drift off the 457kHz signal.
- Always do a pre-trip check to ensure all transceivers in your party are transmitting.
Which Transceiver Is Right for You?
Most transceivers today feature 3 antennas. This offers the critical advantage of having 3 points of orientation and 3 signaling apparatus.
Transceivers most strongly broadcast the plane in which the antenna is oriented. Thus, a horizontally oriented searcher and a horizontally buried victim line up best. Advanced transceivers can identify the best potential antenna signal to more quickly pair up the orientation of victim and searcher.
Display screen: This communicates the direction and distance of buried victims.
Multiple burials: Many newer models let you flag the location of each buried victim so you can quickly move on to search for additional victims.
Audio reinforcement: Some models provide acoustic search guidance in addition to the display’s visuals.
Range: The distance given by the manufacturer often represents the optimal antenna alignment/signal. Transceivers with a greater range may allow you to pick up a signal from a farther distance, but range is still dependent on the orientation of the transmitting transceiver to the receiving transceiver.
Batteries: Always use the type of batteries recommended by the manufacturer as battery types will affect the transceiver’s run time and efficiency. Shop REI's selection of batteries.
The leading manufacturers each offer their own technologies:
- Mammut transceivers include a secondary frequency, called W-Link, that broadcasts additional details to other W-Link capable transceivers. Per Mammut, W-Link signals better resolve multiple-burial scenarios and allow quicker marking/unmarking of victims. They can even detect micro-movements (e.g., a heartbeat) of the buried victims.
- Ortovox transceivers feature Smart-Antenna-Technology that they say “analyzes the position of the transceiver in an avalanche and switches automatically to the best transmission antenna.” In vertical-burial situations, Ortovox claims this technology provides 43% more range than other manufacturers’ devices.
- Multiple-antenna technology from Pieps and Backcountry Access similarly allows you to hone in on a victim quickly by maximizing the potential of each antenna.
What Are RECCO Reflectors?
RECCO® reflectors are not transceivers. They are thin, card-size units that are embedded by some manufacturers into ski products such as jackets, pants, boots, helmets—and even inside the Ortovox 3+ and S1+ transceiver models.
RECCO reflectors complement—but do NOT replace—the use of avalanche transceivers. These passive reflectors enhance the radio signals sent by the RECCO detector units used by many search-and-rescue organizations. This may mean quicker acquisition of a victim's position in an avalanche.
The RECCO system offers many benefits:
- The reflector is a passive, battery-free device that requires no action or education on the part of the wearer.
- It is imbedded in the gear, so it's likely to stay with the person buried in an avalanche.
- When a signal is received, RECCO detectors lead the operator in a direct line to the victim. These signals can be picked up by either ground- or helicopter-based searchers.
- RECCO signals are not related to, nor do they interfere with, transceiver searches, so both approaches can be used in the same area at the same time.
Shop REI's selection of avalanche transceivers.