Will Avalanche Apps Save Lives?

Transceivers work well, but are costly. Apps may offer a cheaper alternative.

Several apps that function as avalanche transceivers are now available for your phone. Are they a budget alternative that will help save lives, or a cheap way to buy false security?     Photo: joshbeckner/Thinkstock

During the 2012-2013 winter season, 24 people died in avalanches in the United States, just shy of the decade-long average of 25. While there are no specific statistics, anecdotal trends suggest just over half of them weren't wearing an avalanche beacon—a signal-emitting device intended to help rescuers find them under the snow. While excuses vary for why they weren't wearing the proven prophylaxis, no one doubts that a transceiver’s $300 price tag plays a part.  

Enter a new crop of apps designed to turn your smartphone into an avalanche beacon—for free or chump change. Such technology seems like it would be enthusiastically embraced by the avalanche safety community. But not so fast: Some snow-safety veterans are saying the apps could actually make the backcountry less safe. 

"A computer and phone is not a precise buried-victim locator," says Dale Atkins, past president of the American Avalanche Association, echoing the opinion of the avalanche professionals we talked to. "They're not reliable enough. At least, not yet." 

Martijn Strijbos, a Netherlands-based engineer, disagrees. He and his partner Bart Friederichs designed the free Snog Avalanche Buddy, an Android app, because they believe it will save lives.  

"We are not doing it for the money," Strijbos wrote to Outside. "Our goal is to give people a low-level, entry-beacon option." 

He says he skied in the backcountry without a beacon for years, mainly because of the price. "A smartphone is perfect because everyone already has one," he says.  

Snog is one of three apps on the market right now that claim to turn a smartphone into a searching device, with no need for cell reception. SnoWhere states on its website that it should only be used in-bounds. The Android Snog and Apple-only iSis Intelligent Rescue System both promise beacon-like performance. 

Snog and iSis work in similar ways—harnessing the phones' existing signal sending and receiving capabilities. While iSis uses a combo of GPS and Bluetooth, Snog relies solely on Wi-Fi and a simple interface that switches the beacon from sending a signal to searching for a signal at a press of a button.  

In testing Strijbos says the app's search range was on par with beacons, picking up a phone buried beneath two to the three feet of snow from 90 to160 feet, except in dense forest, where trees reduced the WiFi strength. 

However, actually performing the search with iSis or Snog takes a step back into the late 1990s. Modern digital beacons have three antennas that triangulate the signal source, pointing the way to the victim; total rookies can usually pin point the burial on their first try. Snog works more like an old-school analog beacon, relying on methodical grid searching that requires practice for efficiency. (A more intuitive search function is planned for an upcoming Snog update.)  

But whether Snog users will practice their beacon searches wasn't the biggest concern for James Floyer, a PhD and senior avalanche forecaster with the Canadian Avalanche Centre. His review of the beacon apps resulted in the CAC recommending backcountry skiers not use them. 

"We think, with the current state of the technology, the apps are potentially dangerous," Floyer says. "Our concern is that young and inexperienced users will think the app makes them safe, opening the door to do things they otherwise wouldn't." He identified several issues, but his biggest concerns surround compatibility and battery life. 

Because all beacons use the same frequency, 457 kHz, any beacon can search for any other beacon. The apps, though, only work with phones running the same app. In other words, an Android phone won't talk to a iPhone, Snog won't talk to iSis and neither talk to traditional beacons. "If it's not absolutely compatible the rescue system is ineffective," says Floyer, envisioning a situation where one group can't rescue another because they are using different beacon systems. 

As for battery life, anyone that owns a smart phone knows how quickly power disappears, especially when running GPS and WiFi, in cold conditions. In comparison, beacons must meet a long list of performance and durability standards, including a one hour search after 200 hours of transmitting.   

"Any other avalanche rescue device must meet standards," he says, a major reason beacons will probably never get much cheaper. "Why do [Snog developers] feel their app is exempt?" 

Strijbos counters that as electronics mobile phones already meet many of the same standards as beacons and, more importantly, the apps aren't designed to compete with traditional beacons. They're an alternative for people who wouldn't buy a beacon otherwise and are only meant for day trips.  

"We think we're better to give people a beacon than cry from the sidelines that they should have bought one," Strijbos says. 

And while Atkins and Floyer don't think the present iteration of the beacon apps will make the backcountry safer, they do think designers like Strijbos are headed in the right direction.  

"These apps have been in the works for maybe three years," says Atkins. "I'm sure in a few years we are going to see things we haven't even thought about."

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