Personal Locator Beacon

11:06 p.m. on June 10, 2005 (EDT)
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I'm considering getting a McMurdo. I sometimes hike alone and may backpack alone in the near future. These weigh about 9 oz and cost too much. Any feed back on this subject??

12:19 p.m. on June 14, 2005 (EDT)
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Carol -

PLB/EPIRB/other acronyms are pretty new. There are two general classes (for those unfamiliar with the concept). One type uses a builtin GPS receiver (or a receiver attached by a cable) to get the position and incorporate it into the "help me" message. The other, based on the ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter) that has been in most aircraft for decades but with the addition of identifying information in the transmission, depends on a family of satellites that receive the signal and process it to "triangulate" on the location, the same satellites that can receive the GPS-augmented type. Both have shortcomings. The GPSR variety depends on getting a good fix on the GPS satellites. So it is vulnerable to the usual canyon/canopy problems, but "triangulation" can be used as a fallback. The "triangulation" type can generally locate only to within a radius of a few miles. In both cases, search planes can be directed to the general area to pinpoint the location, just as the Civil Air Patrol searchers have been doing for decades with the aircraft ELTs. The search technique is similar to that used with avalanche beacons.

The PLB/EPIRB units have the big advantage that they transmit an identifier that the S&R people can use with their database to determine who is in need of help, contact the emergency contact and confirm that the registered person is indeed on a trip to the general area, thus reducing false alarms. This database also includes medical information that you supply, so they know if special medical supplies might be needed. Also, you must intentionally activate the beacon (advantage is reduction of false alarms, disadvantage is if you are in a disabling accident and are unable to activate it).

Some National Parks require that you carry a beacon.

A big worry when they were introduced was that people might do as they sometimes do with their GPSR and cell phone - "Hello, Sheriff, send the helicopter to take me home, because I am tired of hiking." This has not been a problem in practice, though.

Personally, I do not carry one (weight, cost, and I *never* get lost or injured - yeah, right, macho man!). Well, actually, I normally travel with a partner or two, and at the very least have informed someone of location, route, and schedule. Also, as a ham radio operator, I often carry a small handheld with 6 meter capability that partially gets around the line of sight limitation or FRS and CB. I might consider one for very remote locations, but recognize that if I am in the middle of Gates of the Arctic NP, on Olaf Ringnes Island, somewhere on the icecap in Patagonia, or skiing across Antarctica, it is going to be a looonnnnggg time before help gets to me in any case. In other words, I and my party have to be self-sufficient and plan on self-rescue in such situations.

All this babble probably doesn't help you decide, but maybe it points out some issues you hadn't considered. Basically, just remember, gadgets and widgets are not magic, and a PLB will not call in the helicopter instantly to swoop you to the world's most fully equipped hospital in case of emergency. You still have to be self-reliant.

8:57 a.m. on June 15, 2005 (EDT)
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I don't have any personal experience with PLBs, but it's worth recounting the story of the first and second PLB-assisted rescues in the lower 48.

The first rescue occurred in November, 2003, in the Adirondacks. Ohio canoeist Carl Skalak became stranded in the wilderness after the river he was paddling froze and several feet of snow fell on his camp site. He activated his PLB and was rescued by an Army helicopter.

Three weeks later, Skalak made a 5 1/2-hour bushwack back to the camp site to retrieve his canoe and gear. When he got there he found that the canoe was gone. He was cold and wet, so he hunkered down for the night. Instead of hiking back out, he stayed put, expecting rangers to notice his absense and come find him. Three and a half days later, he activated the beacon and was again picked up by an Army helicopter. The next day rangers arrested him and charged him with two counts of falsely reporting an incident.

There are plenty of people who will use PLBs (or cell phones or sat phones) as a crutch, and allow themselves to get into situations they otherwise might avoid -- because they think that a rescue is just a button push away.

