Sure, you are transmitting—but what else is?
In the world of avalanches, something good can also potentially be something bad. For example, we talk about trees and rocks acting as anchors stabilizing a snowpack, but in some instances, these can actually be weak points in the slope and likely trigger points…
In the age of electronics we are seeing this good/bad scenario play out daily in the equipment we choose to bring with us on the mountain—in the way that we use it and where we store it.
For one example, we are teaching sledders to become better prepared for the backcountry and the remote places that our machines can take us. This means effective communication between party members, and the ability to call or organize help if needed. So, we buy a high-powered radio and keep it in our chest pocket for ease of access. Next, we get an inReach or Spot communication device (you know, one that sends a signal into space) and we want to keep this one handy to so it goes in the other chest pocket. This is a recipe for a potentially deadly situation even though we did it with the best intentions—to be safe.
Transceiver Interference is Real
Transceiver interference is real, and yet it is a very difficult topic to get people to buy into and truly believe. I think this is due to the fact that transceiver interference is often very difficult to replicate. I always get the one person who says, “show me” or “mine doesn’t do that” and the majority of the time they would be correct. The truth is, you never know when transceiver interference will really impact you, but we do know that it is very real, has lead to many lengthened search times and can easily be avoided.
On a recent Avalanche Skills Training course (AST 1), we had a student with a powerful handheld radio/GPS unit in their chest pocket. While searching with their transceiver they were having major issues and the transceiver was malfunctioning. I quickly assumed interference was the culprit and began asking about any items the student may have on their person. The culprit was the radio. As soon as we turned the unit off, the transceiver performed the way it should. If this was a real companion rescue situation, the results could have been tragic.
Transceiver interference is a real thing and we need to make this more understood in the backcountry community. Listen to the warnings and keep all electronic devices a minimum of 30cm away from your transceiver in “send mode” (preferably more) and a minimum of 50cm away in “search mode”. Or better yet, turned off and stored away. If you need to use a device while a companion rescue search is ongoing, the suggestion is to be a minimum of 25m away.
We need to understand how to use, and where to store transmitting devices
Now, I’m not saying leave all of these items at home, as they are valuable safety tools, but we need to understand how to use them and where to store them. I’m a guy that brings his cell phone in the field (for many reasons), but the unit is stored in the glove box of my snowmobile. Everyone should have outside communication and personally I use an inReach device although the unit is turned off and stored in my backpack.
I am also a huge believer in efficient group communication and that everyone in the backcountry should have a radio, but the radio needs to be accessible and easy to use for the best communication between group members. Basically, if it’s a pain-in-the-ass to use, people won’t reach for it and this hurts effective group communication. The Backcountry Access Link radio system is one option to help with the interference issue by placing the radio sending and receiving unit in your pack with a mic clipped to your chest strap.
The fact is that transceiver interference is a very real issue that has the potential to drastically affect a companion rescue situation. The resulting confusion could end in tragedy. We all like our gadgets and many of them improve the safety of our group in the backcountry, but we do need to understand the potential side-effects and how to avoid them.
20cm separation on “send”, 50cm in “search” (with electronic devices turned off) and 25m distance if you need to use electronic devices while a search is ongoing.
Curtis Pawliuk is a Professional Member of the Canadian Avalanche Association, a certified Avalanche Skills Trainer and the owner/operator of Frozen Pirate Snow Services.