How Do Avalanche Beacons Work?

Let’s talk Avalanche Beacons. Avalanche beacons are an important piece of gear for anybody venturing into the backcountry. Technically called “avalanche transceivers”, avalanche beacons are one of the most important pieces of gear you’ll buy when planning a backcountry snowmobiling trip.

What are Beacons and why do you need one

Avalanche beacons are not an optional piece of equipment when you ride with us in the mountains. Having one on you at all times while riding in the mountains could mean the difference between life and death if an avalanche occurs. An avalanche beacon helps your riding buddies find you in the event of you being buried by an avalanche by sending radio waves between other beacons. If you are reading this article chances are that you already understand the importance of having an avalanche beacon and maybe already have the beacon itself. So, let’s get into this and help you understand how to use your avalanche beacon. We will also discuss some cool ways to practice with your beacon before you even go snowmobiling and a few maintenance tips to keep your beacon in good working condition. 

How do you use an avalanche beacon 

Avalanche beacons vary slightly amongst the brands, but all generally operate in similar ways. When you take your avalanche beacon out of it’s packaging for the first time you will want to start by making sure it is charged. They typically come with a full charge. If for some reason it is not, just simply plug it in and let it charge for a while. Make sure you installed any batteries your beacon of choice requires for operation. 

How Do Avalanche Beacons Work?

You will notice your avalanche beacon has a couple different modes on it. Depending on the brand it will either say send/search on it or transmit/search. Both do the same thing; they just choose to use different words. Since we use the Klim Pieps Avalanche Beacons we will refer to the modes as search and send for the remainder of this article. We also just think it is simpler and easier for everyone to not confuse. 

When your avalanche beacon is in the “send” mode, it is literally sending out radio waves allowing it to be identified and located by other avalanche beacons. In order for other beacons to find the beacon in send mode they must be switched to “search” mode. If this is not done, the other beacons will not even be looking for the beacon that is still in send mode. It is crucial that everyone in your group turns their beacon on to the send mode before even leaving the parking lot. 

In many higher risk avalanche areas rider safety foundations are sponsoring beacon checkpoints at given trailheads for riders to pull up to and confirm their beacon is working. The technology at the checkpoint flashes a green light if your beacon is sending its signal and a red light if your beacon is not. These are a great reminder to keep your beacon on at all times and to not forget to have it one you. We experienced these checkpoints ourselves last winter and they are awesome! I had actually forgotten to turn my beacon on as I was in a rush to get on the mountain. Thankfully I was reminded, because of these checkpoints, to turn my beacon on before heading up the mountain. I did not end up having to use my avalanche beacon that day, but I sure am happy I had it on in case an avalanche did occur. 

The only time your beacon should ever be in search mode is when you are looking for someone that was buried in an avalanche. If you are in sight of the avalanche make sure you get out of the direction of its travel and get to a safe location if possible, but also keep an eye on the rider in the avalanche to help with your searching. Once the avalanche has come to a halt you need to switch your beacon to search mode immediately and start canvassing the debris looking for the buried rider. If you are unsure of where the buried rider is, start doing a wide “S” pattern with your beacon in search mode until you pick up a signal of the buried rider’s avalanche beacon which will still be in send mode. If you need help, we wrote a best avalanche transceivers guide to help you choose the right avalanche beacon for your budget.

When searching for a buried rider your beacon will make beeping noises, showing an arrow on your screen as well as a number. The arrow is pointing in the direction it may be picking signals up from and the number is how far away you are from the potential signals. Now, just because you have an avalanche beacon does not mean you are guaranteed to find the buried rider. With that said it does significantly increase your chances. 

Once you think you may have located the buried rider, grab your probe and gently push it down through the snow to see if you can find the rider. It is important you work quickly as it does not take long for a buried rider to suffocate from the weight of the snow on top of them. If your probe seems to strike something solid you will likely be able to identify if it is a body or not. Some say “you just know”. Now grab your shovel and start digging. You want to be careful not to be too reckless to the point where you injure the buried rider, but time is of the essence so get going! 

Essentially we just walked you through the process of using a beacon. As you can tell by now using an avalanche beacon really is not that complicated. They weren’t made to be difficult to use. If they were, they would not be very effective in helping riders save their buried buddies. Don’t overthink the process and try to keep your nerves under control. Your adrenaline is sure to be through the roof. 

Where to wear your avalanche beacon

Where you wear your avalanche beacon is up to you, but we suggest wearing a sling or harness that hold your beacon on you ensuring it does not fall off you. Many riders we know keep their beacon inside their avalanche backpack or in one of their pockets. As long as your avalanche beacon is with you it will work, but keeping it in your pocket is risky as it could fall out and get lost. Keeping it in your avalanche backpack is also risky as there is no guarantee that your backpack will stay on especially if it is not strapped on properly. The safest bet is using a harness that is worn to hold your avalanche beacon. 

We wear our beacons close to our abdominal region. We find them the most comfortable there and very easy to access if ever needed and we never forget where it is this way. We are fortunate enough to never have had to use them yet and we hope it stays that way, but if we do need to use them we know exactly where they are!  

Practicing with your avalanche beacon 

What good is an avalanche beacon if you do not know how to use it? Familiarize yourself with it before you need to use it. Hopefully you never have to. One of our favorite ways to practice using our beacons is to have one guy hide a beacon that has been put into send mode and another guy use a different beacon that is search mode to find it. This can be done in the yard, in the basement, in a field, wherever! If you want to make it even more challenging, through the one that is in send mode somewhere into a pile of snow or an area covered about a foot or two deep in straw or hay. Follow what the beacon in search mode is telling you to find the missing beacon in send mode. 

Tips for taking care of your avalanche beacon 

Keeping your avalanche beacon in good working order is crucial to its success and reliability. A beacon that does not work the way it should is useless. Make sure you always have a good batter  that holds a charge in it at all times. Keep all charging ports clean and store your avalanche beacon in a climate controlled dry location. Most beacons come with a case or pouch that is designed to be worn. We highly recommend keeping it in this case as it not only ensures it stays on you, but also protects it from damage. 


Now that you have a better idea of how avalanche beacons work we hope you will take this information and pass it on to your other riding buddies. Never head up the mountain without your beacon and the knowledge of how to use it. If you have any other questions in regards to how avalanche beacons work, feel free to reach out to us on any of our social platforms @sledheadzzz or drop a comment below. We hope we see you on the snow this year!