Gear Review: Pieps DSP Sport Avalanche Beacon

Pieps DSP Sport
Pieps DSP Sport

Avalanche Beacon
Pieps DSP Sport
$320, 8 oz. (with three AAA batteries, included, not including harness weight)

I have more than a few friends—all of them experienced backcountry skiers, trained in avalanche awareness, and none of them reckless—who’ve been caught in avalanches. In each case, fortunately, it was minor and they emerged uninjured. But each of them realized it could have gone very badly. While an avalanche beacon represents yet another pricey piece of gear in an already expensive pastime, for backcountry riders traveling in mountainous, avalanche-prone terrain in winter and spring, it’s as indispensable as a shovel and climbing skins. So I decided to check out the more-affordable Pieps DSP Sport during several days of backcountry skiing in the mountains around Lake Tahoe and in Idaho’s Sawtooth and Boise Mountains.

Measuring 4.5x3x1 inches, a bit larger than a deck of playing cards, it has a 50-meter circular range (compared to 60 meters in the pricier DSP Pro); and like many more-expensive digital beacons, it has three antennas to enhance search accuracy. Operation is simple and intuitive. With one locking tab to prevent accidentally turning it on, or the device slipping out of Send mode, the main switch slides easily from Off to Send and Search, although it’s a little difficult to depress the locking tab while wearing heavy gloves. But the switch slides from Search to Send without having to depress the lock button—important in the case of a second avalanche occurring while you are searching for victims in the first avalanche, so that you can instantly switch back to Send mode. I loaned it to a friend while we skied the backcountry together, and although he hadn’t used a beacon in several years and had only previously used older, analog beacons, he found the DSP Sport very user-friendly.

Pieps DSP Sport
Pieps DSP Sport

In Search mode, the high-contrast LCD display, easy to view in any light, shows direction with arrows and distance in meters of signals received, and the number of victims within range (assuming all victims are wearing beacons in Send mode, of course). Within two meters of a victim, the direction arrows go away—while the LCD continues to display distance—indicating to the user to search following a grid pattern to pinpoint the victim’s precise location (while holding the beacon close to the snow’s surface). The Sport’s processor works rapidly, refreshing the distance and direction readout about as quickly as I could move across a nearly flat, snowy mountain meadow while practicing with it. I found two shallowly buried beacons (one digital and one older, analog model) in under two minutes; and my 13-year-old daughter, who’s not experienced with beacons, found one shallowly buried beacon in 34 seconds (although our drill obviously, in many respects, did not mirror the circumstances of a real avalanche burial). Like the DSP Pro, the DSP Sport has a mark function (a button with a flag icon), which allows you to mark the location of multiple burial victims—critical in an emergency—and it’s compatible with the iProbe.

The DSP’s Sport screen provides only a bar indicating full, two-thirds, or one-third of the battery life remaining (compared with the DSP Pro, which displays the percentage of battery life remaining). The projected battery life for three AAAs is over 200 hours in Send mode (compared to 400 hours for the DSP Pro). The DSP Sport’s smart transmitter detects when it hasn’t moved for at least two minutes (as when you’re buried). In that situation, it continues to send/transmit, but simultaneously detects any transmission signals coming from beacons within about five meters, adjusting its signal cadence to avoid overlap with other beacons that could confuse searchers.

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The DSP Sport has a group beacon check function: Press and hold the Mark button while in Send mode, and the display shows the number of beacons it’s receiving signals from. It also has continuous carrier mode to detect older, analog beacons. The Sport comes with a harness that straps around your torso, over one shoulder, and carries comfortably and unobtrusively, even when skiing downhill. A buckled strap holds the beacon securely inside the harness pouch, although the buckle is a little small for quickly opening with big gloves on. The DSP Sport also comes with a detachable wrist strap for using without the harness and instead keeping the beacon in a zippered pocket of your pants.

For $320, the Pieps DSP Sport’s delivers high-value features and performance for a three-antenna beacon.

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See all of my stories about backcountry skiing at The Big Outside, and my “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter.”

People caught in avalanches come from a variety of backcountry user groups and range in experience from beginner to expert. Disastrous errors in judgment are made by experienced people, too. Consequently, avalanche training has shifted in recent years toward a focus on decision-making. Find regional avalanche forecasts and education courses at

NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.

—Michael Lanza

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