In late 2010, a backcountry skier on Colorado’s Berthoud Pass was causing major trouble for local search and rescue teams. Under the incorrect belief that an avalanche transceiver and a personal locator beacon (PLB) were the same thing, he’d push the SOS signal on his PLB every time he was about to drop into a run.
Over the course of a few weeks, the unidentified skier pushed the button on his unregistered device six times, causing search and rescue (SAR) teams from Clear Creek, Gilpin, and Jefferson counties—most of whom are unpaid volunteers—to scramble into action. When they arrived at the location of the distress signal, all they found were ski tracks.
Eventually, once the authorities figured out the signal was coming from the same unregistered device, SAR teams stopped responding to the signal according to The Denver Post. Authorities later discovered that every time the Berthoud Pass skier triggered a SAR response, he was never actually wearing an avalanche transceiver.
Not only did this skier unnecessarily dispatch SAR, but he also put the rescue professionals in a difficult position: They decided to ignore the SOS calls from that particular PLB, but what if that skier had actually had an emergency? This real-life example demonstrates how essential it is that backcountry skiers know how to use their safety equipment properly.
In 2019, according to Snowsports Industries of America, backcountry skiing continued to be the fastest-growing segment of winter sports in North America. Meanwhile, over the past decade, backcountry rescue devices have become even more complex and diverse. Avalanche transceivers are considered mandatory for all backcountry skiers (as well as knowledge of how to use them), while PLBs are less commonly found on backcountry skiers. That said, a PLB is still an essential piece of backcountry safety gear. In addition, RECCO reflectors and other devices are recommended for those traveling into ski terrain beyond chairlifts.
Knowing the difference between the three, as well as how to use them, can save you and your backcountry partners—and local authorities—a lot of time in an emergency situation.
Note: There is no rescue device that can replace the knowledge gained in an avalanche education course certified by the American Avalanche Association (AAA) and/or the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE).
Sometimes called avy beacons, avalanche transceivers are devices that actively transmit and search for an electronic signal at a limited range. They are specifically designed to locate victims buried by avalanches and are generally regarded as the fastest way to find someone in a full burial. Because of this, they are typically listed first in the three avalanche rescue items skiers need when venturing into the backcountry: transceiver, shovel, probe.
There are a variety of brands and models of avalanche transceivers on the market. Whichever you choose, the most important thing is that your transceiver—and your partners’ transceiver—operate at the 457 kHz range, which has been the industry standard since the early 1990s.
Like most electronics, the functionality of avalanche transceivers can waver and deteriorate over time. That’s why it's a good idea to replace your transceiver every three to four years. Plus, similar to upgrading a smartphone, updating an avalanche transceiver every few seasons will provide users with newer features, faster processors, and, with sufficient practice, possibly make finding someone in an emergency situation more efficient.
For recreational skiers, there has never been a better time to upgrade an avalanche transceiver. Many brands are making extremely easy-to-use, reasonably priced options that have simple displays and minimal bells and whistles. Some of SKI’s favorites include the Black Diamond Recon BT, the BCA Tracker S, and the Mammut Barryvox.
Guide- and professional-level transceivers feature more complex functionality, but at an increased cost. While these functions, when used properly, can be very helpful in extreme emergency situations, they require more practice and training to be implemented properly. SKI’s picks for professional-level options include the Ortovox S1+, the Arva Neo+, and the BCA Tracker 3.
Regardless of the brand and model, the most important thing to remember about avalanche transceivers is how to use them and to practice using them often. Many ski areas now have avalanche transceiver practice areas specifically for this purpose. Teaming up with a few friends in a safe area to use transceivers for various types of hide-and-seek games is another great option.
BCA: Beacon Searching 101
RECCO Reflectors and Detectors
If you’ve purchased a shell or bib pants for skiing in the past few years, there is probably a RECCO reflector inside. Reflectors are also starting to find their way into ski boots, helmets, belts, and even into avalanche transceivers.
A RECCO reflector is a passive object that can reflect a radar signal back to a RECCO detector, which can help locate a buried avalanche victim. RECCO reflectors are generally considered a back-up option should someone be buried in an avalanche without an avalanche transceiver, or if a transceiver is damaged in an avalanche.
While RECCO reflectors are quite small and becoming ubiquitous in ski outerwear, RECCO detectors are quite large, cumbersome, expensive, and generally only used by ski patrol, SAR, and heli-skiing operations. The modern handheld RECCO detector is about the size of a college textbook with a handle, which makes it less than ideal for recreational skiers to haul around on ever ski tour. RECCO detectors have become more common for North American snow safety professionals and SAR teams.
Over the past few years, SAR teams in North America and Europe have begun using the RECCO SAR Helicopter Detector. About the size of a keg of beer, the heli detector can cover a huge amount of terrain quickly (one square kilometer in six minutes, according to the company). This obviously expedites the “search” aspect for SAR teams when it comes to finding a missing person in the wilderness, and it's why RECCO reflectors are finding their way into more summer-specific equipment in addition to all types of winter gear.
The most important thing about RECCO reflectors for recreational backcountry users is to know if your partner has one or more reflectors on their person. This information can be critical in an emergency situation for ski patrol, SAR, and other authorities in order to know what equipment to use. If you want to add more RECCO reflectors to your kit, the company makes reflector belts, stick-on reflectors, and a reflector that can loop on to a backpack.
"Use all means to be found in an avalanche"
Personal Locator Beacons and Satellite Messengers
PLBs have come a long way since 2010. Originally designed for SOS and one-way message transmission, brands like Spot, Garmin, and BivyStick now make devices with two-way SMS messaging options, Bluetooth phone connectivity, and sleek real-time mapping software that can be shared privately or publicly on the internet.
If there is an emergency in the backcountry where there is little or no cell phone service, PLBs can be a lifeline for summoning nearby SAR operations. That's why it’s a great idea for backcountry travelers to have a PLB in addition to an avalanche transceiver and RECCO reflectors.
Although there is no substitute for having avalanche burial rescue training as well as wilderness medical training, being able to have professionals on their way when needed is important when time matters.
The two-way messaging features found on most new PLBs are also very handy, especially in backcountry zones with limited cell phone service. Besides being able to check in throughout the day with status and location information, two-way messaging devices can also be a great way to let the right people know that everything is OK when an adventure takes longer than expected or if a rendezvous spot has changed.
Spot, Garmin, and BivyStick offer various devices with SOS, mapping software, and two-way SMS messaging via a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone with a subscription plan. Only the Spot X device, however, offers all of the above with a Blackberry-style keyboard on the device itself, a critical feature should the smartphone’s battery die. That makes the Spot X the ideal choice for extended adventures beyond the range of cell phone service.
While it’s true that any backcountry skier needs an avalanche transceiver before any other type of backcountry rescue device, adding at least one RECCO reflector to your kit and a PLB would be a great idea for you and your backcountry partners. Keep in mind that any rescue device is only as functional as the person using it, so be sure to read all instructions for every device and take at least one AAA or AIARE-certified avalanche education course before heading out beyond the ropes.