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Reviews > Health & Safety > Emergency and Survival Gear > BCA Tracker DTS Avalanche Beacon > Owner Review by Richard Lyon
Personal Details and Backpacking Background
Male, 62 years
I've been backpacking for 45 years on and off, and regularly in the Rockies since 1986. I do a weeklong trip every summer, and often take three-day trips. I'm usually camping in alpine terrain, at altitudes 5000 to 13000 ft (1500 - 4000 m). I prefer base camp backpacking, a long hike in with day trips from camp, but I do my share of forced marches too. Though always looking for ways to reduce weight, I'm not yet a lightweight hiker and I usually choose a bit of extra weight over foregoing camp conveniences I've come to expect.
Especially pertinent to this review - I'm an avid skier who does most of my backcountry winter traveling on skis, either as touring or in search of powder stashes for some downhill telemark turns.
Backcountry Access, Inc., better known among its customers by its initials BCA, is a Colorado-based company that specializes in winter backcountry gear. Its Tracker DTS is a battery-powered digital radio receiver-transmitter intended to locate a hiker or skier who has been buried in an avalanche. The Tracker has directional arrows and digital reader that, when the device is set to receive, point in the direction of and indicate in meters the distance to the nearest transmitter. BCA promotes the Tracker as "the easiest to use" of any available beacon device.
Manufacturer: Backcountry Access, Inc.
Website: www.backcountryaccess.com All quotations in this review and the picture at right comes from this website.
Year of purchase: 2005
Dimensions, listed: 5.2 x 3.4 x 1 in/13.2 x 8.6 x 2.5 cm
Dimensions, measured: 6.0 x 3.3 x 1 in/15.2 x 8.4 x 2.5 cm. I took my measurements across the longest and widest part of the face of the Tracker.
Weight, listed: 12.8 oz/363 g including strap and batteries; 8.6 oz/245 g without.
Weight, measured: 13.1 oz/371 g including strap and batteries; 8.8 oz/249 g without
Includes: Holster with adjustable
webbing for wearing the Tracker.
Battery life, listed: minimum 1 hour in search mode after 200 hours in transmit mode (approximately 250 hours in transmit only or 50 hours in search only)
Frequency: 457 kHz
Certified to be in compliance with all applicable North American and European norms.
MSRP: $289.95 US.
Warranty: Five-year limited warranty on workmanship and components. BCA will repair or replace units it determines are subject to the warranty. The customer must send the unit to BCA in Boulder, Colorado. BCA's website provides a means for obtaining a return authorization but does not indicate if BCA will pay for shipping.
Unless it's easy track skiing on a golf course or set cross-country track, I wear my Tracker every time I venture into the backcountry on skis or snowshoes. In the three winter seasons since my purchase that means about forty or fifty days' use, in temperatures from -30 to 70 F/-32 to 21 C and at altitudes up to 11500 feet/3500 m. My snow playground is usually the Northern Rockies, where avalanches can be an everyday hazard. Often I'll wear my beacon even when skiing in bounds, as my favorite ski areas include ample terrain accessible only by boot pack, skinning uphill, or a long traverse; many of these areas have marked backcountry gates for adventurous skiers willing to leave patrolled terrain. A beacon is a sensible precaution, I'd say. BCA makes the case even more convincingly: "What's your partner carrying?"
How it Works
For readers who are unfamiliar with avalanche protocols, here's how a beacon system is designed to work. Each person in a group carries a beacon set to transmit. If someone is buried, survivors switch their beacons to receive and then systematically comb the debris area for a signal from the victim's beacon, which should still be transmitting. Early analog beacons worked by sound, generating radio beeps that increased in frequency and volume as a receiving beacon approached the transmitter. The Tracker does this too, but also has a processor that converts the radio signals to a distance (in meters) reading in a light-emitting diodes (LED) display and the direction from which the signal emanates by illuminating a bulb in the directional arrows at the top of the unit. This allows a searcher more quickly to pinpoint the area where the victim is buried, which can then be more closely searched using probes and shovels. I've seen other beacons with digital displays, but according to BCA the Tracker is the only one on the market that instantly converts the radio signals to directional arrows and a distance immediately – "real-time" rather than delayed display.
The certifications referred to above mean that Tracker operates on a frequency designated by the government (in the United States, by the Federal Communications Commission) for individual rescue. All other certified digital beacons operate on the same frequency so not everyone in a party need carry the same brand.
The Tracker has three controls. The first is used only twice each backcountry day – a switch on the back of the unit that is turned on by rotating it ninety degrees to the right to activate the unit at the start of the journey, and back off at day's end. The red Search button in the middle of the front controls whether the unit transmits or receives radio signals. By depressing this for about one second the display will first indicate the percentage of battery strength remaining and then display "tr" (for "transmit") very briefly. When in transmit mode the small indicator light on the left side near the bottom will blink every few seconds to indicate that the unit is transmitting.
