App stores are filled with mobile phone apps which help users track ski conditions, find the best powder, and even track runs on the slopes.  But the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) is warning skiers not to depend upon phone apps for emergency rescue needs. 

Though many ski apps suggest that they can call for help when an accident or disaster occurs, CAC strongly warns against depending upon the apps after an avalanche.  The CAC warns that there are a number of issues with the technology in the smartphone apps, and the two main issues are the compatibility and the frequency range.

According to the CAC, these are presented as economical alternatives to avalanche transceivers – the devices that are recommended for backcountry skiers, and which can transmit a skier’s location should an accident or avalanche occur. With most backcountry transceivers, users can be tracked even if they’re buried under the snow by an avalanche.

All avalanche transceivers are required to conform to the international standard of 457 kHz and, regardless of brand, can be used to search and find other transceivers.  Thus the benefit of a standard and the 457 kHz standard remains the de facto standard for transceivers. It is able to transmit in remote areas, can transmit very well through dense snow, and is not deflected by objects such as trees and rocks. It is further noted for being very reliable and accurate.

But the phone apps are incapable of connecting with other avalanche transceivers, they are also incompatible between themselves.  The apps operate on proprietary systems so one type of app cannot find another.  The range that mobile smartphones can reasonably provide, especially in remote areas where getting a signal can be a major problem, is also an issue.  According to CAC:

WiFi and Bluetooth signals are significantly weakened when passing through snow, and easily deflected by the solid objects we expect to see in avalanche debris. And the accuracy of a GPS signal is nowhere near the precision required for finding an avalanche victim.

Other notable issues include the battery life of mobile devices, the ruggedness and reliability, as well as the outstanding issue of interference, something that is very common in the backcountry.

1 Comment

  • Duncan says:

    Absolutely agree with this, however the market that will pick these up and use them will not know nor see articles of this nature showing the flaws. They may know about beacons but may choose an app instead as it is a significantly cheaper alternative. Education of this target set is a problem we are facing across the industry, especially with the increase in backcountry visitors that do not have the requisite knowledge to not cause slides or accidents.

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