Emergency communication devices (e.g., personal locator beacons, satellite phones, Satellite Personal Trackers—SPOT units, avalanche tracking beacons, cell phones) increasingly are being taken into the wilderness. Along with increased use is a dramatic increase in stories of emergency communication devices (hereafter “ECDs”) being misused, being mistakenly activated, or not being available when needed to assist search and rescue (SAR) personnel. Some state legislators and public media are once again advocating the requirement of ECDs for more dangerous outdoor activities.
What is the hiking and backpacking community to make of all this? Where do I stand, personally? What are the central issues?
Stating the Important Issues
There are at least four important, but separate issues in this context:
1. Should federal, state or local government get involved with ECDs (e.g., requiring wilderness travelers to carry them specified areas under defined circumstances)?
2. Should inherently dangerous outdoor activities for which ECDs might be highly useful (e.g., winter mountaineering or other off-trail winter activities) be encouraged, discouraged or remain neutral?
3. Which ECD device should I carry into the wilderness, assuming that one or more will be carried?
4. Should I carry one or more ECD devices when I travel in backcountry and wilderness areas and, if so, under what circumstances?
The main focus of this article involves the last issue. In what follows I provide a wide-scale overview of the pros and cons to assist wilderness travelers in making personal decisions about ECDs. [Note: the author’s preferences and conclusions will be shared at the end of this article.]
For detailed information on complex question of what type of ECD to carry (the third issue listed above) click on the following link: Wilderness Emergency Communication Devices Analyzed.
Arguments in Favor of Carrying One or More ECDs: A Checklist
Under what circumstances might it become important to carry one or more electronic emergency communication devices (ECDs) in the backcountry? Consider the following scenarios (check as many as apply):
___I do a lot of solo hiking or hiking with just two of us.
___I hike solo, but with my dog; if I were to die on the trail I would want my dog rescued.
___I regularly travel far from trailheads.
___I regularly travel off-trails.
___I travel in extremely remote areas (e.g., the Brooks Range of Alaska).
___I take trips in the colder months where hypothermia could be a real threat in emergencies.
___I have one or more health/medical conditions that could result in greater need for outside help more quickly; I refuse to give up my passion because of my medical condition.
___Even though I am relatively healthy, I have to acknowledge that serious physical illnesses can hit any of us at anytime out in the wilderness (e.g., kidney stones; blood clot; stroke; appendicitis).
___I am getting up there in age so am more likely to become ill or have an accident than someone younger.
___Having an ECD will allow more people to stay with injured or sick.
___I am too young to die needlessly; there are too many things left to do.
___I have loved ones who have a high level of fear and concern for my safety.
___My family and friends are constantly on my back on this matter.
___I am now a father/ mother with young children at home.
___I have little or no life insurance.
___There are people who are highly dependent upon me in case something would happen.
___I spend a lot of time out in the backcountry making it statistically more probable that I, or others in my vicinity, will have an emergency where such devices would be desired.
___I have a strong need to help others in trouble; I do not like being in situations where I feel helpless.
___I have to admit that I am somewhat accident-prone and therefore have greater potential need for outside help.
___I have a low tolerance for pain and would want to be evacuated quickly if seriously injured.
___I often go into the wilderness with people inexperienced in the ways of wilderness travel.
___I regularly take other people's children into the wilderness.
___I am a high energy and aggressive personality with a love for challenge and riskier adventures.
___I push the envelope a lot and choose to take many risks.
___I regularly experience a significant level of fear and anxiety for my own safety when I travel in the wilderness.
___I do not like the thought of putting a lot of people (e.g., search and rescue personnel) to a lot of trouble in case something bad happens.
___The longer SAR personal are out in the field looking for me, the more likely someone will get hurt or put themselves in life threatening situations.
___I think it is irresponsible to burden the taxpayer who often ends up paying for lengthy search and rescue missions.
___Other Scenarios Favoring ECDs?
Arguments Against Carrying ECDs into the Wilderness: A Checklist
Check as many as apply:
___I have a high level of skill, knowledge, and experience in wilderness travel; I do not panic in emergency situations.
___I carry all the gear necessary to deal with most emergencies when traveling in the wilderness.
___I am a cautious individual who takes few if any risks.
___I usually travel in parties of four or more so that two individuals could go out for help if necessary.
___I am a fun loving and adventurous individual who does not live in fear of “what ifs.”
___My wilderness travels include many situations where these devices will likely not work (e.g., deep canyons, heavy tree cover).
___I have a strong need to be totally self-sufficient and to not rely on others; an ECD makes me too reliant on others.
___My family, friends and coworkers are all quite independent and can take care of themselves; there is no one who is dependent upon my safe return.
___With the full knowledge of friends and loved ones, I have signed a “DO NOT RESCUE” document. My only problem is making sure that loved ones honor my wishes.
___I am philosophically opposed to taking electronics of any kind into the wilderness; I have a strong anti-gadget, anti-electronics philosophy when in the wilderness.
___Carrying a ECD would interfere with the quality of my wilderness experience; it is like having a cord tied to the city, including its 911 emergency services; it is too direct of a connection to “civilization.”
___Carrying an ECD would be like carrying a big gun at the bottom of my pack; it is something that is just too hard to simply ignore; it would change the whole experience.
___I usually travel ultralight and the weight of such devices combined with their questionable reliability is a deciding factor.
___The cost of an effective device (e.g., a PLB) would be a strain on my budget; I would rather buy a new piece of hiking gear.