In the case of Mr. Skalak, the second time around he more or less went into the woods expecting to be rescued. As soon as he found that his boat was gone, he stayed put. His backup plan was "get rescued" -- even though he was less than 6 hours from his truck, over familiar ground, and in fine condition physically. Would he have stayed put without the PLB? Would he have even gone back in the first place?

In some respects, a PLB is worse than a cell phone. With a cell phone call, rescuers at least have a chance to assess the victim's situation and, if appropriate, talk them out without having to mount an expensive and potentially dangerous rescue mission. With a PLB, it's pretty much all or nothing.

A PLB or a phone can be a legitimate piece of backcountry equipment, but only if it's an absolute last resort and it does not affect your planning or decision-making. PLB or none, if you don't have the ability to self-rescue from reasonably forseeable circumstances then you problably shouldn't be going at all.

8:21 p.m. on June 15, 2005 (EDT)
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This whole PLB discussion came up quite a while ago on another forum I also post on. We started talking about this right as the PLB's were being introduced and a lot of the talk then and since then has been about getting rescued, who pays and so on. We knew about the Skalak rescues--he's pretty much the poster child for PLB's, first one rescued, first one arrested for abusing it. You would think he'd learned his lesson the first time.

I've done some solo hiking, but nothing particularly death defying or dangerous. However, had I fallen and gotten hurt, even something as simple as a badly twisted ankle, on a couple of occasions, it would have been unlikely that someone would have come along and found me, so a beacon, had they been available back then would have been helpful. The fact I didn't have one (or a cel phone)made me a bit more mindful of what I was doing and to stay within my skill level.

I agree with Dave and Bill, don't rely on stuff like that to save you. Common sense can be the best thing you take with you. This would be true especially in bad weather. Just because someone knows where you are, doesn't mean they can get to you. I've sat out some pretty nasty weather in a tent or a cabin and don't envy anyone who is out flying around or hiking in a big storm looking for someone.

1:06 p.m. on June 17, 2005 (EDT)
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Thanks for all the info and comments. Bill, great detailed post explaining the underlying technology. I agree, self sufficiency is the whole idea of back country travel. I sometimes hike alone and my choice places are as remote as I can find. Often off trail. I always let someone know where I'm going in general, but my routes can change as I go sometimes.

My concern is the twisted ankle, rattlesnake bite or the like. If I couldn't walk out I couldn't expect someone to wander off trail in my direction.

The weight is something that concerns me as well. Since I never expect to use the thing. The cost is pretty darn high as well. But, it just seems like a good idea if I'm by myself.

7:41 a.m. on June 20, 2005 (EDT)
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It's interesting to read the responses on PLBs so far. It sounds like PLBs have only been introduced into the US relatively recently(??) They've been used here in Australia and New Zealand for about 10 years or so now and a lot of the issues that seem to be being discussed over there have pretty much bedded down over here. They're pretty well accepted and there's not a lot of false alarms (though there's the odd exception!).

They're probably only really useful for solo walking or if you go into very remote areas that might take several days to send a rescue party out to raise the alarm. For normal 2-3 day trips with competent companions it's almost certainly quicker to have someone (or better, two) walk out. Though this might be different with the fancier GPS equipped gizmos that Bill mentioned as a lot of the delay in rescue apparently comes from the 'triangulation' process.

Ultimately, whatever you do don't simply trust a bit of technology to get you out of trouble. I've had a GPS die at a critical moment and a PLB fail (didn't set it had a 'test' function). It's worth always having a backup plan, or if you're going solo, just be aware of the added risk.


7:57 a.m. on June 20, 2005 (EDT)
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Oops, just reread your post and realised that I didn't answer your question. I also just looked up some prices and weights of the McMurdo and other US GPSs and they're much heavier and more expensive than Australian units. My PLB weighs about 6 ounces (180g) and cost A$250 (about US$200). Is this a case of 'improved' technology actually being counterproductive? Are people less likely to buy and take something so expensive and heavy...I know I would. I already do think more than twice about taking the one I've got.


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