Personal Locator Beacons & Other Wireless Technologies for Backcountry Travel?
The purpose of this thread is to discuss rescue and emergency communications technologies, as discussed in the following articles:
Specifically, comments regarding the utility of PLB's in the context of lightweight backpacking are encouraged.
Display Avatars Sort By:
Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
17.6 oz of What? on 11/23/2003 03:06:07 MST Print View

Scenario:

You have 17.6 of gear weight "allowance" left before hit the trail. In one hand you have a PLB. In the other you have ___________.

What is in your other hand? Do you choose it over a PLB? Why?

P. Todd Foster
(ptoddf@aol.com) - F
PLB's on 11/23/2003 12:57:41 MST Print View

Well, if the Micro PLB from MMIC ever hits the market, it will be just 8 ounces. I've been waiting since July 1,'03 and it's still not available. I'm going to have to drop by there and just ask them what's going on. (Near L.A.)

http://www.micro-mono.com/index.html

I was thinking about a sat phone for solo off trail backpacking emergency communication, but this seemed better when it was announced.

Uh, actually, I will have hiking poles in both hands, the Stix carbon fiber ones. The PLB, if it ever materializes, will be in a pack side pocket in a foam pouch. And it's for real emergencies, like a broken leg or another backpacker found in a diabetic coma.

Best, Todd in Tarzana.

Bernard Shaw
(be_here_now@earthlink.net) - F

Locale: Upstate New York
plb benefits costs on 11/23/2003 21:45:14 MST Print View

My concern with plb's has to do with increasing the tendency among some adventureers to not taking personal responsibility for one's own safety, causing worry and suffering for family during rescues, forcing s and r people to take risks when it is unnecessary, and substitution of plb's for skills, judgment and resources.

It is unfortunate but true that a significant number of outdoor folks, including major outdoor club leaders and members do not take adequate over night and trip equipment feeling instead that the low frequency of negative outcomes justifies the decision to not take precautions.

There are a number of ultra light weight solutions that would help weight conscious and non-safety inclined folks to take better care of themselves. One such example is the Extreme Pro-tech Bag by the space blanket people. At 11 oz. it functions as a waterprook shelter, three season bag, and injury hypothermia preventer.

I live in this area and am perfectly aware of the possibility of encountering those conditions. Clearly proper gear, snowshoes and or the knowledge to make them in the field, adequate emergency food, and the ability to navigate in such conditions would like prevent the need for a rescue. That said, we do not know for certain the details of this person's situation, so the above remarks address only the set of events as characterized in the summary.

Tim W
(watters) - F
occurrences on 11/25/2003 19:27:20 MST Print View

According to the cospas-sarsat web site http://www.cospas-sarsat.org/Index_Frame_English.html> there were 1,545 persons rescued in 365 distress situations in 2001 using PLBs. Boaters must have been debating this issue of preparedness vs bailing out for a long time.

For solo hiking in remote areas I think they're a great tool.

I can see myself rolling down a ravine one night with a roll of toilet paper and a flashlight in one hand and my PLB sitting in my pack at the top of the ravine. (Might be a market for a Smartwool union suit with a built-in PLB pocket.)

Tim Watters

Edited by watters on 11/25/2003 19:29:20 MST.

Peter Nash
(nash.p@attbi.com)

Locale: West Michigan
PLBs in lower 48 on 11/25/2003 20:55:31 MST Print View

I bought a PLB last summer when they first became available. I'm 51 and almost always hike alone, and I try to select wilderness areas that offer solitude. I like to have the option of going off trail. It had occurred to me that I could get into serious trouble if I became immobilized alone in a remote area, say due to a broken ankle or other mishap. A PLB for me is peace of mind and a very reasonable way to manage my risk. I assume that the chance that I will ever have an occasion to activate it is less than one in a thousand over the rest of my life. So it is a heavy and expensive way to gain peace of mind. But there is no other piece of gear, except for a satellite phone, that offers a comparable extra margin of safety that allows safer solo travel in remote areas.

