I thought about giving this article some alluring click-bait title like “The best of the best: Avalanche Transceivers” or “The top Avalanche Transceivers on the market” but wisely chose against it. I firmly disagree with titles like that as there is no such thing as “the Best” avalanche transceiver. The best transceiver is the one you are confident and comfortable using.
Avalanche Beacon Rundown
That being said I have a few caveats. Firstly, with the technology available in modern transceivers there is no reason to be using an old outdated single antenna or even double antenna transceiver. Similar to wearing a mask during a pandemic, using a modern transceiver keeps others around you safer. Secondly, be wary of buying second hand. You can never be sure how the previous owner treated their transceiver, something as simple as accidentally dropping your transceiver can crack an antenna making the performance dodgy. Lastly, buying a fancy transceiver that has all the bells and whistles doesn’t mean you are prepared. It means you potentially have the tools to be prepared. Whatever transceiver you get, PRACTICE with it. Practice a lot. You need to be so good with your transceiver that you don’t even have to think about what to do if something happens.
With that all said, here’s a brief rundown of some of the common modern avalanche beacons and their pros and cons. Oh and I’ll be mentioning “signal suppression” which is fancy talk for the transceiver can ignore a signal making multiple burial situations easier, basically turning it in to multiple single burials. And I’ll only be covering triple antenna digital transceivers.
Backcountry Access (BCA)
BCA Tracker 2:
The BCA Tracker 2 is an oldie but a goodie. Likely not around for a whole lot longer as BCA has updated their lineup. 3 antenna digital transceiver. Tells you if you are dealing with multiple signals. Can’t “mark” (signal suppression). Very straight forward and easy to use. Minimalist design means you aren’t waiting around for a microprocessor. In guide exams the fastest times I’ve ever seen were people using a tracker 2.
Tracker S: Honestly I’ve never used it. It looks like the updated version of the 2, does all the same stuff but has signal suppression (only 1 signal at a time). Not software upgradeable.
Tracker 3+: Upgraded software version of the 3 (which makes Super Mario-esque sounds upon start up), All the same stuff as the 2, but has upgradeable software. Signal suppression only can mark 1 signal at a time. is very popular amongst guides.
Tracker 4: I’ve never even seen one. It looks like all the same features as the 3+, but they’ve rubberized the case, and updated the screen.
Pulse: This one isn’t offered anymore but its still quite prevalent in the second hand market. Multiple signal suppression. Sometimes frustrating as the processor gets overwhelmed and says stand still. Nice feature is you can switch to analog mode if the digital marking function is crapping the bed. Works ridiculously well with other Pulses, tends to be temperamental with BCA Transceivers, and Ortovox, and Pieps…and anything that isn’t a Pulse.
Barryvox: The new version of the Pulse Element, with a better processor. Can do multiple signal suppression, no analog mode. Very good if you’re a recreational user looking for reliable and simple. Many Cat and Heli operations are using these as their fleet for guests.
Barryvox S: I may sound biased on this one but that’s because it’s what I use so I know it quite well. It’s like the Barryvox, but has analog mode. And such a huge plethora of other features it can be overwhelming. Not worth the money unless you are a professional, and even then there is a bit of a learning curve as this is the most advanced transceiver on the market. Important to note is the Mammut/Barryvox Transceivers have W-link, which is an identification software only in their transceivers. All transceivers run on 457 kHz, due to signal overlap though even the new transceivers with a signal suppression capability can get confused and drop marked signals and otherwise confuse you. The W-link is a separate identification method…Here’s an analogy, 457kHz is like identifying us all as humans. We know other humans when we see them, but its tough to differentiate between them sometimes. Just like Transceivers. The W-link is giving a name to those humans…and transceivers. Not only can you identify them as humans, but you know them by name. So if you have a bunch of W-link capable transceivers your ability to use signal suppression is huge…you can mark like…well I’ve done 10. Key point though is if the transceivers don’t have w-link, don’t count on signal suppression.
Micro BT Button
Micro BT Button and Micro BT Sensor: These are Pieps’ extremely compact and lightweight offerings. Using only a single AA battery but still maintaining fairly decent battery life, these transceivers will fit unobtrusively under your coat. The BT stands for Bluetooth, meaning you can update software via a Pieps app on your phone and manage features. The primary difference is the Micro Sensor has no Search/Send button, it’s designed to automatically switch to search mode when you remove it from the harness and start moving it around. Some people thought this was a breakthrough innovation while others hated it, so they released the Micro BT button to appease both crowds. The Micro BT button, you guessed it, has a button to switch from send to search.