All that remains to be done on an uneventful day is turn off the master switch when safely out of avalanche danger. If a search becomes necessary, I depress the Search button, wait for a brief "se" in the display, and then quickly release pressure. Once all above-ground comrades have similarly switched over to receive (search) mode the hunt for the victim can begin.
The smaller, yellow Options button on the left front of the unit refines search use in a multiple burial scenario. By depressing that button when the unit is receiving until "sp" appears, then quickly releasing it, a user converts to Special search mode. In a standard search the Tracker will pick up and report only the closest signal and has a full 360 degree window. In Special mode the window is reduced to 75 degrees (the center three lights at the top) but the Tracker will detect all signals in the window regardless of strength.
A user in standard Search mode can mute the speaker by holding the Options button down for three seconds, at which time "LO" will be displayed. A second three-second depression will restore the speaker and bring up an "L1" in the display.
Putting it on
I use the holster and harness to wear the Tracker rather than stash it in a pocket, to ensure that body heat keeps the batteries from freezing. The Tracker, in its holster, sits just above my left hip, over my base layer and under an insulating layer. The shoulder strap (now said to be blue webbing; mine is grey) is adjustable with a slider; it extends from the holster over my right shoulder. Then I snap up the waistband (black webbing), giving something of a grenadier or traffic cop look, as shown in the photo at right. The portion of the strap that goes across the front of my waist is elastic and will stretch to fit, so I don't have to micro-adjust it. If it's necessary to take the Tracker out during the day, there is an elastic lanyard attached to the bottom of the Tracker with a clip that I keep snapped on to the shoulder strap just above the holster. The lanyard is long enough (18.5 in/47 cm before stretching) to let me carry the unit in one hand, parallel to the ground (proper search technique) without undue stretching.
Putting the Tracker to Work
A beacon is one piece of gear that I hope never to employ for its intended purpose. To date I have not been involved, as victim or searcher, in an actual body search. But I've had ample practice with the Tracker. Professional guides, skiing buddies, and I regularly conduct beacon tests before heading into the backcountry. That way each in my group knows not only what his or her partners are carrying but also that in a pinch what is being carried will work. I find this a particularly important refresher course for a snow traveler (me) who gets his winter exposure in spurts, a couple of days or a week at a time, and sometimes with a couple of months between trips. My drills include testing all the modes, followed by searches for a buried beacon, first one by one to ensure each person in the group is up to speed and then in small groups to practice searching a large area efficiently. Constant practice should save critical time if I'm ever part of a search when a life is at stake, and I've worked at making proper search techniques second nature.
The Tracker shines in all drills. First of all, all of its functions work just as advertised. Once I learned how to hold the unit and proper search logic (which takes account of the curved shape of radio waves) the tracking arrows and distance indicator really accelerate locating generally, then pinpointing, the area of the buried transmitter. If anything it's more easily done than in the description I have just given. That's the best thing about the Tracker in my opinion – it's virtually idiot-proof. I have definitely found it faster and easier to use than any other beacon. The curved sides of the Tracker make it a bit easier to hold in one gloved hand.
Batteries are stored in a compartment outlined in yellow on the back of the Tracker accessed by unscrewing a single screw at the bottom. The compartment lid is hinged at the top so there's no risk of dropping it in the snow. Putting new batteries into the Tracker is part of my pre-trip routine, so my extended use of a single trio has never approached BCA's advertised 200-hour limit. I have found, though, that the unit's reminder every time I turn it on to be a handy means of checking that I have not forgotten to add new batteries or inadvertently replaced one used battery with another.
I can't say that the Tracker is always comfortable when worn. Skinning, kicking, gliding, and downhill skiing require constant arm movement that can occasionally twist the holster or webbing or make the holster slide up a bit. I've always been able to get things back in place without doffing my outer layer, however, and the Tracker's system is no more uncomfortable than any other beacon set-up I've used. My only design complaint is that now and then the unit can stick in its holster to the point that I've had to remove a glove to extract it for use. Operator negligence has likely contributed to this, as it hasn't happened when I have taken care to extend the lanyard entirely outside the holster when donning the harness in the morning.
The robust hard plastic that encases the electronics has withstood jarring and bangs against rocks from falls and scrapes without affecting performance. I've never had the unit switch modes from impact's accidentally pushing one of the buttons.
Easy to use
Reliable and durable
Less expensive than other digital beacons
It might be possible to make it smaller.
I'd prefer to eliminate the Special mode. Even BCA admits that it's tricky to operate and useful only in rare circumstances. It hasn't interfered with my use, however, and professional guides use these same devices, so I'm OK with this little fillip.
If there's any avalanche risk at all I'll strap on the Tracker. Even if, as I hope, I never have to use it for real, it's a daily reminder that the backcountry can mean danger as well as exhilaration, and that safety is always the first rule. And if I'm ever snowed under I'm hoping my companions will all be carrying Trackers.
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Reviews > Health & Safety > Emergency and Survival Gear > BCA Tracker DTS Avalanche Beacon > Owner Review by Richard Lyon
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