December 17, 2021

How to Choose and Use an Avalanche Transceiver

by Jullie

There are three crucial things that one should have when traveling, playing, or skiing in snowy backcountry locations: a shovel, probe, and an avalanche transceiver (also known as an avalanche beacon). It’s also vital that you train or travel with friends who know how to use the avalanche transceiver. Why? You may ask.

Carrying avalanche transceivers with you can mean the difference between life and death in case of an avalanche. If you find yourself in this situation, your survival depends on how fast rescuers can locate you and excavate you from the snow. As such, it’s even more critical that you get some personal training on how to use the device in any case.

Remember that knowing how to use your transceiver is even more critical than selecting the best transceiver. Now that you know what you should carry let’s dive in a little more and learn more about what an avalanche transceiver is, transceiver features, and how to use the device.


Table of Contents

What is an Avalanche Transceiver?

These are devices worn close to a hiker, skier, or other individuals playing in the snow and continuously emit radio signals that other transceivers can pick in the location. Suppose you get buried by an avalanche. In that case, your companions can switch their transceivers to search mode to help them locate your signal and know where to dig.

All transceivers operate on the 457kHz frequency (an international standard adopted in 1986). The global standardized operating frequency means that you don’t have to get the same brand as your companions. It also means that you won’t have to pay more for expensive brands unless you want a transceiver with more features.

Differences Between Transceivers and PLBs

Avalanche transceivers are pretty different from PLBs (short for Personal Locator Beacons). PLBs are used to send SOS signals to search and rescue teams; however, PLBs aren’t that effective since such units are more likely to be far away to help with rescue than using transceivers and hiking with companions.

Still, PLBs are pretty important since they can help search and rescue locate you in case you need some medical assistance, evacuation, or any other type of help. Note: Experts like to refer to avalanche transceivers instead of beacons to avoid confusion with Personal Locator Beacons.

Probe 

While most people remember to carry avalanche transceivers and avalanche shovels, they always forget to bring probes. While you can use the transceiver to locate locations where victims are buried and shovels to dig them up, most of them forget how essential probes are.

Probes help rescuers pinpoint the location and depth of a burial victim. Probes have been recorded to reduce rescue time by 15 minutes, which is a huge deal considering it’s a life or death situation.

All three tools are essential and mandatory for staying safe during avalanches; thus, it would be good to ensure that you carry all three during your trip. It’s also critical that you learn how to use all three items.

Features of an Avalanche Transceiver

Highly proceed transceivers tend to be more sophisticated and have more features than low-priced transceivers. Often, they are also lighter in comparison and have a compact design. However, you have to note that transceivers with advanced features can do more harm than good, especially in sensitive situations.

Such features may look excellent on paper; however, they may get complicated, especially for amateur users using them for the first time. The best transceivers are those that individuals can operate efficiently, especially in emergencies, because they are familiar with their quirks and features. You’ll need to consider some features before selecting an avalanche transceiver.

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Number of antennas

Most modern transceivers have three antennae that help rescuers pinpoint the buried individual’s location more accurately regardless of their transceiver’s orientation. This is a great, must-have design that greatly helps buried victims get help in time.

Display screen

Your avalanche transceiver should have an intuitive and easy-to-use display screen that helps communicate the buried victim’s distance and direction. The user interface may vary between brands and models; however, most are relatively easy to use.

Range

Stated ranges are often a best-case scenario, and you should take them as such. If your device has a greater range, they’ll allow you to pick signals further away. However, the reality is that the projected range is often shorter than the actual range because of the sending unit’s orientation.

It’s recommended that you make 20-meter search swaths when looking for an avalanche victim. Thus, your avalanche transceiver should have a minimum 20-meter range for effective search and rescue.

Multiple burials

Transceivers with multiple burial features are effective in instances where there are numerous burial victims. The feature allows you to flag different locations for various victims while searching for other buried party members. After you’re done, you can come back and rescue each flagged victim. This helps increase each victim’s survival rate.

Audio signal

Ensure that you select avalanche transceivers that emit audible signals for easier searches. Such signals are an added advantage since they help rescuers know where to search since the signal grows louder as one comes closer to the device sending the signal.

Auto revert to send

This feature is designed to switch the avalanche transceiver to send if left in search mode without being used for a certain period. This feature works differently between various models and could be more or less helpful in varying scenarios.

