Backcountry Communications: Devices That Could Save Your Life
If you follow this blog, you will be aware that I recently had a narrow escape in the Italian Alps. Although my accident story had a happy ending, it very easily could have wound up differently. The success of my rescue was based far too much on luck and not enough on adequate preparation. This is something I do not care to repeat – I’m not sure how many of my nine cat lives I have left.
I do not consider myself to be a risk taker (queue eye rolling and laughter in disbelief). But really. While I might LOVE uber long runs and races, I do not fancy myself a daredevil by any stretch of the imagination. I get scared running downhill too quickly. I’ve recently taken up skiing again after 20 years, but it still terrifies me. I have a lot of respect for rock climbers, but I’m fairly certain my heart wouldn’t survive more than 20 minutes. Had the accident taken place during, say, one of my mountain races running through the night or during a multi-day race in the Arctic, this whole thing might have been more believable to me… but it happened when I was snowshoeing on a sunny day in an area I knew fairly well. We all know that accidents can happen anywhere, to anyone, but as I discovered, we don’t really believe it until it happens to us.
I’m hoping that something good can come out of the accident. So, as I continue to process what happened and consider the things I need to change before I head out into the mountains again, I will include some of these reflections in a few posts. Maybe this is all old news to you… but I suspect I’m not the only one who at least needs a refresher.
This first post focuses on backcountry communications. In regards to my accident, I was just one mobile phone signal and one iPhone battery charge away from not making it off the mountain. While I would have been infinitely better equipped to handle an accident if I had been running with someone, rather than on my own, I know this isn’t always going to be possible in the future. Plus, even with a running partner, I would still need a way to communicate for help if either one of us got into trouble.
After some research and some helpful advice from friends through social media, I have narrowed down what types of devices I will be taking out with me next time I head into the mountains to help avoid a repeat disaster. Even if you’ve never thought of getting a satellite device before, please read this through… just in case. (NB: these are independent reviews – I have not received any free gear or sponsorship in relation to the products mentioned).
- Mobile phones: unreliable in the mountains and in the cold
Many of us take our mobile phones out with us on a run for basic communication, not thinking we’ll need it to coordinate a rescue. But when I had my accident, that’s suddenly what I had to do. Many smartphones provide you with your latitude and longitude positions (the iPhone 6 provides up to four decimal places), but if you have a GPS watch (like my Suunto), that is even better, and usually more accurate (up to five decimal places).
While mobile phones can be used in a pinch, as we all know, they often don’t get signal outside of urban areas and the batteries can be finicky, especially in the cold. My iPhone has been extremely unreliable this winter, shutting off without warning even when it has over 50% battery charge. I was lucky this time, but I will never again rely on a mobile phone to get me out of a tricky situation! They are fine for city runs, but next time I will make sure to have a better communication device with me. Think of your phone as a backup option only.
If you do take your mobile phone with you, at least put it on airplane mode while you’re not using it to preserve the battery. And wear a GPS watch.
- no special devices needed
- no special fees
- extremely unreliable in terms of signal coverage
- battery often won’t last long, particularly in the cold
2. Personal locator beacons (PLBs): rescue-only communication devices
These devices are designed primarily to send out an emergency distress signal in real life or death situations (grave and imminent danger only!). It operates like a “panic button” to facilitate rescues. When activated, it transmits to an international satellite rescue system called COSPAS-SARSAT (SARSAT stands for Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking). It is a joint network of American, Canadian, Russian and French military satellites. Emergency signals are received by the COSPAS-SARSAT mission control centre, who then notifies local search and rescue teams.
One popular option in this category is the ACR ResQ Link Personal Locator Beacon, which is incredibly light and has a built in strobe light for night rescues.
- no monthly fees
- simple to use
- light and compact
- designed to facilitate an emergency rescue only when no other option is available.
- no two-way communication. Once the SOS message is sent, you can’t take it back, which is an issue if you accidentally trigger it. You also don’t know if your SOS has been received since there is no ability for rescue crews to communicate back.
- does not allow for tracking of your location
- must be registered with the national authority of the country you live in. Registration is free, but if you forget to do it, your device may become completely useless in an emergency.
- you don’t really know if your signal has gone through as it is only one-way.
- dependent on regular battery checks and replacement is usually expensive.
3. Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SENDs): the smart option for backcountry exploring
These devices allow users to communicate via text message to friends, family and rescue operators at a fraction of the price of regular satellite phones. Many devices also allow for continuous tracking so that contacts back home can follow along with your journey. SENDs rely either on the Iridium or the Globalstar satellite network. The iridium satellite network consists of 66 low orbit satellites offering 100% coverage worldwide, whereas the Globalstar network consists of fewer satellites with extensive coverage, but not quite 100% (eg. excludes Antartica, parts of Alaska etc). These satellite communication devices are typically less expensive to buy upfront than personal locator beacons, but more expensive in the long run as they require subscriptions to use the satellite networks.
The two most popular devices in this category seem to be the Delorme InReach SE (now Garmin) Satellite Messenger (or the Explorer model), which operates on the Iridium network, and the SPOT Gen3, which operates on the Globalstar network.
A major benefit of the Delorme InReach SE device is that it allows for two-way communication by text, unlike the SPOT device. Once the SOS is activated, a rescue dispatcher will confirm delivery of the distress signal and indicate that help is on the way. Having two-way communication capabilities allows rescuers to ask you what the problem is and what kind of help you might need. Rescue crews reportedly prefer the two-way feature as it reduces the risk of costly false alarms and can greatly increase the efficiency of rescues. I actually didn’t realize until my own accident how much communication occurs between the rescuers and the person who is in distress. After some initial communication with the rescue dispatcher, I spent a full ten minutes on the phone with him once the helicopter arrived in the area to help try to direct them to my exact location (even GPS coordinates to five decimal places were not enough!). Being able to let them know I was in an open area, what kind of clothing I was wearing, and what my main injuries were helped speed up the rescue.
In addition to communicating with rescue crews, with the Delorme device you can also send and receive text messages with friends and family, to let them know you’re okay. The Delorme device can also be paired via bluetooth with your smartphone for easier messaging, which many have highlighted is a significant bonus (apparently the text messaging on the device alone is pretty old school). While it has a monthly subscription fee, unlike the Personal Locator Beacons, a nice benefit of this device is that you can suspend the subscription at no charge for periods of inactivity (although you do pay a small annual fee). Both the SE Satellite Messenger and the Explorer version allow for continuous tracking.
The SPOT Gen3 is less expensive, smaller and lighter, but does not have as many features, so it depends what is most important to you. It does not allow for two-way messaging, but you can send out pre-programmed custom messages to friends and family to check in. One reader has also pointed out that you can see confirmation that the messages have actually gone through, which is helpful. It has continuous tracking capabilities, a ‘check in’ feature that allows you to send a standard messages via text or email to up to ten pre-programmed contacts, and of course it has an SOS emergency button.
- price of the device is lower than PLBs (but requires a subscription fee)
- two-way communication possible on some devices, which is a huge plus – provides comfort that your messages have actually gotten through and enables more efficient rescues to be coordinated
- most devices allow for continuous tracking capabilities
- updates and custom messages can be sent to friends and family
- ongoing cost is higher
- often bigger and heavier than PLBs
I hope this helps demystify what some of your communication options are! For a handy comparison chart, I found this review from OutdoorGearLab.com to be extremely helpful. However, even if you have a PLB or SEND with you, there are still a couple of important things to keep in mind:
- These devices rely on satellites, so thick tree cover, dense clouds, even backpack material could obscure the signal. If you are in a canyon, forested area or narrow valley, this could become an issue.
- The devices all require you to actually hit the SOS button to activate a rescue, meaning that if you are knocked unconscious or can’t reach your device, you’ll be in trouble. Of course, if you have a device that allows continuous tracking, your friends and family may notice there’s an issue if your location doesn’t move for some time… however, this is an unreliable and time-consuming backup option! One person commented on social media that kitestring could be helpful, although this depends on the availability of a mobile phone network. The way it works is that if you don’t check in at regular intervals, the system sends an alert SMS to your emergency contacts.
- Some SENDs have supplementary insurance options (albeit with some important exclusions), giving you peace of mind that your rescue won’t break the bank. (I’m still anxiously waiting for the bill from my rescue… unclear of what is covered and what isn’t, with my UN medical insurance only partially covering some services). From what I’ve been able to see, PLBs are more frequently associated with costly rescues, but I haven’t found definitive sources on this. Anyone have experience with this?
I hope this has been helpful. Comments and further suggestions welcome! Personally, I would be very comfortable with the Delorme InReach model.
Categories: Practical Advice