how do avalanche beacons work?

Snow Safety 101: How Do Avalanche Beacons Work?

by Ben

When heading off-piste or exploring the backcountry, safety is paramount.

In the unfortunate case of an avalanche, your survival may depend on a small, incredibly smart device: the avalanche beacon!

But, “how do avalanche beacons work?” you may ask.

Well, this article is here to demystify these life-saving tools.

The Short Version

We’ve all got busy lives, so here’s the quick answer:

Avalanche beacons work by emitting and receiving radio signals. When skiing, the beacon is in transmit mode, sending signals. If an avalanche occurs, rescuers switch their beacons to receive mode, picking up the buried individuals’ signal in order to locate them quickly.

Keep reading to learn more. If you don’t have a beacon, follow the link below.

>> Best Beginner Avalanche Beacons

The Basics of Avalanche Beacons

Avalanche beacons, also known as avalanche transceivers, are devices carried by individuals in snow-covered mountainous terrain. The primary purpose? To locate people buried under the snow after an avalanche.

Essentially, these devices work on a simple concept: they emit radio signals that can be picked up by other beacons, creating a reliable method for search and rescue operations.

They have two modes: transmit and receive (or search). When skiing or snowboarding, you keep your beacon in transmit mode. In the event of an avalanche, anyone not buried switches their beacon to receive/search mode to locate those buried.

ARVA Avalanche transceiver/beacon

Transmit Mode: Sending Out a Lifeline

In transmit mode, the avalanche beacon sends out pulsed radio signals. These signals are a beacon’s lifeline, forming a sort of electronic ‘breadcrumb trail’ for rescuers to follow.

It’s crucial to note that all members of a group should have their beacons in transmit mode to ensure each person is traceable should an avalanche occur.

Receive Mode: The Search Begins

Post-avalanche, rescuers switch their beacons to receive mode.

In this mode, the beacon picks up signals from the beacons of the buried individuals. The screen* of the receiving beacon shows the distance and direction to the transmitting beacon, guiding rescuers to the precise location of the buried individual.

*Some beacons just have arrows distances (pictured), others now have digital screens and verbal instructions. 


The strongest signal is usually found directly above the victim, so rescuers can start to dig there.

Time is of the essence in these situations, and a properly functioning beacon can dramatically reduce search time!

Practice Makes Perfect

Every avalanche beacon is slightly different. It’s important to familiarise yourself with yours before using it in the field. 

Run a few discovery drills with your buddies or attend an avalanche safety class. Most mountains even have a practice area with buried beacons

Multiple Burials and Advanced Features

Modern beacons come equipped with advanced features to deal with situations involving multiple burials (a backcountry rider’s worst nightmare).

Some beacons have marking features, allowing rescuers to suppress the signal of a found victim and search for others. Others have multiple antennas to increase search precision.

Remember, though, that while these features are helpful, nothing replaces proper training in beacon usage and avalanche safety.

Do All Avalanche Beacons Work Together?

Yes, all modern avalanche beacons are designed to work together as they operate on the same frequency – 457 kHz, which is the international standard for avalanche transceivers.

This means regardless of the brand or model, one beacon can pick up the signal from another. This allows for compatibility during rescue situations, ensuring that anyone with a standard beacon can be found or participate effectively in the search after an avalanche. 

Why A Beacon Isn't Enough!

It’s essential to remember that while understanding “how do avalanche beacons work” is crucial, they are not a standalone solution.

A beacon should always be used in conjunction with proper safety equipment like a probe and shovel, and you should always have avalanche safety training before venturing into avalanche-prone areas.

avalanche safety kit, including beacon

I also like to have an avalanche safety briefing and discussion before any serious backcountry mission – this is especially hard after fresh snowfall when people are too stoked to concentrate. But do it anyway!


In conclusion, avalanche beacons work by transmitting and receiving radio signals, creating a communication line between the buried victim and the rescuer.

These devices are an essential part of any snow adventurer’s safety kit.

However, they work best when used by those trained in avalanche rescue and alongside other safety equipment. So, stay safe out there folks. 

Remember, the best avalanche safety tool is knowledge and avoiding undue risk in the first place. 

Best Value!
Recommended: BCA Tracker S Beacon
9.1/10 Our Score
  • Super easy to use 
  • Great range - 55m 
  • Simple interface 
  • Low profile and lightweight
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