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Aug 18 2015

Review: BCA’s Tracker 3 avalanche transceiver

 

Tracker 3. Lighter than Tracker 2, easier for two victims, but don't expect miracles beyond that.

Tracker 3. Lighter than Tracker 2, easier for two victims, but don’t expect miracles beyond that.

In case you hadn’t noticed, there hasn’t been any earth shattering news in the world of avalanche transceivers lately. By and large, the revolution in digital processing and multiple antenna technology begot by Backcountry Access’ original Tracker DTS appears to have run its course. In the last five years, most of the improvements to avalanche transceivers have been tweaks to the way beacons communicate their ability to recognize multiple signals. BCA’s Tracker 3 continues that trend yielding a significant improvement over its siblings, but compared to many competitors the upgrade fails to impress.

Improvements

One clear improvement over earlier generations of the Tracker is the maximum range. In a best coupled orientation the new Tracker 3 will detect a signal as far away as 55 meters, but it won’t lock on until it’s closer to 45 meters. At that point it is worth noting that Tracker’s distance reading is fairly accurate, with an occasional variance of 2-3 meters when you’re far away, to dead nuts accurate inside of 10 meters. In a least-coupled orientation, range is an unimpressive 28 meters.

As with the Tracker 2, the Tracker 3 yields a real-time display update, meaning it displays the distance and gives an audible beep while the transmitting signal is on. That wouldn’t mean much except, as just mentioned, Tracker 3 is pretty darn accurate. Having a real-time response that is accurate can reduce the time required to pinpoint a signal.

At 7½ ounces (215 grams) Tracker 3 is also lighter, and less bulky than prior Trackers. It also has the ability to ignore a signal so you can focus on the next closest one in a multiple burial scenario. Unfortunately, this is not a “marking” function as may be found with many other avalanche beacons where the signal is ignored until it is manually unmarked, or the receiving beacon is reset. Rather, it simply ignores the closest signal by pressing the round button, but it only ignores it for one minute.

Basic Functions

Single signal, 10m to the R.

Single signal, 10m to the R.

Turning the Tracker 3 on is similar to how the Ortovox 3+ works. A rotating switch at the top R corner turns the beacon on to transmit, or receive mode. In both cases, you need an opposing finger to unlock the dial so it can rotate. While simple and functional, the mode switch is less intuitive than Tracker 2, and requires two hands with warm finger dexterity to operate. The basic mode switch on a Tracker 2 worked with mittens.

Once locked on to a signal, Tracker 3 does a good job of pointing you in the right direction and showing your distance away. Oddly, the Tracker 3 occasionally skips a beat when updating the display, especially in the presence of two or more signals. I’ve noticed this same tendency with other modern avalanche transceivers, so this isn’t a new phenomenon in the beacon world, but it is a more pronounced development for the Tracker family. Outside of 10 meters you hear a single beep, then a higher pitched double beat, and then inside of 5 meters, a progressively higher pitched bleep.

When you’re closer than 2m, the directional arrows cease to operate. You’re expected to know how to perform a grid search without spinning the beacon.

After striking the target with a probe, to mark the found signal, you must hold down the mark button for what feels like a second. In other words, not instantaneous. Nor does it give a confirmation the signal has been temporarily filtered out, but after a few seconds you will realize it has ignored the signal you found, and is searching for, or has identified the next closest signal(s).

For those who want it, the Tracker 3 comes with a nice chest harness and the option to merely tether the beacon to a waistbelt loop and stuff it in a cargo pocket. I’m a proponent of the latter, but not for any other reason than convenience.

Multiple Signal Features

Two victims in range, the closest 1.5m away.

Two victims in range, the closest 1.5m away.

The presence of multiple signals is indicated beneath the distance numbers with two human icons, and if there are more than two detected, brackets and a plus sign. Lord help you if you really need to find more than two with a T3. In a Freudian admission, even the display indicates confusion with the human icons toggling back and forth suggesting the T3 can’t figure out who is where.

The trademark simplicity and accuracy of a Tracker for a single beacon search has been maintained, but with an Asian accent, and a multiple beacon function that requires practice to be comfortable and proficient at. This is not really a revelation in the realm of avalanche beacons since any multiple signal scenario requires some practice.

However, it is ironic that the company that started the revolution in avalanche beacons, a revolution that is best summed up with the admission that Tracker DTS did not require practice to be proficient for a lone signal. Admittedly this was never a feature that BCA claimed, but it was certainly acknowledged by hundreds of thousands of users. In fact, it established the benchmark by which avalanche beacons have come to be judged, and rightly so. That is, how easy are they to operate and perform without practice?

In this regard, the Tracker 3 falls below the competitive norm for multiple victims. It is worth noting that BCA is on record that there are more things at stake in saving lives, especially when more than one person is buried; keeping a beacon simple and focused is probably enough. In other words, is the ability to mark three victims in a four-victim scenario really going to make the difference on how many lives are saved? Exactly! So BCA stuck to a realistic goal of managing two victims easily; after that all bets are off.

It follows then that T3 does fine with two beacons in close proximity, even when the second is an old analog beacon with a long pulse that tends to create confusion. Three is where the trouble may show up, since it can’t mark two beacons to concentrate exclusively on the third, and you only have one minute to ignore the first to find the next two or you’ll be dealing with three signals again. With practice, this wouldn’t be an insurmountable problem.

It is certainly true the Tracker 3 works better than its siblings with regard to multiple victim scenarios. However, the bar of performance in the world of multiple signals is no longer defined by BCA, and in that regard, compared to the competition, BCA’s Tracker 3 requires a lot more practice to be proficient than Arva’s NEO, Barryvox’s Element, Ortovox’s S1, or a Pieps DSP Pro.

Conclusion

If you’re willing to practice with twosomes and an occasional threesome, Tracker 3 will save weight, yield fast pinpoint searches, and annoy you with its oriental accent. It’s a Tracker 2 with the trademark fast and accurate response time, plus a way to ignore one signal for awhile, while finding the next. There are better marking features available, but none with faster response time for the dominant signal. If you agree with BCA’s preference for speed over complexity, a Tracker 3 is in your future.

Backcountry Access
Tracker 3
MSRP: $340
Weight (w/o harness): 7½ oz (215 g)

© 2015