BCA Tracker3 Beacon ReviewNovember 16, 2018
- Fastest digital response time
- Smallest Tracker ever
- Real-time display update
- Digital signal separation
- Big Picture mode
- No long-term signal memory
- Limited range
Speed is Safety
The thing I’ve always loved about Tracker beacons is their response time. Embedded in that praise is the accuracy of the information provided. BCA has taken pains to not merely update the display with accurate information, they do so in a way that quantifies the signal in less than 70 milliseconds, meaning the display updates while the signal is active, much like an analog beacon “beeping” when the signal is on, and silent when it’s not. Unlike analog beacons, Tracker3 also provides a distance number, in case the audio isn’t intuitive enough.
At 7.75 ounces (220 g) the Tracker3 is lighter and less bulky than previous Trackers. BCA provides a decent chest harness and a tether in case you prefer clipping to a belt loop and stashing in your pants pocket.
You turn the Tracker3 on by rotating the tab of the top right switch, to the left (counter-clockwise). The first position puts the beacon in transmit mode and it commences to turn on, first telling you the battery percentage, then each LED will light up and then it announces that it is about to start transmitting with a screechy three note techno-riff. To confirm it is transmitting, you can see an LED in the lower right side pulsing as the signal is being transmitted.
Rotate the knob one more notch to the left to start searching (S.E. mode). While the mode switch function may be less intuitive than Tracker2, it remains simple and unlike T2, T3 fits in a pocket.
This has been a controversial feature ever since BCA introduced it. ON the Tracker3, the auto-revert function is disabled by default. However, you can enable it by holding down the option button during startup until you see Ar displayed. With auto-revert turned on the beacon to revert from search to transmit mode if the beacon is motionless for more than 30 seconds or the beacon has been in search mode for more than five minutes. In the latter case, it will warn you it is about to revert and you can continue searching by pressing the options button to delay reverting for another five minutes. If you like the auto-revert feature you must enable it every time you turn on the Tracker3.
Tracker3 won’t win any range awards, but it consistently locks on to a signal by 45 meters, sometimes a few more, and it might briefly beep at you 55m away, but it just won’t display anything until it locks on to a signal. When it does it might indicate a distance of 49m, or even 50m away, but my tests say when Tracker3 locks on you can count on being 45m away. Not record setting distance, but respectable and reliable.
At that point, it is worth noting that Tracker’s distance reading is fairly accurate, with an occasional variance of 2 to 3 meters when you’re far away, to dead-accurate inside of 10 meters. In a “least-coupled” orientation (a vertical burial, hence the receiving plane of the beacon and the transmitting antenna are orthogonal), the range is 28 meters, more than the recommended search strip width of 20 meters.
Once locked on to a signal, Tracker3 does a great job of pointing you in the right direction and showing your distance away. When you’re farther away than 10 meters, the Tracker3 talks with a single beep in cadence with the received signal. Inside of 10 meters, the pitch gets higher and the beeps come in progressively longer bursts. Closer than five meters the beeps become a sort of electronic “boing” sound that, again, gets progressively higher the closer you are.
When you’re in the final phase of searching, this speed means you can rely on the distance to be accurate to within 15 percent on the first update. Most other beacons are usually within 25 percent on the first pulse and depending on how quickly and far you are moving the beacon between pulses, probably even less accurate since the urgency of the rescue at hand suggests speed. In the fine search phase, haste can make waste since most digital beacons are averaging the signal and thus, the current display could be significantly influenced by the previous position. To be certain of the distance reading, with some digital beacons, Ortovox 3+ for example, you typically have to wait three seconds (3 successive pulses) – the first to determine position, the second to confirm the reading didn’t change by more than 10% and if it did, wait for the third or even fourth pulse for the reading to settle (remain unchanged). In the fine search, this means you need to slow waaaaay down. With the Tracker3 the most you need to wait is two pulses, and then only to maintain confidence that each reading is, on the first pulse, accurate. When you need to know where to start digging those extra seconds can add up. However, to be honest, you’ll only notice what I took pains to explain if you practice.
When there are two or more signals the Tracker3 can see them as far away as 25-30 meters. The display will indicate if there are one, two, or 2+ signals in range. If the two closest signals are within 5 meters of each other the two body icons will be surrounded by brackets.
Regardless of how many there are, the Tracker3 will automatically seek the strongest signal and focus on it to the exclusion of others. When you get inside of two meters (<1.9), the Tracker3 displays an icon in the upper right corner letting you know that it has identified the signal uniquely so that it could be suppressed, or ignored for a minute by pressing the Options button. With the first signal is hidden you can begin a signal search for the next strongest signal, and once it recognizes it, focus on that one until it is located as well. This isn’t the same as the “marking” function found with other digital beacons where a signal can be identified and ignored for the remainder of a search. However, it should be noted that every “marked” beacon creates a “blind spot” in the window of time that can impede successive searches. BCA’s approach with Tracker3 is to focus on one at a time. Provided the next victim’s signal is within range, by the time a minute has elapsed the Tracker3 will have you close enough to focus exclusively on the next signal without interruptions. If there are more than two, you may find the use of T3’s Big Picture function helpful where you can see the approximate locations of all signals within range.
To turn on Big Picture mode hold down the options button continuously. Once you see ‘bp’ on the display, while continuing to hold down the options button, the receiver acts like an analog transceiver where it hears all signals in real time. Unlike an analog beacon that only relays the relative strength via the loudness of the beep and timing of signals, the Tracker3 indicates the distance and direction of each buried beacon’s signal as it detects it. This can help you see the timing of each signal, perhaps the presence of signal overlap, but more importantly the spatial positions of each signal relative to the searcher’s position. It is not as visually intuitive as the graphical display on an S1+, but it updates the info a lot faster. With practice, your brain can interpret faster than a microprocessor. As with all rescues, speed is essential and simply knowing which direction to go for multiples can save time, and hopefully, some buddy’s life.
The trademark simplicity and accuracy of a Tracker for a single beacon search has been maintained with Tracker3 but multiple victim scenarios require practice to be comfortable and proficient at. This is not really a revelation in the realm of avalanche beacons since any multiple signal scenario requires some practice. What is different is the methodology of multiple victim searches with Tracker3, relies on the speed and accuracy of acquiring signals over keeping track of many at once. However, if you know how to grid quickly in the fine search, and how to do a 3-circle or microstrip search for second, third, and fourth signals you’ll be a hero to at least one friend.Continue Reading