As I sit by the fire and enjoy watching the 2013/14 winter season begin, I read the posts on all the usual internet social gathering places and see and share the excitement of another winter season ahead. My thoughts bounce between the events of the last few winters and what I need to do to prepare myself for this winter.
Hopefully, you treated your beacon with the same care as your skis when you put it away last spring. Ideally batteries should’ve been removed and it was stored in a nice, dry place. If not, remove the old batteries and throw em away!! Are you so cheap that you’re willing to gamble your life for a few bucks on new batteries?????
Check the terminals – makes sure they didn’t corrode, they’re clean of rust, dirt etc.. While you’re at it, make sure the spring loaded side isn’t cracked, broken or bent. It’s been a few years since this was a problem, but it only takes a few seconds to make sure all is well. Next, install new batteries and make sure they fit snugly. Unless your beacon specifically says that you can use lithium batteries, use alkaline batteries. If you’re using a digital beacon (and you should be), it will go thru some sort of boot up process and self-check. Each manufacturer and model does this a little differently so understand what yours is doing.
Hopefully your beacon has successfully booted up, performed a self check and is in your hand transmitting away. To do a function and range check correctly, you need to understand a little bit about antennas. Most beacons use the longest antenna to transmit the signal. For simplicity we will make this assumption and not get into the smart transmitter technology. I’m using an image of a Pieps DSP because you can actually see the three antennae thru the plastic. The X antenna is the long one running the full length of the beacon, parallel to the batteries, the Y antenna is perpendicular to the X and is found on the far left side in this photo. The Z antenna is the short, stubby guy coming straight at you just to the left of the bottom battery. Most rectangular shaped beacons are laid out in this fashion, the exception is the BCA Tracker, Tracker beacons orient their antennas a little differently.
In order to perform a function and range test, you need two beacons. If you don’t own two beacons, this is the perfect time to grab one or all of your skiing partners and make sure everyone’s gear if functioning properly.
The function check is pretty simple. Turn one beacon to transmit and the other to receive, make sure your are getting a signal on the receiving beacon. (Having more than two is neccesary to trouble shoot the problem beacon.) If the receiving beacon has a mark function, make sure it is working properly by marking the transmitting beacon. Next switch them up, ensure once again that both beacons are both receiving and transmitting properly.
For the range check, you need either a very large backyard or head to your local soccer field or park. A variety of factors can affect beacon range – cell phones, power lines, age, battery strength etc. Turn off your cell phone, get away from both overhead and buried power lines and get ready to check the range. In order to figure out the functional search range of your beacon, you need to understand orientation. Back in the old days of single antenna units, orientation was extremely important for range. As beacons get more and more antennae, orientation is less important but it still affects your functional search range and can be important to understand in complex search scenarios.
In the first photo above on the left, we see beacons oriented with the transmit antennae aligned in optimal coupling, this gives you your maximum range! The middle photo shows beacons with transmit antennae perpendicular to each other, in old single antenna days, this would be the worst coupling, reducing beacon range up to 50% now with multiple antenna units, the Y axis antenna is aligned with the transmitting antenna resulting in much smaller range loss. In the photo on the right, the transmitting beacon is simulating a vertical burial which is being oriented to the Z antenna, resulting in even further range loss. You must assume in an avalanche burial things are in their less than ideal condition and shit has officially hit the fan so your knowing your effective search range will maximize the efficiency of your search. Luckily, this is actually very easy to figure out.
Turn one beacon to receive and the other to transmit, hold them in the ideal coupling (X antennae parallel) and have the receiving beacon walk away, in a straight line, until they lose the signal. At this point stop, turn around and walk back towards the transmitting beacon until the signal is regained and stop. This is your maximum range under ideal conditions. Now turn the receiving beacon 90 degrees so the Y antennae is aligned with the transmitting X antenna. In some cases you may still have a signal, but often there is a small loss in receive range as the antenna get smaller. Walk forward until you pick up the signal. This is your effective search range and should dictate the width of search strips in your coarse search. Finally turn the receiving beacon vertical and again, walk forward until a signal is gained. This range is generally much shorter for single and double antenna beacons, and slightly shorter with three antenna units. This range becomes important if you fail to get a signal on a first pass of a coarse search (very rare) or you need to resort to advanced search techniques due to complex multiple burials.
As I mentioned before, BCA did a little something different with the Tracker and Tracker 2. In these beacons, the X and Y antenna are equal size and positioned following the big orange x on the face of the beacon. The Z antenna is hard to see in this pic, but its the little round thing in the crotch of the X on the right side. So how do I know which antenna transmits?? Well BCA conveniently put their logo on the lower left of the X so you knew which one was transmitting. These tests can still be performed the same way as above, just take into account the unique position of the transmitting antenna.
A few other things to think about with your rescue gear – Check your shovel and probe out for rust, breakage etc. Make sure the spring in the pop pin for the handle still functions & ensure the shovel blade isn’t cracked or starting to fold. Check the cable on your probe and make sure none of the ferrules where the sections join are bent, broken or cracked. Put it all together, take it all apart, maybe do it twice or three times. This check up on my gear (five beacons and a variety of shovels and probes) took about 30 minutes total.
Hopefully you can hang up your skis someday never having to have needed any of this gear for anything but dead weight and practice. Spending a few minutes now to make sure it all works, is piece of mind when things go wrong. Rushing to your buddy’s last seen point is not the time to find out gremlins ate a wire in your beacon and it isn’t receiving anymore. Here’s to a safe, deep winter and many more to come…
by Jake Hutchinson