___I don’t want to do anything to encourage the bozos out there to carry these devices and to activate them when there is no real emergency.
___Other Arguments Against ECDs?
Reader Participation: Decision Regarding ECDs
First, consider printing out the two check lists above and then checking those answers that are appropriate to your situation. Second, based on available information to you plus your answers on the two checklists above, which of the following ECDs would you most likely carry on longer trips into the wilderness (assuming cost were not a factor)? Rank order them from 1st to 6th. If you are totally opposed to all of these ECDs, skip the ordering process and check the last item. If you are not familiar with the emergency communication devices listed below, consider reviewing the in-depth article on this subject by clicking this link: Wilderness Emergency Communication Devices Analyzed.
___Dual Frequency Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) With Built In GPS
___SPOT (Satellite Personal Tracker) with Built-in GPS and tracking function
___Cellular or Smart Phone with Built-in GPS
___Cellular and Satellite Phone Functions Combined
___Cellular and Satellite Phone plus an SOS Function Combined
___I am totally opposed to carrying ECD devices of any kind, especially into wilderness areas.
Author's Conclusions About Carrying Emergency Communication Devices
Many of the scenarios listed in the first checklist (pro arguments) at the beginning of this article fit my personal hiking style and situation. But the deal breaker for me is the impact on SAR (search and rescue) personnel of not having an ECD. If someone is going to have to come looking for me I want to make it as easy as possible for them. My brain and experience are my most valuable tools, but cell phones and PLBs are sure nice backups.
The combination of my personal situation and SAR considerations dictate my having at least one cell phone and at least one personal locator beacon (PLB) carried in the bottom of my back on all longer wilderness journeys. [Note: two cell phones from different wireless carriers are a good idea because of the spotty coverage in the wilderness.] Carrying a Dual Frequency PLB with an internal GPS function is the single best option with the technology presently available. The last two ECD options in the previous section are not commercially available at this writing. They are included because they will soon become available in some form.
My analysis of arguments against carrying such devices (the second checklist in the middle of this article) suggests that the arguments are, individually and collectively, rather weak. No matter how experienced, how well equipped and how cautious in behavior, accidents and illnesses can and do happen to anyone who spends much time in the backcountry, just as they happen in the frontcountry. ECDs are valuable for both personal use and when others get in trouble.
Many claim (including some close friends) that ECDs violate the very reason they travel into the wilderness. Here is a strongly worded statement (by “goyo” on the Trail Space Backcountry Internet forum) to that effect:
We live in an urban world of surveillance cameras, RFID chips, Google Street View, and databases of varying levels of invasiveness, and I refuse to allow that kind of omnivoyance to follow me around in the woods. To my mind, the experience of self-reliance has been and continues to be the best part of trekking and wilderness exploration and giving a fraction of that up because of budget issues or the efficiency and safety of rescue crews is, effectively, giving up the whole.
The first problem with this philosophy/attitude involves the matter of surveillance. Assuming the ECD is turned off, there is no way that surveillance (or “omnivoyance”) is an issue in the wilderness. If there is a real emergency and the ECD is turned on and used, then surveillance should be the least of anyone’s worries. The claim is totally without basis. The second, more general concern, expressed about technology in the wilderness has little to do with the quality of wilderness experiences. It can be easily argued that the quality of such experiences relies on many things: the absence of people, the absence of signs of civilization, the number of wild animals, the remoteness and distance from developed areas, etc. The level of technology carried or used is not one of them or is way down the list. There is no logical connection between the amount of technology carried and the quality of the wilderness experience. Two obvious exceptions: (1) using a satellite phone or cell phone to send and receive personal calls when no emergency exists; (2) constantly playing with one’s electronic “toys” while ignoring much of the wild areas around them.) If an ECD carried in the bottom of one’s pack is interfering with a full and satisfying wilderness experience, then one’s attitude needs to be examined, critically. This attitude is based on a arbitrary idea of what constitutes a “real” wilderness experience. It is a subjective matter, a matter of personal choice, not a given.
One last concern regarding ECDs is the issue of responsibility. In the frontcountry, most of us take for granted our moral responsibility to call 9-1-1 when someone is in serious trouble (on whatever device is available). This applies even to total strangers. We would be irresponsible not to make the call in real emergencies. I predict that this same sense of moral responsibility will soon carry over to the wilderness. Almost everyone will carry one or more ECDs in the near future as the price, weight and size are reduced and the technology refined. In my circle of hiking and climbing friends, carrying cell phones for emergencies has dramatically increased. Cell phones have poor reliability the further one gets from the trailhead, but reliable ECDs are available for wilderness use now and they should be carried on longer and more adventuresome journeys. To take this point further, two respected outdoor experts are now listing a PLB as one of their 10 essentials: Todd Smith, editor-in-chief of Outdoor Life magazine; Doug Ritter, founder of survivalist website Equipped To Survive. [Source: Stephen Reingold, Gear Junkie website]
Having reliable ECDs available for wilderness use is a relatively recent phenomenon. Satellite phones have not been around that long for commercial use and PLBs became legal for wilderness use in the continental United States only in 2003. Emergency communication in the wilderness is an example where contemporary culture and our personal sense of moral responsibility have not yet caught up with our technology. I see this becoming an ethical issue for all hikers. The interesting, but separate legal issue outside the scope of this chapter, is whether or not hikers and climbers might be required in some situations to carry a ECD.