DSP Sport: The predecessors to two of these, the DSP Sport and DSP Pro were the culprits responsible for having a search/send switch that had the potential to move without the user wanting it to, resulting in a few key cases where people were caught in an avalanche and their transceiver was no longer on send mode. This issue has since been dealt with, resulting in a locking switch requiring two hands to use, ensuring it won’t accidentally switch over on you. The DSP sport is Pieps basic recreational model. It doesn’t have Bluetooth or any fancy extra features, just the standard usual basics. It’s a 3 antenna digital transceiver, has basic group check, auto revert, signal suppression and identifies multiple burials.
The Pieps Powder BT (The identical Black Diamond version is called the Recon) is the slightly fancier version of the DSP Sport. The BT indicates that it has Bluetooth and is upgradeable via an app. The only other differences are a motion sensor, increased battery life, and a tiny bit better range in the Powder BT.
The Pro BT/Black Diamond Guide BT is the updated version of the DSP Pro. It has all the bells and whistles and is the high end transceiver offered by Pieps. It has a scan function identifying numbers of signals within set distances, an inclinometer, analog mode and all the features of the previous two.
Zoom+: The Ortovox Zoom+ is very similar to the old BCA Tracker 2. It’s a minimalist easy to use straight forward transceiver. 3 Antenna, no marking function, digital and has a multiple burial indicator. Ortovox also puts Recco reflectors in their transceivers, both models. That’s pretty much it. Good for beginners and recreational users.
3+: The 3+ is Ortovox’s high end transceiver. It has multiple signal suppression, auto revert and an easy to use intuitive design. It is digital only with no alternate analog mode. The 3+ has what Ortovox calls “smart antenna” technology which identifies the orientation of the transceiver and can transmit on the antenna which will be most effective for being found. Important to note that the 3+ using software version 2.1 had a recall due to the software causing an issue with the transmitting. Ortovox released a software update in June 2020 to deal with this issue.
Arva is a lesser well known company from France. They’ve been around for over 30 years but until recently were a bit more of an obscure brand in North America. Now however they’re starting to become more common and more easily available to us.
Evo 4: The Evo 4 is Arva’s most affordable transceiver. It’s a triple antenna digital only unit, with multiple signal suppression. It has the usual features like group check and multiple burial indication. It has a unique feature which wasn’t terribly well received though; the transceiver turns on when it’s clipped into its harness (similar to the old school Ortovox M2) and turns off when unclipped. So you won’t forget to turn your transceiver on, but because it turns off when you remove it from the harness it can’t be held low to the snow surface for your fine search. Arva has sinced released an aftermarket chest harness that resolves this problem.
Evo 5: The Evo 5 is Arva’s lightweight transceiver close in weight to the Pieps Micro. It has upgradeable software which the Evo 4 does not, and better range than the 4. Three antenna digital only, multiple signal suppression and auto revert to send. And it looks like a spaceship.
Neo Pro: This is Arva’s answer to the Barryvox S. Similar user interface, with analog mode, customizable settings, and up and down buttons allow you to scroll through transceivers. It has better range than the Evo 5, 70m search strips in digital and 80m in analog. A note regarding the search strip width and range claimed by all of the transceivers on this list, it is always less than what they specify. It’s better to assume a shorter range so you don’t end up at the bottom of a slope without having picked up any signals. Moving back to the Neo. The Neo Pro has a user friendly interface and all the features of a high end transceiver. It’s only downside is being a bit heavy compared to…every other transceiver on this list.
There are a bunch of other fairly common transceivers from previous years that I didn’t cover, but to keep this from turning into a university thesis I stuck with the newest offerings from all the companies. There are a ton of options and many of them are more or less the exact same transceiver. As stated at the beginning, the best transceiver is the one you know how to use competently. It’s up to you to determine which one is for you, maybe there’s a specific feature that’s important to you like having an analog function. That helps you narrow down your options. Hopefully this was helpful, and hopefully you don’t ever have to use your transceiver for anything more than practice.