I may indeed take greater risks--but reasonable ones--because I have a PLB. That is, I might travel off trail when I might otherwise not do so. I would not choose to travel over more trecherous terrain because I was carrying a PLB. Rather, I would go into more remote areas where I likely could not be found without a PLB.

The real issue over PLBs is no different than other technologies that allow the possibility of summoning help for people who get in trouble in the backcountry. Whether it's a cell phone, satellite phone, FRS radio, or other technology doesn't matter. Anyone can get into a situation that requires rescue. The use of PLBs should not be limited because of the potential that they might be inappropriately activated by someone not in a true emergency, or by someone who gets into an emergency due to the person's gross negligence.

The underlying technology of emergency beacons has proven itself. Over the years thousands of lives have been saved by emergency beacons. The legalization of PLBs for hikers in the lower 48 is a welcome option.

Janet Smith
(japesmith) - F
Re: 17.6 oz of What? on 11/26/2003 00:59:40 MST Print View

Satellite telephone and G.P.S.
There is a danger of overloading the system if every hiker uses an E.P.I.R.B,when they run into trouble. In Australia, anyway.

Mark Verber
(verber) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
PLB for safety and piece of mind on 11/26/2003 01:24:16 MST Print View

I know of a few people who have died who used reasonable care and had good skills. Typically they were on solo extended trips in locations without a lot of traffic, and received injuries which prevented them from being able to move from the spot. In these cases, by the time people started to look for them, they had already died of dehydration. Doesn't sound like fun. 10oz of water rather than a PLB would have bought maybe an extra day of survival. Note enough. How often does this happen? Extremely rarely. What's the value if it's you? Immeasurable.

The next time I take an extended solo trip in a remote location without a lot of traffic I plan to take an PLB. Do I expect I will use it? Nope. Why would I take it? Piece of mind for my wife. I know she worries when I am gone. If I have a PLB she knows that even if no one is nearby, I could call for help. Historically the only option were sat phones. PLBs are lighter, cheaper, and more foolproof than a sat phone.

It's just too bad you can send a few fixed messages (e.g: come quick I am in trouble, I am OK... send email to predefined address, I see a smoke... someone investigate a possible fire).

Mike Beall
(Beally) - F
EPIRBs and Mobile phones on 11/27/2003 03:40:38 MST Print View

Last July I solo'd a 135km hike in West Australia. The other 5 participants cancelled for various reasons. It is very unlikely that I could get a "leave pass" from home, without me carrying a 121/246Mhz EPIRB.
In the event of falling and breaking a leg,I may have waited days before I was missed and then the cost of searching for me without the benefit of a "location" would have been very high.
I also carried a CDMA mobile phone - with the battery separated (I have had it turn on and then flatten the battery while it kept on transmitting to setup a connection in an isolated area).
Because I have training as an Airborne Observer with the State Emergency Service, I know what to look for and also carry a proper signalling mirror to scan the horizon and also a whistle to aid land search members. All of this is aimed at shortening the search time.
Just as an aside, the last overnighter I did, my wife wanted to know where I was camped. I climbed to the top of the ridge but was still unable to make a solid connection. Then I knelt next to a barbed-wire fence and put the phone aerial on the wire, assisting the call with an aerial probably several miles long! My wife was happy.
Cheers, Boilthebeally.

Edited by Beally on 11/27/2003 03:58:59 MST.

Paul Ermisch
(thepez) - F
Amateur radio correction on 11/27/2003 10:57:27 MST Print View

I am an Amateur Radio Operator and
feel that this sentence was misleading:

"Amateur Radio] can reach for miles (in a straight line)."