Pros

  • It helps switch your device to transmit in instances where rescuers are buried by secondary avalanches while on a rescue mission.
  • Switch your transceiver to send mode if you forget to do that initially.

Cons

  • Subsequent avalanches could rip transceivers from the rescuer’s hands, which could divert other searchers to the separated transceiver instead of the victim.
  • Transceivers that auto-revert their signal can confuse rescuers looking for buried victims, which could make them lose more time.

Backup transmitter

Backup transmitters are different from avalanche transceivers. They are another product designed to transmit the owner’s location if they are separated from their transceiver by a second avalanche while searching for a victim.

Transceiver Batteries

It’s always critical that you use recommended batteries on your transceiver. For instance, your transceiver may be designed for use with alkaline batteries. While alkaline batteries lose power quickly, the loss is often gradual, which helps provide reliable battery readings.

If your transceiver is designed to be used with lithium batteries, then you’ll have to do so. However, lithium batteries often die precipitously, providing users with unreliable battery-level readings. Regardless, some transceivers are designed for use with lithium batteries (they are designed to give the users proper battery level readings).

As such, it’ll be better for you if you use lithium batteries for the unit. Note: Store replacement batteries close to the body to prevent the cold from affecting their performance. Remove the batteries from the unit for long-term storage.

Tips for Using Avalanche Transceivers

Carry the transceiver as recommended by the manual

Most transceivers have harnesses that prevent the user from being separated from the transceiver in case of an avalanche. You must carry your transceiver as indicated in the manual. It’s also crucial that you carry it below your outer layer of clothing close to your torso.

Don’t store your transceiver in your backpack or your pockets unless the pockets are zippered and have a sewn-in loop attached to the transceiver’s lanyard. Check the manual for the recommended method of carrying your transceiver.

Learn and do regular practice on how t use the transceiver

A victim’s survival rate often drops significantly after 10 minutes of being stuck in the ground. As such, you must learn and get proficient in using a transceiver. You could do this by reading the manual, taking some avalanche rescue classes, practicing with the probe transceiver and shovel.

Keep the transceiver in send mode.

It’s essential to keep your transceiver in send mode ’till you need to perform a search. This is because it’ll be challenging to switch your transceiver to send mode if you get buried by an avalanche. Keeping your transceiver in send mode helps rescuers get your signal by switching their transceivers to search mode.

Understand that there can be some electronic interference

It’ll be great if you avoid carrying other electronic devices like mobile phones close to your avalanche transceiver. The devices may interfere with your transmitter’s signals during a search, which could be catastrophic.

Perform a Trailhead Avalanche Transceiver Check

Doing this helps confirm that both search and send modes function perfectly and that each individual’s transceiver is in send mode before starting your climb. Here’s how to perform the checks.

Step 1: Check the battery levels

  • Check the battery levels and ensure that they are over 75%. Individuals with battery percentages that are below 75% should change their batteries.

Step 2: Ensure that the transceiver’s search function works

  • Stand in a circle and let one individual set to transmit mode.
  • Tell the other members to switch to search mode and check if all signals are sent and received correctly.

Step 3: ensure the send mod works

  • Let the leader move a 20-feet distance and switch their transceivers to search mode.
  • Let each individual walk past the leader from a 20-feet perimeter.
  • The leader should confirm having received each member’s signal.
  • Ensure the leader switches to send mode before you head out. Someone from the group should verify the fact.

RECCO Reflectors vs. Avalanche Transceivers

RECCO reflectors aren’t the same as avalanche transceivers. They are typically sewn into ski gear and backpacks and can bounce off signals emitted by a sophisticated RECCO detector unit.

The detector sends signals that bounce off the victim’s reflector enabling rescuers to locate their position. However, they aren’t practical in open areas and thus, are often used in ski resorts.

Note: your safety is your responsibility, and no video or internet article can replace experience and proper instructions. This article is meant to offer supplementary information. As such, you must understand the safety requirements and proper techniques before participating in outdoor activities. Get familiar with useful terms, such as what is a bergschrund.

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About the author 

Jullie

Jullie is a professional indoor climber. She loves speed climbing competitions. This style makes her feel like she's flying. Maybe because her other passion is flying airplanes. Obviously, high speeds are her thing.

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