How to Use an Avalanche Transceiver

The transceiver is an essential tool when backcountry skiing or splitboarding.  It is one of three essential items that will aid in rescuing a person if they get buried by an avalanche.  It is designed to both transmit and receive (but not at the same time) a 457hz radio signal.

This is a tool that the more you use it, the more comfortable you will be using it.   You should practice performing searches often, as every second counts when rescuing a buried avalanche victim.  You can even make it a game with friends, placing bets on who can get the fastest time.  Since transceiver searches are a group effort, it makes sense to practice as a group.

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to perform a transceiver search:

Step 1: Switch to Receive

A common mistake that people make under the stressful pressure of an avalanche is forgetting to change your transceiver from “search” mode to “receive”.  This is an absolutely imperative step for obvious reasons:  If you are sending out a signal, any transceiver in close range will pick up on your signal and not the victim.  Verbal confirmation within the group should always occur - “Has everyone switched to receive?”

Step 2: Perform a grid search

Once you have made your best guess as to the victim’s location you can begin a grid search.  You will systematically get closer to the expected burial site, going back and forth until you can find a signal.

The following diagram shows two possible ways to conduct an initial grid search:

Step 3:  Acquire a stronger signal

Once a grid search has picked up a signal, you need to get the signal as strong as possible before pulling you pull out your probe.  In similar fashion to the kid’s game “hot and cold”, you must keep moving toward a stronger signal, backtracking if it gets weaker to find your bearing.  A stronger signal is similar to the transceiver telling you “you’re getting warmer!”

The transceiver signal is not sent in a straight line.  Instead, the signals follow a “flux line” pattern as seen below:


As such, the easiest way to pinpoint a signal is to follow this pattern.  If you follow a straight line your signal strength will fluctuate and it will be much more inefficient to locate the victim.

Step 4: Pinpoint with a probe

Once you have found the strongest possible signal, it is time to pull out your probe.  Keep in mind that if someone is buried 2 meters down, the closest signal will be just over 2 meters.  Without a probe you are playing guessing games and wasting valuable time.  The probe should be placed softly (and calmly) in the snow in a systematic method to be able to find a body.

Step 5: Dig!

If you have located the victim with your probe, the only thing left to do is dig as quickly as you can.  Call over the rest of the group and have them help.  If there are multiple burials, only dig to the point that the person can breathe on their own, make sure they are OK, and proceed to the next victim.

This video is a great tutorial on the basics of Transceiver use:


Hopefully these steps will stick in your memory.  This information is only intended to be a “foot in the door” and is no substitution for taking an Avalanche Skills Training course.   We hope you will make it out and get as much knowledge as possible before touring on your skis or splitboard.

Good luck and safe travels!

By Steve Andrews