The author must only be thinking of VHF/UHF handheld radios. Many ham/backpackers also use HF (high frequency/shortwave) radios. I'm sure Mr. Kammerer know that HF frequencies propogate readily across the county and around the world dependent upon ionospheric conditions. There is a strong subculture supporting the combination
of ultralight backpacking and ultralight ham radio. The "Adventure Radio Society" has a good web site http://www.arsqrp.com> with supporting information.

Another interesting ham radio/outdoor activity combination is APRS or Automatic Position Reporting System which ties a GPS receiver to a
VHF radio for position reporting of radio stations (mobile and stationary) for special event support, etc. This would NOT be a substitute for PLB in remote areas as it relies upon availability of local VHF repeaters. More information at
http://web.usna.navy.mil/~bruninga/aprs.html>

The "FRS over 100 miles" post was a great example of radio wave propagation via "tropospheric ducting". Not too common.

Personally, in an emergency I would have my 3-band (HF), 5-watt, CW (morse code) transceiver built into a Altoids tin and a small vertical antenna. Not foolproof but certainly a lot of fun outside of emergencies.

FYI, a basic Amateur Radio license is pretty easy to obtain. More info can be found at the links the author (Kammerer) provided.

Paul KB0LUR

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Utility of PLB's on 11/27/2003 13:12:24 MST Print View

I recently had an interesting discussion with Peter Vacco about the utility of PLB's. Peter has walked the Continental Divide from Mexico north (yeah, to the end in AK). As such, the past few years on the northern end of the CD he has experienced what most of us consider 'beyond remote'.

Anyway, he brings an excellent perspective to the discussion, and I have his permission to repost here.

RJ: Peter, what’s your take on the Personal Locator Beacon rescue in the Adirondacks? As someone who has walked in some of the most remote areas in North America, do you think it has any real utility for a long distance hiker?

PV: Yes, a PLB may have very real utility for a hiker, but it is a two edged sword. On one hand it can save your show and allow you to take on additional risk, and on the other it can seriously detract from the spirit and thus the quality of the adventure. So there is pro and con to a PLB. In my mind a PLB does nothing but reduce the quality of a trip, umm...right up to the moment You Need One. A PLB costs, it weighs, it volumes, it provides an "out", and it intrudes. My walks are frisky enough without adding the knowledge that a rescue option exists, and including retrieval services into risk management is irresponsible, in that it transfers an issue onto others which should be handled in house. A PLB can additionally get set off due to emotional imbalance when no real physical danger exists, and thereby ruin your reputation and compromise a great system of global safety.

The trick it would seem is to eliminate that embarassing "You Need One" scenario.

I do not carry a PLB - for no end of reasons. However, if one had responsibilities that exceeded ones desires to adventure on the edge, which could not be resloved by carrying accidental death insurance, then it would be wise to consider it. But since I don't have children, sick parents, a girlfriend who I exclusively can care for, a farm, my own business with great employees, or my youth to protect, i am pretty free of further responsibility as to what happens to me beyond the immediate physical consequences. Having lived a long and gloriously blessed life, if I go into the woods someday, and do not come out, well that will be a fine day too. I don't even tell my family where i am exactly trying to go, so rescue is not an option. Some individuals may not have orchestrated their lives in like manner and for them, a PLB may be the magical item that allows them to explore the remoter corners of our world. So see, for some people it's the wings of freedom, while for others it is a ball and chain.

At the risk of adding more length to this..... looking from my perspective only.... let's say that the walks in Alaska are the end-all to my efforts to trek. ALL effort is put forth to succeed. A PLB is excess weight that offers only the means to NOT accieve my goals. What a waste of effort that would be better spent trying to attain the goal. And this on a walk on which pack weight is maxed to the hilt. Look at as a no-outcome-but-victory sort of a deal. So why carry insurance for failure, it only compromises the effort and reduces the chance for success.
Better thinking would be to carry one ALL THE TIME when not in alaska. Lordy what a terrible waste to die just over there on Mt. Diable duirng a training hike. What a waste that would be! Dead... on a weekend walk from a fractured thigh. No gold, no glory, just dead... Yeow.

