I sewed [my personal locator beacon] into the upper part of my pack rear stretch pouch . . .. Well, it worked. The thing successfully warded off emergencies, as planned. Electronics is magic.

—P. Todd Foster, Backpackinglight.com forum


If a tool exists that can help you or even save your life [or the lives of others], the question should never be "WHY?" More correctly, "Why not?" Let no one tell you otherwise. Carry your satellite tracker and be proud of it. 20 years ago people argued the same about cell phones—how many people do you think have been saved by those since they came out.

 —“klock” moderator on the Trail Space Internet forum 

Central Issues Addressed in This Article

What kind of electronic communication devices (hereafter “ECDs”) are currently available for wilderness use? Should I carry an ECD into the wilderness on longer backcountry trips? What are the primary factors pro and con affecting my decision? Which ECD will best fit my needs and expectations, if I decide to carry one or more of these devices on wilderness trips? How much should I depend upon ECDs like smart phones and personal locator beacons during emergencies in the backcountry?


After making explicit some important starting assumptions, I analyze in detail four ECDs currently available: cellular phones, satellite phones, and two different types of personal locator beacons (PLBs). Included in this latter category is the highly popular newest entry, the SPOT II Satellite GPS Messenger. Because the SPOT unit and cellular phones are commonly carried on trips into the wilderness, I analyze them in greater detail than the other two devices. I then analyze the available options from a search and rescue perspective. I end this article encouraging readers their own decisions from the available options.

Starting Assumptions

This article covers only portable, battery-operated, electronic communication devices commonly used in mountainous wilderness areas. This article will not analyze the following battery-operated emergency devices:

  • avalanche beacons or other tracking devices (e.g., TracMe, Ortovox or 121 MHz “person-overboard” locators) which require the transmitter of the party in distress to be paired to a specialized receiver carried by the rescuing party in the field
  • two-way radios used by governmental and search and rescue agencies (usually in conjunction with strategically placed fixed transmitters and repeater stations)
  • amateur “HAM” radio options
  • medical alert or personal emergency response systems (e.g., devices worn around the neck intended for in-home and in-town use) for those who might find themselves in an emergency situation at a moment’s notice, especially the elderly, physically challenged, and chronically ill.

Five additional starting assumptions:

1.    The reader is not categorically or philosophically opposed to carrying electronic communication devices in the backcountry (i.e., you are open to packing one or more of these devices under some circumstances).

2.    ECD devices would stay in the bottom of the pack and not be used except for true emergency situations.

3.    Cost is not a consideration; if the emergency device of choice can’t be purchased, they can often be rented or borrowed.

4.    The reader is not analyzing ECDs for use in organized search and rescue (SAR) activities.

5.    One or more of the following non-electronic signaling devices are being carried by everyone in the party: whistle, signal mirror, fire making materials, bright colored material, blinking light, ground-to-air emergency code symbols.

Four Emergency Communication Devices (ECDs) Analyzed

The next several sections of this article analyze four different devices: two types of personal locator beacons (PBLs) plus cellular and satellite phones. The following format is used in the analysis of each:

(1) an explanation of the basic theory and operation of each device

(2) an explanation of the chain of communication from when the device is first activated to the time emergency personnel are notified

(3) additional decision making factors like size, cost, weight, reliability

(4) a summary evaluation of the effectiveness of each device for hikers and backpackers.

Understanding these four elements is usually necessary to make informed decisions, especially in selecting the most appropriate ECD(s) for wilderness use.


 The above provides an introduction to the complete article available as a free download in Word or PDF formats by clicking on one of the following links.

Wilderness Emergency Communication Devices Analyzed – Word Format

Wilderness Emergency Communication Devices Analyzed – PDF Format

The sub-topics below are developed in the complete article.


Starting Assumptions

Four Emergency Communication Devices (ECDs) Analyzed

Dual Frequency Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)

SPOT II Satellite GPS Messenger

Cellular and Smart Phones

Satellite Phones

Search and Rescue (SAR) Perspectives on ECDs

Author’s Experience with Search and Rescue (SAR)

Reader Participation: Making Decisions Regarding ECDs

Author's Conclusions About Carrying ECDs

Emergent Wilderness Communication Technology

Additional Issues for Reflection

Wilderness Emergency Communication Devices Analyzed