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How to use an avalanche beacon

Courtesy of Mammut

How to use an avalanche beacon

By Grant Olsen, Contributor | Posted - Mar. 7, 2015 at 12:32 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY—According to statistics from the Utah Avalanche Center, more people in Utah die in avalanches each year than by any other natural events. Nearly all of these avalanche victims are backcountry sports participants like snowshoers, skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers.

One small device that makes a huge difference in quickly locating a victim and increasing their chance of survival is an avalanche beacon (also known as an avalanche transceiver.) These beacons emit a radio signal that rescuers can use to locate a victim following an avalanche. Of course, in order for beacons to do their job, the buried person must be wearing one and at least one of the searchers must have one as well.

Here’s how it works. When you set out into the backcountry, you and your group should all be wearing beacons. Your beacons will be on “transmit” mode so they’re emitting a signal. If an avalanche occurs and a member of your party gets buried, their beacon would continue to send out a signal.

The other members of your group would switch their beacons to the “receive/search” mode so they could target the victim’s location and dig them out as quickly as possible. The searchers’ beacons would give audio or visual cues (such as arrows on the LCD screen) to guide them to the buried beacon.

To make the rescue effective, you’ll also need to have a probe and a shovel. Digging is tough work and time is of the essence in the case of an avalanche.

While there are many different brands of beacons, they all operate on the 457Hz frequency and are compatible with each other. A few of the leading brands are Mammut, Pieps and Ortovox.

I used the Mammut Pulse Barryvox beacon for a recent excursion. The first thing I noticed is that it’s got a really easy-to-use interface. It has both a “basic” and “advanced” setting, ensuring that those who are unfamiliar with the more technical elements of beacons can still conduct an effective and streamlined search in the basic mode.

Like most top-notch beacons on the market, the Barryvox is a three-antenna model. It has a impressive range of up to 60 meters, which allows you to cover a lot of terrain. I found the LCD display to be extremely clear and easy to read.

There are actually beacon parks at Snowbird, Snowbasin and other locations in Utah where you can go at no cost to acquaint yourself with a beacon’s functions and practice locating buried targets in the snow. Practice is crucial because in an emergency there’s no time to fumble with your device and try to remember how to operate it.

You can get more information on beacon parks by checking out the resource section from the Utah Avalanche Center’s website. These parks provide a fun way to learn this potentially lifesaving skill.

About the Author: Grant Olsen -----------------------------

Grant Olsen joined the contributor team in 2012. He covers outdoor adventures, travel, product reviews and other interesting things. You can contact him at


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