Roger Fox
(ocsar9801) - F
PLB's In the Backcountry on 12/04/2003 08:20:58 MST Print View

With the 2nd PLB rescue in the Continental US having occurred on Dec 2nd and the events disturbingly similarly to the first rescue (along the Oswegatchie River in the NYS Adirondacks), it would appear that the current statistics (2-0) indicate that PLB's are being used more as an "out" rather than a "last resort". Experienced hunters and experienced outdoorsman (at least these two) should be able to figure out that the weather in upstate NY after August is capable of being less than inviting. Being active in both EMS and SAR, the use of PLB's seems to be headed along the same path Cell phones have gone in encouraging individuals to take on "adventures" they are not prepared for because they can always call for help. The result is an additional burden on an Emergency Services resource that is already manpower short and the increased jeopardy to these "rescuers" for the convenience of an individual that apparently cannot plan ahead.
People who buy PLB's ought to be required to purchase an insurance policy with them to cover the costs of these potential "rescues". Mfgs are making money while the users have the potential to overwhelm the system.

Tim W
(watters) - F
Re: PLB's In the Backcountry on 12/04/2003 15:38:44 MST Print View

I was surprised to see that there were an average of one rescue every day using PLBs during 2002. As the technology becomes more available to weekend warriors I'm sure the use will grow. I believe the impact will come more from recreational boaters than backpackers.

Quote from www.cospas-sarsat.org>,

In 2001, the Cospas-Sarsat System provided assistance in rescuing 1,545 persons in 365 SAR events:

Aviation distress: 83 persons in 47 SAR events
Maritime distress: 1,341 persons in 239 SAR events
Land distress: 121 persons in 79 SAR events

Andrew Mytys
(amytys) - F
I guess he really was an idiot! on 12/08/2003 10:45:21 MST Print View

"UPDATE December 5, 2003: Two weeks later Skalak
went back, alone, to retrieve his equipment left there when he was rescued. Officials were apparently less than pleased when he again set
off his PLB on December 2. He was again rescued by helicopter, but this time in much more severe weather conditions. It was later determined
that Skalak should have been able to make it out on his own and officials believe he had exaggerated his predicament. He was arrested,
charged with making a false report and posted $10,000.00 bail. Skalak is scheduled for a court appearance in the town of Webb, New York, on
January 20, 2004."

Roger Fox
(ocsar9801) - F
PLB's in the Backcountry on 12/09/2003 07:39:37 MST Print View

I believe the maximum fine(by the FCC) for intentional and unwarranted use of a PLB is $250,000 and the cost of the rescue. I think NYS should make a statement for itself and the US with this particular case and impress on these people that PLB's are not a replacement for common sense, inexperience, lack of equipment, or other unjustifiable shortcomings. Use the money to augment the DEC's SAR program.
NYS DEC Rangers went in looking for this guy in the same weather he had to endure, cross the same river he had to cross, and hoof it by foot the rest of the way. The weather broke that afternoon (allowing the helo to go in) and was "seasonal" thereafter. Perhaps a $10 weather radio or a glance at the weather channel might have been appropriate for this "experienced" outdoorsman.

Bernard Shaw
(be_here_now@earthlink.net) - F

Locale: Upstate New York
Adopt carefully balanced rescue costs on 12/20/2003 20:48:42 MST Print View

Neighboring states, Vermont and New Hampshire have adopted carefully reasoned and balanced regulations for those among us who do not use good judgment, proper equipment, maps, compass, and knowledge, and may also have an over entitled view that rescue is a right rather than an altruistic act that brings significant dangers to the rescuer.

PLB can reduce the risk to both the adventurer and to the rescuer if used as a last resort and when reasonable measures have been taken to self-rescue. However, the over all effect of such a device will likely result in an increase in adventurers depending on the PLB rather than the essential factors. I believe it is time to enact a regulation in New York like Vermont and New Hampshire before both more PLBs wanderers and rescuers are hurt.

