Backcountry safety 101: your phone is not a beacon

I don’t often use this blog as a platform to rant, but this horrible article from Outside Magazine warrants a good one. In it, they look at whether smartphone apps are a viable low-cost alternative to avalanche beacons.

I see what you did there, Outside. You opted for a neutral presentation of the cases for and against, with the app developer vigorously defending his product and experts from the CAC and AAA highlighting its technical flaws and limitations. But by taking the “both sides of the argument” approach, your article implies that phone apps are something that should be given serious consideration as an alternative to beacons. This is misleading, irresponsible, and quite frankly dangerous.

Phone apps are NOT beacons. These are the facts:

  • All transceivers operate on the same frequency, meaning that any brand can be used to look for any other brand. Phone apps will not only not recognize traditional transceivers, they’re not even able to recognize other kinds of avalanche apps.
  • Transcievers operate on the 457kHz frequency because it transmits well through dense snow and isn’t deflected by objects like rocks and trees. Apps use WiFi and Bluetooth for transmission, both of which are significantly weakened when they pass through snow and are prone to deflection by solid objects.
  • The 457kHz standard is also extremely accurate, allowing precise location of buried victims. GPS, which is used by phone apps to locate a signal, does not come close to this level of accuracy.
  • Transceivers are subject to rigorous durability and performance testing before being released for purchase. A smartphone is far less robust than a made-for-purpose transceiver, and is not subject to any standardized performance testing for this kind of field use.
  • Transceivers are designed to operate in cold environments. Phone batteries drain more rapidly in the cold, and unlike a transceiver have multiple sources placing demands on their power.

Now picture this. You’re caught in a slide, pummeled by debris, and fetch up buried against a tree and awaiting rescue. Did your relatively fragile cellphone survive the ride? Do the folk who are searching for you on the surface have enough battery life to keep going while they work their way across the debris field? Wait, did they even download the same app that you have? At what point will they realise that your apps are incompatible and they’re searching for something they’re never going to find? How’s your air pocket doing?

It’s an ugly, messy scenario, and yet it’s close to a best case if a group using phone apps finds themselves in a companion rescue situation. It could be much worse. Anyone who’s been through AST training knows the level of confusion and ferocious intensity of a multiple burial scenario when you’re using completely standardized equipment; now imagine that with a profusion of devices and incompatible apps. I think there is a very serious risk that these apps will end up endangering more lives than they save.

The arguments on the pro-app side are nonsensical, and should not have been presented without qualification. The most irresponsible and misleading statement is the app developer’s claim that apps aren’t competing for the same market as beacons because they are “only meant for day trips,” as though the need for proper safety equipment is dependent on the length of the journey and has nothing to do with the kind of terrain you’re traveling through. Using his own decision not to buy a beacon to try and make a case for the apps made me cringe. Anyone who considers the $300 cost of a beacon not worth paying should not be in avalanche terrain, period. It’s not just your own life that could be in the balance, but your ability to assist in rescuing someone else if things go wrong.

The problem with the article is that it lends credibility to the idea that phone apps can be used in place of a beacon. By not taking a position in the debate, a magazine as influential as Outside runs the risk of having inexperienced backcountry users conclude that they don’t need to invest in proper safety equipment and training. It’s all very well to try and present a neutral and balanced view of the two sides of a particular argument, but in this case there shouldn’t even be an argument. There’s far too much at stake.

Edit: anyone who’s tempted to buy into the “only meant for day trips” argument should read this post.  “You step out of your car, and about twenty feet later you are crossing below an obvious avalanche path. A few hundred yards south, you step onto the slope that killed the five individuals last weekend.”

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