The smartphone is like the modern day, techy Swiss Army Knife. With the help of a few apps, it can control all kinds of devices, deliver all types of entertainment and information, and get you out of jams. Heck, it can even become an actual pocket knife. But it can't do everything. The Canadian Avalanche Centre says that avalanche rescue apps can not effectively replace dedicated avalanche beacons.
Some people may be tempted to save a couple hundred dollars on an avalanche beacon and opt for one of several apps on the market. The Canadian Avalanche Centre does not recommend using these apps for actual avalanche incidents, however. It assessed three European apps – iSis Intelligent (Mountain) Rescue System, Snøg Avalanche Buddy and SnoWhere – before coming to the conclusion that they are unreliable and promote a false sense of security.
"These apps are being actively marketed as software that turns a smartphone into an avalanche transceiver, but the CAC has serious concerns about their vulnerabilities," says CAC Executive Director Gilles Valade. "We are warning all backcountry users to not use any of these apps in place of an avalanche transceiver."
One of the primary issues with the apps is that, unlike beacons that all work on the same 457 kHz international standard, they are not compatible with other apps or actual beacons. All users would have to be using the same specific app. The other issue is that the 457 kHz standard was selected for its accuracy and ability to work through dense snow and debris.
"None of the various communication methods used by these apps come close to that standard," explains Valade. "Wi-Fi 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."
The CAC also mentions reliability, battery life and interference issues.
Bottom line: When it's a matter of life and death, you don't want to leave it up to a cleverly named, but inferior smartphone apps.