Charles Bond
(breacanfeile) - F
How are limited resources best used on 01/08/2004 09:07:15 MST Print View

The question of the PLB depends also if anyone will come looking for you. If Carl Skalak had not activated his PLB, would Search and Rescue have been contacted by his (wife? Girlfriend?) or even the concerns of the park due to his filed trip plan and the unexpected severity of the weather. Would resources have been spent seaching a much larger area had not he activated the PLB? The question I have was what would have happened had he done nothing by Monday except wait out the storm? My point is that even if you are able to take care of yourself, others may still risk their lifes to find and rescue you. This also assumes that one is not injured.

Just this week we had the case in Washington of Dan Witkowski who was lost for four days. 60 volunteers spent nearly 4 days resources searching for him in bitterly cold weather. Helicopters were used as weather allowed. I have two questions. What would the cost savings have been if he had been able to communicate (PLB, FRS Radio, Cel Phone) and what would our discussion be today if he had activated a PLB the first night he was lost?

John Reed
(johnwmreed) - F

Locale: Sierras
Satellite Phone Worked! on 01/30/2004 13:34:36 MST Print View

This was my post to the King Canyon/ Sequoia Yahoo site on 6/21/03:

"I am embarrassed to have to tell you about my accident, but I need to talk about it, and maybe it will generate some discussion.

On Wednesday I was doing a solo loop trip in Red Mountain Basin (Bill Finch's trip on his website, but in the counter clockwise direction). I slipped and ruptured my quadriceps muscle/tendon above the knee cap in my right leg, about 3/4 mile north of Disappointment Lake as I was hiking toward Diamond X Lake. This is easy hiking country.

I wish I had a spectacular story to tell on how it happened, but I just wasn't concentrating. There was lots of snow and wet spots. I tried to place my right foot on the top edge of a boulder in a wet tree area, and I slipped off the side and did an eccentric contraction as I tried to catch myself. It all happened in a split second. I fell, and my first thought was that I had hyper extended my knee, but maybe I was ok. Then I tried to stand up, and my knee cap popped to the side - boy did that hurt! I popped it back in, and realized I was in real trouble.

I have been doing this stuff off and on for over 50 years and have never had or seen a serious injury. I stumble and fall a lot, but I never get badly hurt - just scratches and soreness. For the first time ever I was carrying a satellite phone. I tried it in the trees, and it didn't connect so I splinted up my leg with my folded saw and dragged myself out into the open. I called 911 and within five hours I was in St. Agnes Hospital in Herndon, north of Fresno.

I knew exactly where I was and could give the CHP my location. The globalstar guy tried to use my phone to get my GPS coordinates, but because of the complicated keystroke process, and losing the connection several times we gave up trying. But a couple hours later the CHP rescue helicopter came in and few over me about three times. I was waving my Tyvek ground sheet, but it looked too much like snow so they didn't see me from the air. The pilot said later if I had a signal mirror he would have seen me. I have a mirror on my Silva Ranger compass, but never thought to use it. The copter landed in a meadow about 150 yards away and the crew walked around yelling (the crew tried to call me on the phone, but I was talking to Fresno CHP telling them the copter had flown over me three times, and it didn't look like they saw me - so my phone was busy!). Anyway we connected up, and the rest was pretty simple.

The CHP pilot and paramedic were class A1 guys. They were dressed in their well pressed uniforms and black heavy-duty street shoes - it was
almost surreal. But they were friendly and knew their business. My blood pressure jumped when they said they would have to leave my backpack, but finally agreed to take it because it was so light (35lbs - another benefit of lightweight backpacking). The pilot was concerned he couldn't get the copter up, but we had some wind and the long meadow gave him room to gain elevation. I saw my car in the parking lot as we passed over Courtright Reservoir.

