Updated November 2021
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Buying guide for Best avalanche beacons

There is nothing quite so exhilarating as backcountry skiing, snowboarding, or snowshoeing, but these winter activities come with a degree of risk. Anytime you have a heavy snow base, you will have an increased risk of encountering an avalanche. Being safe in these situations requires the proper tools, and an avalanche beacon is absolutely vital.

Whether you are new to backcountry sports or you’re a seasoned pro, an avalanche beacon is an item that you should always have on your person when heading out. These beacons can be used to both signal searchers when you are buried in an avalanche and to help find other victims when they are buried.

All avalanche beacon transceivers sold now operate on the 457kHz frequency. This standard was adopted in 1996.

Key considerations

Digital vs. analog transceivers

Avalanche beacons can be either digital or analog. The overwhelming majority of beacons are digital models capable of both audio and visual signals that will change depending on how close you are to the source.

Analog beacons are usually “older tech” devices and largely use audio alone to signal how close you are to a source, though some also include visual elements.


The longer the range, the farther you can be from a victim and still detect their signal. Detection ranges start around 40 meters and can reach 60 meters, with 50 meters being the average. When purchasing a beacon, try to buy one with the greatest detection range you can as this factor greatly improves your chances of finding those in need of assistance.


As you are going to be carrying your avalanche beacon around in the field, you should try to avoid a beacon that is too heavy or bulky. The majority of avalanche beacons are designed with weight in mind and typically weigh in at under 8 ounces.

That said, you also don’t want a beacon that is too lightweight and fragile. In a worst-case scenario, a beacon will be buffeted by an avalanche and should be durable enough to hold up and continue to emit a signal.


Avalanche beacons are typically powered via disposable batteries, usually AAAs. Having your batteries die at an inopportune moment can be lethal, so you should know how long you can expect a charge to last. These beacons typically can run for 250 hours in normal transmit mode (or 50 hours in search mode) before you need fresh batteries.

A quality avalanche beacon should also incorporate some form of low battery indicator so you can keep an eye on the battery level.

Ease of use

While some of these beacons have a steeper learning curve than others, they all should be fairly easy to master, particularly if you devote some time to practicing with them. If you’re just starting out, consider going with an analog or lower-tech beacon without the bells and whistles of more advanced devices.

Above all else, you should be able to easily switch a beacon into “search” mode when in the field. You don’t want to fumble with buttons and switches when you’re trying to locate a buried victim.

When searching for avalanche victims, speed is vital. Asphyxiation and trauma from avalanches can result in tragedy in mere minutes.




The two primary modes for an avalanche beacon are transmit and search. Transmit is the normal mode — the way you will run the beacon while skiing or snowshoeing. It is also the way that others in your group will find you in the event you are buried in an avalanche.

Switching over into search mode allows you to find those who are under the snow transmitting.

Wide vs. narrow search strips

The width of the search strip varies by beacon, and some beacons will allow you to switch between them to take full advantage of both. A wide search strip is able to search an area more quickly, although this can lead to some missed signals. On the other hand, a narrow search strip can take much more time due to its more limited search area, but you can often detect signals far better.

If your avalanche beacon allows you to switch between the wide and narrow search strips, try to spend some practice time with both to familiarize yourself with their differences.

Lights and alarms

Avalanche beacons use a variety of visual and audible alerts to help you to find those buried in an avalanche. Directional lights help to keep you on a straight path towards the victim, while audible tones usually increase in volume as the signal strength increases. Two specialized features are U-turn alarms and multiple burial indicator lights.

  • U-turn alarms: This alert lets you know if you are moving away from the signal.
  • Multiple burials: If you are in a group, the odds are that more than one of your party is going to be caught up in an avalanche. A multiple burial feature lets you flag victims and move on to the next, allowing you to find everyone in the group more quickly.

Display screen

The majority of avalanche beacons — particularly digital models — use some form of digital screen to relay information based on the location of the victim and the distance you need to travel to reach them. Since you might be using your avalanche beacon in adverse conditions, a beacon display should be large enough to use comfortably and clear enough to be easily read. Backlighting is a major plus.


Beacons use antennas to locate signals. Most avalanche beacons feature three antennas to allow you to search quicker and more effectively.


An avalanche beacon is attached to your body using some form of harness, strap, or holster. The harness or strap included with an avalanche beacon should be comfortable and allow you easy access to the beacon in the event of an emergency.

Did You Know?
Multiple burial indicator lights allow you to flag a buried person before moving on to the next. This provides an easy way to quickly locate multiple victims.

Avalanche beacon prices

Inexpensive: At around $200, you will find simple beacons, often utilizing analog technology. These beacons typically have a limited range.

Mid-range: Moderately priced beacons for $260 to $280 generally have improved builds. Three antennas for improved effectiveness is common, as are advanced features such as multiple burial indicators.

High-end: Beacons for $280 or more often have a superior range, and you can even use your smartphone with some models to tweak settings and upgrade software.

Because beacons sold today all use the same frequency, you can use any avalanche beacon safely not only in the U.S., but also in other areas of the world.



  • In addition to an avalanche beacon, two other important tools to carry if you’re into winter backcountry exploring are a probe and a shovel.
  • Take some time to fully understand how your beacon works before using it in the field. If you are heading out with a group, run a “drill” before you leave so everyone understands how these beacons work when used by a group.
  • Check whether an avalanche beacon can be easily operated while wearing gloves. Oftentimes, the buttons, touchscreen, and other controls will be difficult to use while you have gloves on, which can slow you down in the middle of a search.
  • For optimum safety in the backcountry, consider taking an avalanche safety course before heading out. The American Institute for Avalanche Research & Education can help you to find a course near you.
  • Practicing with your avalanche beacon is key, particularly for more complex beacons. If you are a beginner or can’t picture yourself having the time to much practice, consider going with a more basic avalanche beacon that is easier to use.
  • Before heading out with a group, check to verify that all beacons have fresh batteries and are working correctly.
  • Try to avoid leaving your beacon out in the cold for long periods, as this can “detune” the antennas, making them less effective over time.
Three antennas on a beacon allow you to search in three different directions simultaneously, resulting in a faster and more effective search.


Q. How do I carry an avalanche beacon?

A. One of these beacons should not just be shoved into a pocket or a backpack, as this is a great way to lose it in the event of an avalanche. Beacons are typically worn on a strap or holster that goes under your outer clothing and around your shoulder or waist. Be sure to read the included directions carefully and follow all manufacturer instructions for attaching and using an avalanche beacon.

Q. Do these work with RECCO reflectors?

A. RECCO reflectors are another form of safety tech that is used by search-and-rescue units during avalanches. The reflectors are actually thin devices that are incorporated into jackets, boots, helmets, and other items during manufacturing. These offer a battery-free and hassle-free way for searchers to find you in the event you are ever in an avalanche.

While avalanche beacons do not typically work with RECCO reflectors, neither technology interferes with the other. As such, both can be used simultaneously.

Q. If I’m going out in a group, do I need to use the same brand and model of beacon as everyone in the group?

A. Because all beacons use the same frequency, whichever one you buy will work with every other brand and model. The only way you might run into problems is with a beacon that was made before 1996. Some of these will use a different frequency and may not be compatible with newer beacons.

Q. Do these beacons work with smartphones?

A. Not usually, although some more expensive models are Bluetooth-enabled. This allows you to easily update the software on the beacon, in addition to changing settings. Outside of select avalanche beacons, smartphone compatibility is fairly rare.


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