Up Your Avalanche Transceiver Game by Doing This
Want to become a more competent avalanche transceiver user, from the comfort of your living room?
First, go grab your avalanche transceiver. Then follow these steps:
- Track down the user manual that came with your transceiver
- Blow the mountain of dust off it (don’t get buried, that would be ironic)
“Uhhhhhhh,” you say, as you think where on earth you might have put it. I get it. Like everyone else (me included), you probably flipped through the manual once briefly the day you bought your transceiver, then promptly tucked it away somewhere never to be seen again. Amirite?
No problem. Go online and find the digital version of your avalanche transceiver user manual instead. They are readily available from your transceiver manufacturer’s website. Or just scroll down to where we’ve provided the links for you below.
Get to Know Your Avalanche Trasnceiver Better
Okay, now that you have both your avalanche transceiver and manual in hand, it’s time to settle in.
Send the kids outside to build snowmen (so you can focus), turn off the Oilers game (they’re gonna lose anyway) and hit the couch with some snacks and a beverage (non-alcohol, so you actually remember what you’ve read). Okay, this is starting to sound lame, I know, but stick with it! It won’t actually take that long.
Starting with Page 1, read through your manual, taking the time to go carefully through each page and stopping to try out each feature on your transceiver.
Get intimate with it! Become so familiar that you can operate all the modes and initiate all the features without question. A clear understanding of how all the modes and features works is important! Get to know its dirty little secrets even (the menu system). Sounds boring, but trust me! It’ll be worth it when it counts.
Here are three things about my own transceiver (that I have owned for several years) which I was not fully aware of until I took the time to thoroughly reference the user manual.
- My transceiver can be directed to ignore a detected transceiver signal in order to continue searching for other victims in a multiple rescuer scenario—without having to get close enough to use the mark/flag feature. This is useful if, say for example, another rescuer is closing in on a nearby victim with a coarse or fine search, and I want to continue to search the rest the debris for other victims without distraction.
- If my transceiver detects that the signal search strip width needs to be reduced due to interference or due to a device transmitting outside the standard frequency, it will let me know by showing a reduced search strip width on the screen. That’s good to know! This feature is becoming more commonplace on modern transceivers nowadays to account for the increased prevalence of potential sources of interference that we carry with us.
- In addition to using alkaline batteries, my transceiver is among the few that can also make use of lithium batteries for longer battery life. Most manufacturers recommend using only alkaline batteries, and it’s important to know this and follow the recommendations.
At this point, you might be wondering what transceiver I own? It doesn’t matter. The point is that there are things that I didn’t fully understand it could do (and I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable user). I’m guessing the same can probably be said for other users too, regardless of whatever particular transceiver model they own.
With that in mind, here are some interesting nuggets gleaned from the user manuals of most currently available avalanche transceivers. If you haven’t read your user manual in detail (or in awhile), you might not be fully aware of these features or have a clear understanding of exactly how they work.
Here they are, by brand, in alphabetical order. Scroll down to find yours or read through them all if you want to know more.
The number of victims detected in an avalanche is shown at the bottom of the display. It can show up to 3 victims, with a “+” sign to indicate more than three. The key thing to note is that once the transceiver locks onto the strongest signal, the corresponding avalanche victim icon will start to blink. If you come close to another burial victim during your search, the icon corresponding to this victim will also start to blink.
Digital transceivers can sometimes become confused when there is signal overlap from multiple transceivers transmitting. An advanced analog search mode allows the expert rescuer to listen to the raw signal to better evaluate a complex burial situation if their experience allows it. The device can be switched to analog mode by pressing both “+” and “-“ buttons at the same time. The sensitivity of the signal must then be calibrated up and down using those same buttons.
ARVA avalanche transceiver manuals can be found here: https://us.arva-equipment.com/content/20-user-manuals-downloads
Tracker S, Tracker3+ and Tracker4
All three current Tracker transceivers feature a variation of an “Auto Revert Mode”, which will automatically switch the device back to transmit mode if the searcher remains in search mode for an extended period (as in the case of the rescuer being buried in a secondary avalanche). However, it’s important to understand that the feature is not activated by default. In order to activate the feature, the user must hold down the “Options” button each time they turn on the device.