My operation is Wednesday, and I start the long road to recovery. I cancelled summer, and am starting to think about all this stuff. One
thing for sure - having the satellite phone saved taxpayers lots of money. If they had to search for me after I was declared missing that would have been big bucks. The CHP paramedic said if this had been a commercial rescue it would have been about $12,000 (my blood pressure went down when he said this rescue was free). I am almost 63, and probably need to clean up my act a little. I certainly need to think about doing off-trail solo hiking."

Edited by johnwmreed on 01/30/2004 13:39:30 MST.

P. Todd Foster
(ptoddf@aol.com) - F
Rescue Cost vs Benefits on 01/31/2004 16:20:31 MST Print View

Glad someone brought this up.

My understanding is that a full out search and find mission is way more time, labor and expense intensive then sending out either a local ranger or SAR team, or in the worst case, a SAR helicopter. The difference is knowing exactly where the person is located.

Those who abuse the system should be fined, penalized, or at least made to pay for the costs of the rescue. My guess is that a rational policy in this arena will put a quick end to the feared rash of idiot case abuses.

I'm still waiting for the 8 oz PLB from Microwave Monolithics. Don't know what their problem is, but I'll find out and post it here. The deal was that this company (with NASA funding) developed a far more efficient RF chip, which they in fact make from the raw materials in house, that permits use of a smaller and lighter battery.

Best, Todd in Tarzana.

Bernard Shaw
(be_here_now@earthlink.net) - F

Locale: Upstate New York
What if there were NO rescues? on 02/03/2004 18:11:30 MST Print View

How might this discussion go if reality was explicitly that stepping into the wilderness meant you understood there would be NO rescue if you screwed up? Like during a huricane and you choose to ignore the warning to leave, they now say, OK, it is your right, but we are not coming to save you. Seriously, how might this gude our thinking about the use of equipment, good judgment, going it alone, level and type of risk, etc. What now gets taken, left behind.

Edward Ripley-Duggan
(edwardripleyduggan) - F
Re: I guess he really was an idiot! on 03/03/2004 16:34:38 MST Print View

Andrew,

I've read the detailed article on Mr. Skalak's misadventures at:

http://www.adirondacklife.com/template/OnlineFeatureDetail/assetid/31417;_duB

His major error in the second emergency seems to have been predicating his return on the canoe, which had been stolen in the interim, not necessarily something he could anticipate. If one believes his account (as I do) the state DEC itself seems to bear some minor blame. Still, the ultimate responsibility lay with Skalak, and by making the assumption that he would canoe out, he seems to have allowed himself remarkably little leeway. He was clearly under-equipped on the second trip.

I'm not too comfortable with second-guessing, but I suspect that a few vapor barrier tools, even if they were only plastic bags, would have saved him this embarrassment, not to mention a lot of worry and discomfort. With even simple plastic bags over his socks as a VBL, he would not have had to worry about drying his wet boots, and with a pair of lightweight snowshoes as well, he would have been able to deal with the snow. However, I wonder if he was borderline hypothermic for much of the time -- given his wet journey in, and the subsequent colder temperatures and change to snow, this seems all too plausible. I also wonder if that down bag was retaining its loft in this watery setting without a VBL lining.

No matter what the initial circumstances in either case were, and what one thinks of his survival skills, it appears that he was genuinely in bad shape when he hit the PLB button on both occasions. The arrest seems to have been on a "pour encourager les autres" principle, and (again assuming full verity in his account) to have been a knee-jerk reaction. One can understand the indignation, but he seems to have been arrested before any sensible summary of the situation could possibly have been made. As to the comment that he was found in a "healthy condition with no emergency imminent" (the court clerk) -- well, surely one wants to find a rescue candidate healthy and not at the verge of death. I'll await the trial with interest, although I would be unsurprised if it was dropped.

Having been in a pretty extreme emergency myself (but that's another story) I find these developments fascinating!

Ted.