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Avalanche Beacons 101

Experts dish on the dos and don’ts of beacon use.

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By Elizabeth Szoke

Backcountry skiing can provide some truly untouched powder, unbelievable runs and solidarity—and the risk of an avalanche. That’s why avalanche beacons are one of the most important things to carry with you when you ski. A properly used beacon could make the difference between life and death. We asked the experts for their advice on how to get the most out of your beacon.

DON’T: Put your beacon in a jacket pocket or in your backpack.

DO: Carry your beacon in either the chest harness provided by the manufacturer, or in an internal pants pocket. “The motion sensor in the [Mammut] beacon only works correctly when it’s against your body, and in an avalanche, equipment can get torn off,” says Dave Furman, Mammut’s hardgoods category manager.

“You wear the chest harness above your baselayer and below all other layers, so there is almost zero chance of it being torn away or lost in an avalanche,” says Todd Walton, an Ortovox spokesman. “It offers an easy way to store and access the beacon quickly as well, and keeps it out of the way while being active and comfortable.”

DON’T: Carry your cell phone next to your beacon.

DO: Turn off electronics, or at least keep them away from your beacon. While it varies by beacon and brand, most manufacturers recommend keeping electronics at least 15 inches away from your beacon. Electronics create an electromagnetic field, causing interference with the beacon. “The best practice is to turn off all electronics. Each manufacturer has releasing statements on the range for how close electronics can be,” says Ryan Guess, the North American PIEPS snow safety equipment specialist.

DON’T: Use lithium or rechargeable batteries in most beacons.

DO: Use alkaline batteries in most beacons. “Lithium and rechargeable batteries have less predictable discharge through their lifespan than alkaline batteries,” Walton says. “The goal is to have the best performance without any doubt in charge, reliability or power issues.”

DON’T: Use old lithium batteries in Mammut’s Pulse beacon.

DO: Use fresh lithium batteries in Mammut’s Pulse beacon—the only beacon that can use lithium batteries [This was confirmed]. “The Pulse uses a timer,” Furman says. “People can only start with a new set of batteries. The beacon automatically detects the type of battery and it will know the battery life span. For this reason, you can’t, for example, take lithium batteries out of your headlamp and put them in the beacon.”

DON’T: Ignore all the numbers on the box of your beacon.

DO: Know the search-strip-width number of your beacon. “Knowing this number will help you get 100 percent coverage. When you’re trying to find a transmitting signal, you make switch backs,” Guess says. If you don’t utilize the entire search-strip width, you’re wasting time trying to find your partner.

DON’T: Rely only on your beacon.

DO: Bring other equipment and take an avalanche course. “Avalanche beacons are reactive devices that are essential after you get buried. Airbags are proactive devices that actually prevent you from getting buried in the first place, which is preferable,” says Bruce Edgerly, the vice president of marketing and sales at Backcountry Access. “Remember, 25 percent of avy fatalities are caused by trauma—and very few people survive burials deeper than six feet, due to the shoveling time required.”

“The most proactive strategy is avoiding avalanches entirely, through better avalanche awareness and terrain choices,” Edgerly says. “This is best learned in an avalanche course.”

DON’T:Use an unfamiliar beacon.

DO:Practice, practice, practice. “The best beacon is the beacon the person knows how to use. I can’t stress this enough,” Guess says. “A device may seem easy when you are calm and practicing with it in your backyard, but, depending on the rescuer, that same device can become very confusing (when panicked and under high stress)—this occurs with even the ‘simplest’ beacons on the market.”

“The best gear in the world isn’t worth much if you don’t know how to use it properly,” Walton says. “That goes for ABS packs, beacons, RECCO—you name it.”