There’s been a lot of discussion lately in adventure circles about the use of GPS (Global Positioning System) and PLB units (Personal Locator Beacons) for wilderness navigation and safety. While I have a portable GPS system that can be used in my car or handheld, I find its true value lies in showing me the drive time to the next shoot location and when the sun will rise or set rather than every bend in the trail.
On backcountry ski trips I’ll mark important waypoints like camp and water locations or a critical landmark in a tricky mountain descent, but then I’ll turn it off until that information is needed. Adventure by design requires an element of uncertainty and I feel that there is already enough technology in the wilderness between digital cameras, batteries, solar chargers and radios that I prefer to leave as much as possible out of the equation.
Having said that, it’s still nice to have a small piece of insurance tucked away in the pack in case things don’t go as planned. A PLB is one option, which is basically an “all or nothing” device that sends a distress signal with your coordinates via satellite to the local emergency or rescue service. Unfortunately, these units don’t allow any type of communication as to the nature of the situation and are too often deployed accidentally putting an unnecessary strain on emergency services.
Satellite phones are another option that allow for direct communication almost anywhere in the world however they are too expensive and heavy for the average user and are typically used only by large expeditions. Fortunately the SPOT personal messaging system has bridged the gap with a small, cost effective unit that allows static messages to be sent to any e-mail or phone via text using GPS and ComStar technology. It’s three transmitting options include a personal message with a link to your exact location in Google Earth, a personal (friends and family) help message which can be used to notify of a non-emergency delay in the trip, or a full emergency call similar to a PLB.
This image is from the summit of Bear Creek Spire at nearly 14,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where my SPOT is sending a message home. It had been a beautiful climb with good friends Vic and Amy, but several delays had caused us to reach the summit late in the day followed by a technical descent in the dark. Although this was not an emergency situation, my wife Maureen was glad to see when we had reached the top and even more relieved when she received another message showing that we were safely back in camp.