If only my avalanche beacon could wield a power shovel. But it can’t. Realty is the now venerable concept of the electronic avalanche transceiver has proved its worth, but most certainly is not the talisman of life we all hoped it would be when the first ones came out in the 1960s. In those days, we dangled our beacons from our necks like mystic charms handed out by a tribal shaman — with probably the same efficacy. Problem is, possible trauma and the time it takes to dig a buried person out of the snow conspire to grim reality: many buried avalanche victims, though quickly located using a transceiver, die anyway.
This disapointing reality has been obfuscated for a few years by a features race among the transceiver designers. Mostly, this resulted in a surge of bells and whistles related to handling multiple burials — apparently with little regard to the fact that digging up one person quickly enough to rescue him from asphyxiation is a desperate challenge, let alone saving several.
Fortunately, Backcountry Access (BCA) has stayed sane about the multiple burial whiz-bang feature race. Over the years they’ve built in a few features that helped find multiple transmitting beacons, but kept their focus on durability and ease of use. Along with a modicum of practice with the multi-burial stuff, the BCA approach seemed to me to be all that’s necessary. I was always confused, however, as to why the most user-friendly beacon had the most complex and bulky case. Well, BCA has downsized (and even added some whiz-bang while they were at it.)
If you’re reading this and are new to avalanche safety, know that one of the prime rules is to expose only one person at a time to hazard. This rule is routinely violated due to carelessness as well as reasonable intent. Example: Moving a group through a route quickly could be the safety priority due to rapidly changing conditions. Thus, some modicum of multiple burial features should be included in the options for any beacon. But as always, we feel such features as battery life, range, and size are more important than multiple burial gizmos.
The first thing I noticed about Tracker 3 is indeed the size (the PR calls it ‘progressive industrial design!’ We can relate, as we now have a credentialed ID in the family.) Compared to previous model 2 the unit is diminutive (though similar to several other brand models). It also has a much different form factor. The 3’s boxy package is boring and perhaps has less techie shelf appeal compared to Tracker 2, but the 3 feels better in the hand and slips easily into the pocket. It’s a cleaner, more elegant object, obviously a testament to the less-is-more design philosophy.
While I’m sure the guts of Tracker 3 are as high-tech as you can get (BCA invented the digital beacon, after all), I smiled when I saw they went back to an old tried-and-true design that places a rotating multi-function switch on one corner of the box. In the old days of the early Pieps avalanche beacon units, to change batteries you’d pull a similar switch up and off like a cork. It doubled as a lid on the battery case. I’ll admit I tried pulling the same way on the Tracker 3 switch; luckily I didn’t pull too hard as the 3 AAA batteries are actually located behind a splash-proof (but not watertight) door on the back.
Use of Tracker 3 requires nothing unusual in thought or practice. Functions are indicated via obvious acronyms created by front-panel lights. “SE” for searching, “Ar” for auto-revert (optional, happens in a minute with no movement of unit), “Lb” for low battery…and so on.
Audio features of Tracker 3 sound odd at first, like you’re at a gaming tradeshow or video arcade. I’d almost go so far as to say the sound effects are sophomoric. But they work. The idea is you get easily memorized tones that make operating the beacon smooth and intuitive. You’ll laugh at first, then you’ll hear the light. (If the sounds are annoying, which they could be, you can mute using the “Options” button on the front of the case.)
(I’ll admit the first thing I wondered about the sounds is if they’re customizable using the computer upgrade feature? Me, I’d get it to play the chorus of ‘Happy’ when it boots up. Yeah, groan all you want.)
I did a few informal range and search tests with Tracker 3. No issues jumped out. Range seemed average. The front panel readout shows estimated distance. When you get close an obvious change in beep tone tells you it’s time for fine pinpointing.
You invoke the more technical features of Tracker 3 by pressing the small black “Mode” button on the front of the case. If you’re in search mode, this button is used for signal suppression (masking), meaning it simply allows you to turn off reception for the strongest signal. For example, in the event of a multiple burial, once you find your first victim you can turn her signal off thus lessening confusion while continuing your search.
Speaking of which, Tracker 3 does have what I feel is indeed totally adequate functionality for multiple burials. If the unit senses multiple signals, once you get one strong signal it automatically masks out the others. Potential confusion with this: let’s say you have people to shovel out the first victim and want to keep searching for the others? Just use the manual masking function to block the stronger signal, and the others will appear. As with any modern beacon, best to practice with these sorts of functions as they have potential to confuse. I did test this stuff, but have to admit it did not hold my interest.
As for other functions of the “Mode” button, aside from masking its most common uses are probably software upgrades and changing the auto-revert-to-transmit setting. But it also invokes a mode called “Big Picture” that cycles through distance and direction readings for all the beacons the unit is sensing. Depressing even thinking about it. But I guess it could be useful, say if an avalanche fell on an avalanche safety class with 20 people in it.
Overall, I found Tracker 3 is clean and simple in design and easy to operate. The all-black with yellow accent band looks hip, but I’d rather the unit was rescue orange. That’s my only real gripe, as the neutral black gets lost all too easily in the gear duffle. For you beacon freaks the T3 might lack a few whiz-bang features (GPS?) but I can safely say it will get the job done, and carry nicely in your hip pocket if that’s your preference. Recommended.
Tracker 2 is 8.4 oz, 240 g
Tracker 3 is 7.0 oz, 198 g
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.