Last updated on February 8th, 2021 at 08:15 pm
In March 2018, Colorado experienced a record-breaking 500 avalanches in nine days. It was part of an unprecedented winter season that closed some roads for weeks and claimed dozens of lives.
Of course, none of us like to think about the possibility of an avalanche. It’s often the farthest thing from our minds when we’re up on the slopes enjoying a bluebird day.
However, it’s a dangerous reality that all skiers need to learn about — and prepare for.
Have you heard about a device called an avalanche transceiver? If you’re not familiar with this piece of equipment, it’s time to get acquainted. Keep reading to learn how avalanche beacons work (and how they could save your life someday).
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What Is an Avalanche Transceiver?
An avalanche transceiver (also called an avalanche beacon) is an electronic safety device. It can emit and receive an electromagnetic radio signal to help rescuers find someone who’s buried in an avalanche.
All avalanche beacons, regardless of type or brand, transmit a signal at 457 kHz. Other transceivers in the area can detect and locate the source of the signal if they’re within 70 meters of it.
Who Needs an Avalanche Beacon?
Before we dive further into how avalanche transceivers work, let’s first be clear about who should carry them.
Skiing On Piste
Ski resorts do an excellent job of monitoring snow conditions on their mountains. Most green and blue runs are groomed regularly, ensuring the snow is stable. These easier ski slope levels are generally not steep, meaning there’s no real chance of an avalanche occurring on a “groomer.”
Even the majority of black diamond or expert runs pose no significant threat of an avalanche. If there are any unstable areas located between runs, the resort will mark these areas as “out of bounds” or “do not enter.” For your own safety, be sure to follow these and other skiing rules on the mountain.
So, then, what’s the takeaway? If you’re skiing on piste at a resort, there’s no need to carry an avalanche beacon. By regularly monitoring and grooming the runs, the resort can ensure safe and stable conditions for everyone.
Skiing Off Piste
Avalanche transceivers are designed primarily for backcountry or off piste use.
These are areas away from established resorts where skiers hike or drive to enjoy untouched, ungroomed powder. Because these areas are not monitored, dangerous conditions (such as heavy snowfall on weak underlying snowpack) can sometimes occur.
This is why carrying an avalanche beacon is essential if you venture into the backcountry. You have no way of knowing how stable or unstable the snow beneath your feet will be.
How Avalanche Beacons Work
Avalanche transceivers are powerful tools, but they’ll only help in an emergency if you know how to use them.
How to Prepare Your Beacon
To start with, every member of your party should carry their own beacon. Wear your beacon inside your ski jacket to keep the batteries warm. This also ensures it won’t be ripped away from you in the event of an actual avalanche.
This is our most important tip, so take note: Make sure that everyone activates their beacon before setting off into the backcountry. If conditions change suddenly, it’s unlikely you’ll have time to reach inside your jacket and switch on your transceiver.
It’s also vital that everyone in your party also carries their own probe and shovel. That way, you’re all prepared for an emergency rescue operation.
Before you head out, make sure the battery and display are working properly, as well as the “search” and “send” functions. When functioning correctly, the beacon will transmit a quiet electronic beep about once a second.
Like the emergency flotation cushion on an airplane, hopefully you’ll never need to use your avalanche transceiver. If your group does encounter such a scenario, here’s how avalanche beacons work.
How Beacons Communicate: The 457 kHz Frequency
This frequency is universally used because of its long wavelength. It can pass through snow, rocks, and vegetation without bouncing off other objects.
If someone gets buried in an avalanche, everyone else in your party can switch their beacons to “search” or “receiving” mode. If anyone moves within 40-80 meters of the buried beacon, they’ll be able to hear its signal. The closer they move to the buried transceiver, the stronger the signal will become.
Transceiver technology changes rapidly, but one thing experts agree on is that most people don’t practice using theirs enough. Get familiar with the best search patterns, perhaps holding a few practice sessions at the start of each season.
Analog vs Digital Transceivers
Analog beacons are gradually fading out of the market as newer digital and hybrid options become available. However, if you’re looking to save money (and you don’t mind some extra practice), analog beacons have a wide search range and are good for picking up signals from a farther distance.
Digital transceivers rely on computer-like microprocessors to locate victims. They’re generally easy to use and can greatly reduce the search-and-rescue time. A slight drawback is that they don’t have as wide a range as analog beacons.
There are also some hybrid beacons that combine the best features of analog and digital. It’s worth doing some research to see which type best suits your needs and experience.
Skiing Off Piste? Don’t Forget Your Avalanche Transceiver
If you’re enjoying a leisurely day on the groomers, you shouldn’t have to worry about getting caught in an avalanche. However, if you plan to travel into the backcountry or go skiing off piste, an avalanche transceiver could literally save your life.
Make sure that you and your friends are equipped with beacons and the other equipment mentioned above. Practice often to keep your “beacon search” skills sharp. That way, you can remain safe and confident while you enjoy skiing in the backcountry.
What else do you need to bring to ensure you have a safe and enjoyable day of skiing? Click here for our recommendations and in-depth guides to the best ski gear.