Mar 19 2012

Review: BCA’s Tracker 2

Avalanche beacons can’t keep you from getting caught in an avalanche. If you make a bad call, there is no doubt you want to make sure you’re beepin’ and your buddies can find you quickly. Whether or not you know how to dig is another subject, but here’s three reasons why the Tracker 2 is tops in my list of beacons I prefer you own.

Tracker2 keeps it simple with 3 antennas and a fast response time.

It’s easy to use, it’s fast, and it has good range.

If I make a mistake (a documented possibility), I know what beacon I hope you have ‘cuz I doubt you practice much. If I didn’t do reviews of them I wouldn’t either. That’s why ease of use is so important. Since you probably don’t practice I want you to have a no muss, no fuss, Tracker. Preferrably Tracker2 but the original DTS will do. One of my friends who is on track to be fully IFMGA certified echoed that sentiment on a recent intro to a backcountry course he was leading, saying, “If I’m buried I want you (novice students) to have a Tracker 2.”

Tracker2 – Easy to Use
Turning Tracker2 on is easy, just rotate the switch on the back clockwise a quarter turn. Don’t forget to do that at the trailhead, if not before, and check to make sure the LED on the lower R side (next to the Search mode switch) blinks about once a second.

It comes with a decent chest harness, but I’ve adopted the European method of clipping the tether to a belt loop and stashing it in the cargo pocket of my ski pants. It’s easier to grab there and it doesn’t get in the way of my camera bag that is usually covering my too generous midsection.

Pull the knob at the base down to switch to SEarch mode.

Switching to search is pretty obvious – pull out on the bottom knob. It clicks into place then beeps as the LED flashes “SE” to indicate it is searching for a signal, maybe several. If you’re lucky, you might pick up a signal as far away as 48 – 50 meters as long as the victims antenna is horizontal and parallel with the long axis of the Tracker. If horizontal and poorly coupled, maybe as little as 30 meters, but usually more like 35 m. When the victims beacon is vertical, the worst case, range drops to 25 m but even the Pieps DSP drops to 35 in this case, so range is still respectable.

More important than range, however is how well the Tracker locks on to a signal and then indicates what direction to move and how far away you are. The distance numbers are a bit off when you’re far away, generally indicating you’re further than you really are, but that degree of error reduces as you get closer. Anything inside of 20 meters away and the numbers jive with reality pretty accurately, and the error is rather small inside of 5. Only Pieps DSP is more accurate farther away, and the further away you are, the less important precision is anyway.

Fast Response Time
Where Tracker has always outshone the competition has been the speed with which it updates its display. Except for analog beacons, every other avy beacon on the market updates their display with some delay after the victim’s pulsed signal is received. The delay may or may not be significant depending on the accuracy of the display and how close you are. Without doing a scientific study with hundreds or thousands of datapoints to verify the accuracy, my sense is Tracker is typically within 10% of the true distance when it first updates, occasionally it is off by 20%, but still quite accurate. Other digital beacons seem to be off by 20% consistently on the first update for a position, and if you hold it steady, will be more accurate on the second pulse. Tracker 2 is more likely to update and hold steady on that reading, indicating it said what it meant, and after checking twice, it still meant what it said. In short, Tracker 2 is more accurate more quickly.

Real-Time Updates
Here’s the hook. It does that while the victim’s pulse is still on. In other words, you’re getting the update while the signal is on – in real-time, just like an analog beacon only with more information – not just volume, but distance and direction. Most pulses are at least 90 mS long, usually more like 110 mS, but by the time 70mS have passed, or while the signal is still on, Tracker has detected the signal, analyzed it, and sent the new distance and direction info to the LED display.

Beware of ads or white papers claiming an update to the display anytime before the next pulse is still real-time. It may be acceptable, especially if it is accurate, but a delay is a delay and real-time means same time, simple as that.

Bottom line, response time with a Tracker remains top notch, and is still the standard by which others are judged.

In addition to more range and real-time display updates, Tracker 2 also has three antennas, the better to see you buried beneath the snow with no matter which way your beacon is pointed. No more spikes, just a nice, steadily declining distance number as the searcher gets closer.

Multiple Victims
If there is more than one signal within range, Tracker 2 has a pair of LEDs on the R side that light up if it senses two signals. If more than 2, the dual LED will blink.

Use SPecial mode to narrow the search beam to manually isolate multiple signals.

This is where you need actually need to think about how you’re using the Tracker, because it will not guide you between multiple signals. It will hang on to the strongest signal and take you there without interruption. It can not “mark” a found signal so that it can ignore that signal and concentrate on others, but it does have a special mode which can help you do that provided you have practiced using this function a lot and know what you’re doing. Yeah, fat chance of that happening, right?

So that’s the weakness of Tracker 2. It is certainly capable of finding two signals quickly, especially if they’re more than 10 meters apart. In close though you better have a plan. Either practice with special mode where the search beam is narrower, to help ignore a known signal, and/or learn a method like the micro-grid search that is more or less fool proof as long as you apply it to the right area.

If you think dealing with multiples is the least of your problems if you ever really have to use a Tracker, I agree. It depends whether you believe you should be prepared for a no-win worst case scenario, in which case you better be practicing no matter what beacon you have, or you’re hoping that the odds are in your favor and you’ll only be dealing with one, which will be plenty enough.

Like I said, either way, if I’m the one buried, I’ll drift into unconsciousness a wee bit easier if you have a Tracker 2 and know how to dig.

Backcountry Access
Tracker 2
MSRP: $335

© 2012