Conclusions About Carrying Personal Locator Beacons into the Wilderness

To assist others in making decisions about carrying emergency communication devices into the wilderness, I have written and published on this website Carry a Personal Locator Beacon?—A Pro-Con Checklist. The present article takes the next step and details my own conclusions in this matter after a careful evaluation of the pros and cons.

Author’s Conclusions About Carrying Emergency Communication Devices into the Wilderness

Many of the pro arguments on the checklist referred to above fit my personal hiking style and situation. But the deal-breaker for me is the impact on search and rescue (SAR) personnel, if I do get in trouble and do not have a personal locator beacon (PLB) or other emergency communication device (e.g., satellite phone). If someone is going to have to come looking for me I want to make it as easy as possible for them. I don’t want SAR personnel to risk life and limb unnecessarily. My brain and experience are my most valuable tools, but emergency communication devices (ECDs) sure are nice backups. A good argument can be made that ECDs should become one of the ten essentials.

The combination of my personal hiking style 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 pack on all longer backcountry journeys. [Note: Having two cell phones from different wireless carriers is a good idea because of the spotty coverage in the backcountry.]

Dual Frequency PLBs the Best Single Option For Emergencies

Carrying a Dual Frequency PLB with an internal GPS function is the single best option for emergency communication given the present technology. When activated, this unit transmits a 406 MHz signal to orbiting government satellites. This signal carries a unique code that identifies the device and its owner using a database of emergency contact information (assuming the unit has been registered). When rescue personnel (or most commercial airliners) are near the transmitting PLB, they will pick up a lower frequency (121 MHz) “homing” signal. This dual frequency capability adds another tool in the search and rescue toolbox. Put bluntly, this dual frequency unit (produced by ACR Electronics, McMurdo and others) is optimized for emergency communications in the backcountry. All of the other ECDs currently available for carrying into the backcountry (SPOT II Satellite Messenger, cell phone, satellite phone) have useful functions other than emergency communication. Even though often touted as ideal for emergency communication, these other devices are compromised in various ways when it is necessary to contact SAR. A recent development working in favor of carrying Dual Frequency PLBs is that $8 billion is being spent to upgrade the entire government GPS satellite system. Twenty-four new GPS satellites will soon go into orbit with six reserved as spares. (W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times, June 1, 2010)

Evaluating the Arguments Against ECDs

My evaluation of the arguments against carrying such PLBs and other ECD devices (see Carry a Personal Locator Beacon?—A Pro-Con Checklist) suggests that they 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 emergencies 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 backcountry 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 backcountry. If there is a real emergency and the ECD is turned on and used, then surveillance should be the least of anyone’s worries. In fact, it is the most desired feature for quick rescues. The claim is totally without basis. The second and more general concern expressed about technology in the backcountry has to do with self-reliance. Self-reliance is very important to most wilderness travelers, but has little to do with what is more important—the quality of wilderness experiences. It can be easily argued that the quality of such experiences depends 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, ability to take care of oneself, etc. Carrying an ECD in the bottom of one’s pack should not one of the determining factors. There is no logical connection between the amount of technology carried and the quality of a wilderness experience. I acknowledge two obvious exceptions: (1) using a satellite or cell phone to send and receive personal calls when no emergency exists; (2) playing with one’s electronic “toys” while ignoring much of the wild environment. If an ECD carried in the bottom of one’s pack is interfering with a full and satisfying wilderness experience and sense of self-reliance, then one’s attitude needs to be examined, critically. This attitude is based on an arbitrary and misguided idea of what constitutes a “real” wilderness experience. (Click on this link for an in-depth analysis of True Wilderness Experiences.) (Click on this link for a philosophical analysis of Technology in the Wilderness.)

PLBs One of the Ten Essentials?
One last concern for me regarding ECDs in the wilderness is the issue of personal and moral responsibility. In the frontcountry, most of us take for granted our moral responsibility to make a call emergency services when someone is in serious trouble (on whatever device is available). This applies even to total strangers. We would be irresponsible to not make the emergency services call in a real emergency. I predict that this same sense of frontcountry moralresponsibility will soon carry over to the backcountry. I predict that most backcountry travelers will carry one or more emergency communication devices (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, the practice of carrying cell phones for emergencies has dramatically increased. Highly reliable ECDs are available for backcountry use now and they should be carried on longer and more adventuresome journeys into the wilderness. To take this point further, two respected outdoor survival experts are now listing a personal locator beacon (PLB) as one of their ten essentials: Todd Smith, editor-in-chief of Outdoor Life magazine and Doug Ritter, founder of the survivalist website Equipped To Survive. [Source: Stephen Reingold, Gear Junkie website.] An interesting side issue, outside the scope of this article, is whether hikers and climbers should be required in some situations to carry a ECD (i.e., something other than a cell phone).

Having reliable  and compact PLBs available for backcountry use is a relatively recent phenomenon. Satellite phones have not been around that long for commercial use and PLBs became legal for backcountry use in the continental United States only in 2003. Emergency communication in the backcountry is another example where contemporary culture has not yet caught up with available technology. Carrying an ECD in the backcountry is a moral responsibility whether required or not.

[Side note: For a detailed analysis of the four primary emergency communication devices currently available for  wilderness travel, go to Wilderness Emergency Communication Devices Analyzed.