Travelling in remote locations away from cell phone signals is part of what makes the wilderness experience so special. In an age of ubiquitous smart phones constantly keeping us connected, stepping off the grid for a while can give us a sense of freedom, with no one to call and bother us about work or pressing social engagements.
But things can, and do, go sideways in the backcountry and the old-school method of telling friends and family your departure point and expected time of return — while still a good idea — will only let Search and Rescue extrapolate your location in the event of an unforeseen event. Thankfully, technology has us covered.
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) have been around for a few years now and work by communicating through a satellite and antenna network. You can send messages to the cell phones and email accounts of friends and family, or, if a situation becomes critical, to an emergency response centre.
The most common PLB is the Spot, now in its third iteration with the Spot Gen3. The improvements over the Spot 2 include an new motion sensor, which only plots GPS points when you’re on the move, helping to double the battery lift. For $169 it's a reasonably priced piece of technology and it works in most of the places in the world that you are going to travel to on land.
But the Spot Gen 3 still has its limitations. You’re only able to send pre-programmed outgoing messages, which is fine if you are only sending out trip updates such as “all good,” but in the event of an emergency there is no way for SAR personnel to communicate instructions to you.
The rule of thumb is to stay put from the moment you decide to hit the SOS button until SAR arrives, but what if environmental circumstances change? You might realize you are exposed to the elements and need to retreat into a cave or an improvised shelter. You may need to descend from high altitude in order to keep a member of your team alive.
It's these rescue scenarios that spurred the introduction of two-way satellite communicators such as the Delorme inReach SE. It's a more expensive device at $299, but you are able to type and send — as well as receive — messages from friends and family and SAR. You also have full global coverage, including oceans and polar regions on the Iridium satellite network. You can even pair it with an iOS or Android device to convert it into a full GPS navigation device with a map display.
Both inReach and Spot require paid subscription plans to function, but may come with a limited free period with purchase — although sometimes they also require a one-time activation fee. Annual subscriptions start at around $100 per year and go up with increased tracks and messages.
With inReach you can now suspend your subscription seasonally and still keep your device ready to activate at any time for a few dollars a month.
For some busy people, direct voice communication while in the backcountry is still necessary. Spot came out this year with the Global Phone, the first consumer level satellite phone on the market for $499. Voice calls start at 25 cents a minute, you have all the texting functions and you can even link it to your laptop to check emails while you’re off the grid.
With more competition in the satellite communicator market, prices will inevitably come down and soon everyone will be as connected in the backcountry as they are on the chairlift. For better or for worse.
Vince Shuley has happily missed more than a few important calls whilst travelling in the backcountry. For questions, comments or suggestions to The Outsider email firstname.lastname@example.org.