British Columbia

Avalanche beacon phone apps risk lives, experts say

The Canadian Avalanche Centre is warning backcountry enthusiasts about new smartphone apps that claim to help save lives in an avalanche.

The Canadian Avalanche Centre is warning against 3 apps sold by European companies

Warning about avalanche apps

9 years ago
Duration 2:16
Backcountry experts say smartphone apps are no substitute for beacons

The Canadian Avalanche Centre is warning backcountry enthusiasts about new smartphone apps that claim to help save lives in an avalanche.

According to the centre, three European companies have begun advertising different apps you can download onto a phone or other handheld device, which they say can help find people buried in an avalanche.

But Gilles Valade, executive director of the CAC, says there are a number of problems with the companies' apps, and compatibility with other avalanche transceivers and the frequency ranges used top the list.

The 3 apps identified by CAC:

  • iSis Intelligent (Mountain) Rescue System
  • Snog Avalanche Buddy
  • SnoWhere

“Not only are these new apps incapable of connecting with other avalanche transceivers, they are also incompatible between themselves, so one type of app can’t find another,” he said in a written statement.

A bigger problem may be the fact that the apps don't use the international standard transmission frequency for avalanche beacons, 457 kHz, which was chosen because it isn't deflected by trees and rocks and transmits well through dense snow.

"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," Valade said.  "And the accuracy of a GPS signal is nowhere near the  precision required for finding an avalanche victim."

The Canadian Avalanche Centre is warning backcountry users to avoid substituting three new smart phone apps in the place of using a professional avalanche transceiver or beacon. (The Canadian Press)

Valade told CBC News that people who head into the backcountry thinking that one of these apps will substitute for an avalanche beacon are playing with their lives.

"Most of our phone apps, if they fail to do what they are supposed to do, it's an inconvenience. In this case, your life might depend on this app that is not designed to be an avalanche transceiver."

The apps cost only a fraction of the price of a professional avalanche beacon, and Valade said these companies are specifically targeting young people for sales.

Valade also said that cell phones are nowhere near as durable as professional avalanche transceivers, and their batteries aren't as reliable.

Developer defends app

Martyn Strybos, a developer in the Netherlands who created one of the apps, disputes the Canadian Avalanche Centre's claims.

Strybos told CBC News that his app is currently free works just as well as a transceiver and the Canadian Avalanche Centre is welcome to test it.

He said a lot of skiers head to the backcountry with nothing at all, because transceivers are so expensive, and his app can help fill that need.

"We can wish that people buy beacons. But they just don’t. So we just have to face the fact they don’t and all of them are wearing smartphones, so tomorrow they can be protected in one certain way," Strybos said.

With files from the CBC's Bob Keating


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