If you have a hiking or backpacking emergency and lose consciousness before you can signal for help with a satellite communicator or personal locator beacon, you’re out of luck unless you’re with a partner who can activate it on your behalf. The same holds if you carry a satellite communicator or personal locator beacon but can’t reach it because it’s buried in your backpack or not within easy reach. This is one of the biggest limitations of backcountry communications for solo hikers if you need to contact Search and Rescue for assistance in situations where cell phone network access is unavailable.
What about high-frequency tracking? Most satellite communicators have a tracking option that will periodically record GPS locations along your route and plot them on a map so people following your progress can see how far you’ve traveled. You have to buy a more expensive satellite messaging plan to implement this feature and set it so that it updates your location frequently. But it’s one way to ensure that someone following your progress could contact Search and Rescue on your behalf if you stop unexpectedly and don’t change locations for a worrisome period of time. Personal locator beacons do not offer a tracking feature and can only be used to request emergency aid.
For example, Garmin offers an Expedition Tracking Plan on their inReach Explorer+ and inReach Mini devices for $50/month (in the US) that will track your location every 2 minutes, as long as your device is powered up and has satellite contact. Since you can only travel a short distance by foot in 2 minutes, that would give Search and Rescue a decent chance of finding you, especially if you were following a well-defined route that you shared with the person tracking your progress.
SPOT offers a similar feature in their premium plans for $30/month with the SPOT X and SPOT Gen 3 satellite messengers that can track you every 2 and 1/2 minutes. However, if you stop and remain stationary, none of these Garmin or SPOT devices will update your GPS location: they are movement activated only. Frequent GPS updates also use considerably more battery power, so you’ll need to recharge your device battery much more frequently if you use high-frequency tracking.
If you stop moving unexpectedly, does that mean you’re unconscious and need emergency assistance? Not necessarily, and you wouldn’t want the person tracking you at home to call in Search and Rescue for a false alarm. People stop all the time on hikes to dig pebbles out of their shoes, wait for a rattlesnake to slither across the trail, or for a herd of bison to pass. Activating an unnecessary Search and Rescue mission not only puts Search and Rescue members at risk, but it could get quite expensive since many Search and Rescue teams have started billing people for unnecessary rescue activations. So what good is frequent GPS tracking? Indeed.
If the person tracking you sees that you’ve stopped unexpectedly, they could try contacting you using the two-way messaging features on an inReach or SPOTX devices to see if you’re ok or injured. There’s no guarantee that you’ll see their message though, even if you set the device to make a sound when incoming messages are received. You might simply not hear it. If you don’t respond, it doesn’t mean that you’re unconscious or incapacitated.
Garmin’s inReach Devices also give you the ability to “ping” a device to determine its location as long as it’s powered up and can be reached by the satellite network. If you were unconscious, this could help pinpoint your location in an emergency. Of course, the person initiating the ping still wouldn’t know if you were actually having an emergency or whether you’d simply stopped for a rest. Still, if you’d had an accident and gotten a message out before collapsing, this ping feature could be of some utility to a Search and Rescue effort.
Satellite communication devices have become quite popular amongst hikers and backpackers, but you can argue that they provide a false sense of security for solo hikers if you have a serious accident that renders you unconscious. If you have an accident and can activate a Search and Rescue help request before you lose consciousness, they can be invaluable, but there isn’t any surefire way for anyone to confirm the need for a Search and Rescue activation if you’re unresponsive. Your best bet is to hike with a partner who can send a request to Search and Rescue via a satellite massager or personal locator on your behalf in an emergency or to define a scheme of regular check-in messages with a person who has your trip plan. If you don’t check-in on schedule, that might be grounds for a Search and Rescue callout, depending on the circumstances, although there are still many reasons why you may not be able to respond that aren’t due to a medical emergency.
Despite these limitations, satellite communicators and personal locator beacons still have value, but they fall short of hiking with a companion who can activate one if you are unable to.
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