BCA recommends slowly rotating the Tracker horizontally in your hand during the signal search phase of a rescue.
The “Signal Suppression” mode suppresses the strongest signal and will instead focus on the next strongest signal. The mode lasts for one minute, after which time the transceiver will automatically default back to normal “Search” mode—or it can also be switched back manually earlier by pressing the “Options” button.
BCA Tracker avalanche transceiver manuals can be found here: https://backcountryaccess.com/en-ca/support/tracker-resources
The BLACK DIAMOND BT transceivers also provide a “Auto-Search-to-Send” feature. This is disabled by default when new. However, the functionality can be turned on via the PIEPS APP device manager. Once it is turned on, it will be active every time the device is powered up.
During the signal search, the GUIDE BT will vibrate strongly when it first detects a signal. Knowing this allows users of this device to focus on a visual search of the debris surface while they are performing the signal search rather than staring down at the display waiting for a signal detection to be indicated.
Black Diamond avalanche transceiver manuals can be found here: https://www.blackdiamondequipment.com/en_US/product/black-diamond-guide-bt-avalanche-beacon/
Mammut recommends that during the fine search phase, the user hold the transceiver at knee height. This is contrary to how I’ve been practicing (at snow level), but this makes sense as the distance to the buried transceiver would be more consistent this way than by following the height of snow (which can vary depending whether it is tracked up or not).
The group check features on the Barryvox S provides two options for group check testing distances: A “Sledding” (5 m) option for snowmobilers and “Touring” (1 m) for all other cases such as skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing etc.
Mammut avalanche transceiver manuals can be found here: https://www.mammut.com/int/en/support/product-support/barryvox/barryvox-user-manuals
All three antennas are used during searches. The x and y antennas are used to display the distance and the direction of movement. The z antenna is solely used for the fine search. This is just some interesting insight into how the three antennas in a modern transceiver are used.
DIRACT & DIRACT VOICE
Transceivers that transmit on only one antenna (axis) can result in poor visibility in certain burial positions, depending on the orientation.
Ortovox transceivers, including the DIRACT and DIRACT voice, feature “Smart Antenna” technology that resolves the problem of poor visibility in the vertical position. The position sensor analyzes the device’s position in the avalanche and automatically switches to the y-antenna when necessary to transmit horizontally for better visibility.
Ortovox avalanche transceiver manuals can be found here: https://www.ortovox.com/ca-en/service/information-user-manuals/avalanche-transceivers/user-manual
MICRO BT sensor
This sensor version of the MICRO BT transceiver has no mechanism to physically switch the transceiver into search mode. Whaaaaat? Switching to search happens automatically when a proximity sensor on the body of the device detects that it has become uncovered (this happens when the user removes it from the carrying system). The sensor is not light sensitive; it functions normally in the dark.
PIEPS MICRO BT avalanche transceiver manual can be found here: https://www.pieps.com/en/product/pieps-micro-bt-sensor
PIEPS BT transceivers use an “Auto-Antenna-Switch” protection in send mode. If the transmitting antenna is impacted by external interference, the other antenna takes over the transmit function in order to transmit the strongest possible signal. Neat!
PIEPS POWDER BT avalanche transceiver manual can be found here: https://www.pieps.com/en/product/pieps-powder-bt
The PIEPS PRO BT group check mode has an additional “pro-mode”. This allows a transmit check as well as a receive check without exiting the group check mode.
PIEPS PRO BT avalanche transceiver manual can be found here: https://www.pieps.com/en/product/pieps-pro-bt
Become a More Competent Avalanche Transceiver User
Every model of avalanche transceiver has the same purpose, yet no two are the same in operation. This makes it important to understand not only the basic functionality of the one you use, but also how to confidently use the features that might make a huge difference in the outcome of an actual avalanche rescue. A simple review of the user manual of your device can refresh your knowledge or help you better understand the complexities of your device.
By no means is this article intended to be a definitive resource for how your transceiver works! Think of it more as a primer to stoke your interest in getting to know your equipment better.
If you read something here that you didn’t know or you found interesting, then you know where to go to learn more!
Be safe out there.