An electronic device worn on the body to aide in quickly finding buried avalanche victims. Also called an avalanche beacon, it has the ability to send and receive a 457khz radio signal.
How beacons work:
Beacons are simply electronic devices about the size of a large mobile phone that both transmits and receives an electronic signal. Everyone in the party wears one and each member turns it on when they leave the house or leave the car to head into the backcountry. (Wear them UNDER your jacket to keep the batteries warm and to keep it from being torn off your body during an avalanche.) When turned on, the beacon transmits an electronic “beep” about once per second. Then, if someone is buried, everyone else in the party turns their beacon to receive, and they can hear the signal from the buried victim’s beacon; the signal gets stronger the closer you get. The range of most beacons varies between 40 and 80 meters depending on the brand. And yes, all beacons work on the same international standard frequency.
Caveat: Beacons only work if you practice regularly with them and most people don’t practice enough. As a result, beacon use has not increased survivability rates as much as one would hope. For people who practice regularly, however, beacons have saved many lives and they work very well. In addition, about a quarter of avalanche victims die from hitting trees and rocks on the way down, so beacons can only help the other three quarters who survive the ride before getting buried.
The technology of beacons changes so rapidly that anything we say here would be quickly out of date, so be sure to read the latest reviews of beacons in the magazines and web sites. Talk to the salespeople in the stores and be sure to shop around and play with several different models. There is no “best” beacon on the market, just advantages and disadvantages with each brand and model.
Practice, Practice, Practice
No matter what beacon you buy, the most important step is to practice, practice, practice. Remember that finding a single beacon in a parking lot is far easier than finding multiple buried beacons in a realistic situation, especially when a loved one is under the snow. Many mountain locations now have automated or semi automated beacon trained centers. These allow one to practice both single or multiple victim rescues, solo or as a group. Check with your local Avalanche Forecast Center for a beacon training facility near you.