Gear Review: Small Avalanche Beacons

The Pieps Micro just came on the market. Find out how it compares to the other small beacons available.
Nick Drake Nick Drake
Backcountry Snowboarder
December 29, 2016
Gear Review: Small Avalanche Beacons
Photos courtesy of Nick Drake.

My first avalanche transceiver was the original Ortovox S1, which sported 3 antennas, a slick grid search, and looked like a transponder from Star Trek. Considering flip phones were just on the way out and Myspace was still relevant it didn’t seem out of place.

As the rest of technology changed over the years I wondered why all of the beacons on the market still seemed to be on this level:






The beacon size wouldn’t be so annoying, except the harness puts it on my left side and the bulky got in my way of grabbing methods. I started skateboarding in the late 80s simply because I wanted to be able to do methods like Christian Hosoi. I started snowboarding in the early 90s because we had no vert ramp in town and I still just wanted to do methods. Twenty-three years later, I still just want to do methods. The damn star trek transponder was really cramping my style.

In 2014, I saw a “beacon” of light with the BCA Tracker 3. Finally! A beacon that was getting a bit thinner, clocking in at 0.9″.  I still was not a fan of many features on the tracker though. Namely it’s impossible to switch into search without removing gloves for me and the multiple burial is useless. One minute flagging of the strongest signal is worthless, you are not going to recover someone in that time and turn their beacon off. Small size would be nice, but I wasn’t willing to compromise on my potential ability to recover a partner just so I could do a damn method.

Last year Pieps announced the “Micro” and it really piqued my interest. First, it comes in as the smallest 3 antenna beacon on the market. It doesn’t win the size battle by a huge margin over the Tracker 3, but with the use of only one AA battery it’s also substantially lighter. Here is a size comparison to my Ortovox S1:

 beacon size comparison

Specs compared to it’s competition:

Pieps Micro 4.3 x 2.3 x .9 inches; 5.2oz
Tracker 3 4.5 x 2.8 x .9 inches; 7.6oz
Ortovox S1 4.7 x 3.15 x 1.18 inches; 8.1oz

More interesting than the small size with the Micro was Pieps's new approach to switching from transmit to search mode. Instead of fiddly dials which are hard to operate with gloves on when you’re panicking, it simply goes from transmit to search whenever it’s removed from it’s harness or a pocket! There is a sensor on the face of the beacon which knows when it is covered (yes it will go into search when removed at night in the dark). This would be amazing in a real world search scenario. It will automatically lock in search mode, if you are doing a practice search you revert to send by holding the flag button for 3 seconds and then covering the sensor (or simply putting the beacon away). A light flashes to advise you it’s transmitting on a chest harness, for use in a pocket it gives a series of vibrations.

Out of the harness in search mode, hold the flag button down for 3 seconds:

Then cover the sensor and it will revert to transmit mode, note the “antenna” on right hand of display:

beacon transmit indicator light

Transmit indicator light:

beacon light

Another nice feature is that when you are in the initial “signal search” portion of a rescue, the Micro will vibrate upon picking up signal. This means you can keep your head up and look at terrain/slide path during your initial search.

Once a signal is picked up, the numeric display and arrow functions work as other peer beacons. Number of signals picked up displays on the bottom left. I found the Micro process speed to be quite fast. Once you hit the range for “fine search” the directional indicator disappears.

I found the chest harness to be comfortable, low profile, and well designed. I personally use the beacon in a pants pocket, for those of us who do Pieps has also included a wrist leash.

So far I have done a few initial test searches to familiarize myself with the Micro and I've used it on a couple of tours. It fits excellently in a pocket, to the point of barely being noticeable. The group check function works well. Single burial searches were quite fast. All that remains now is to do a trial run of a multiple burial recovery on a real slope to see if it beats out the S1. If you’ve been frustrated by riding with a beacon as large as an 80s car phone your upgrade has arrived!