Personal Locator Beacons

1:33 p.m. on January 15, 2009 (EST)
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In another thread, the subject of PLBs and the like (e.g., the "SPOT") came up, and I became curious as to what other folks are thinking/doing along these lines.

Do you carry one? Why/why not? Specific preferences if you do?

At present, I do not carry one, even when solo in backcountry. There are some that think I'm nuts. Which is probably true, but not necessarily relevant.

Thoughts, comments?

2:18 p.m. on January 15, 2009 (EST)
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I have never even considered carrying a 'personal locator' (except EPIRBs, at sea). I may go so far as to say that, for me, they are antithetical to backcountry experience. I take my safety quite seriously, and mainly because I know that if I cannot get myself out of a difficult poke, then some poor sod is going to have to come after me, and probably at great expense to the general public. Now, this line of thought could be used to argue that locators are justified-that public expense and the safety of S&R crew demand locators as basic personal responsibility. I say 'bull&$%.'

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. Finally, the range of our volition is really only as wide as our sense of freedom in using it. The mere knowledge that we are 'watched' alters that, we are forced to consider the authority of society (or the state, or cops, or whomever) in the formation of our experiences and choices. While this is a normal state of affairs for most social activities, it has no place in our private lives or contemplation.

9:13 p.m. on January 15, 2009 (EST)
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There should be an extended review of SPOT and other emergency locator devices posted on this site. Alicia is in the process of editing it.

I spent the good part of the last 8 months wringing the SPOT out in a wide variety of conditions. It does not substitute for following safe practices and your personal responsibility for yourself. It is not (nor is any emergency locator) urban "911", where help arrives within 5 minutes, with full medical facilities, fire suppression, and police.

2:50 p.m. on January 16, 2009 (EST)
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I completely agree, Bill, that use of a PLB or similar doesn't remove the obligation to utilize appropriate safety and personal security practices, and that the wilderness "911" call doesn't generate the same response as does its remote urban cousin. Other than my inclination to "go it alone" in the wild, I'm a pretty conservative sort when it comes to risk, believing it's my own responsibility to take care of myself, and trying to follow Clint's advice, to "recognize [my] limitations".

As for the sentiments expressed by goyo above, I agree, though without the depth of feeling, perhaps. I hate the idea of being constantly watched, even if it's "for my own good". I think we should acknowledge, however, that carrying a device that simply allows us to call for help in event of a disaster is different than carrying an always-on homing device or some such.

10:26 p.m. on January 16, 2009 (EST)
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I've played with one on a few trips. It seemed to work well enough under tree cover, although it took longer to get a position. It had a bit of trouble in tighter canyons. The GPS antenna seems to work as well as my 10 year old GPS, but it does do the job.

10:13 a.m. on January 21, 2009 (EST)
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New here, but I'm going to jump in anyway.
DH and I have carried one for quite some time and never had to use it. Weighs a bit but makes friends and family back home sleep better.
It is only to be used if there is no other option for staying alive and I'm not ready to check out yet. Maybe because I'm older, but I have no illusions about being able to survive anything nature throws at me.
I use one with a built in gps. If someone is going to have to look for me I want to make it as easy as possible for them.
I am a longtime, experienced backpacker. My brain and experience are my most valuable tools out there but a PLB is a nice backup.

11:55 a.m. on January 21, 2009 (EST)
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Again, speaking as a SAR tech:

If a tool exists that can help you or even save your life, the question should never be "WHY?" More correctly, "Why not?" Let no one tell you otherwise. Carry your satellite tracker and be proud of it.

20 years ago people argued the same about cell phones - how many people do you think have been saved by those since they came out.

1:51 p.m. on January 21, 2009 (EST)
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You said
"20 years ago people argued the same about cell phones - how many people do you think have been saved by those since they came out."

A few, I'm sure. But how many SAR people have risked life and limb to "rescue" someone who stubbed their toe or got tired and wanted to be carried out? Many! I think the first use of the PLB was in the Adirondacks, and was touted as a great success - only the fellow didn't need rescue but was simply lazy. Six weeks later he did the same thing - when he went back for the canoe left behind -- that time he incurred criminal charges.

I carried a cellphone twice when I went fishing and then told my wife that it would stay in the car. She worries because I have HF and could stroke out. IMHO, the woods and streams would be a great place to make a graceful exit into the "next great adventure"; while to bring PLBs and cellphones is akin to sending your child out to play, but only after you wrap him in foam and plastic for safety.


3:26 p.m. on January 21, 2009 (EST)
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I think it goes back to personal responsibility. I would hope that most people would not use a PLB in order just to get out of the woods. I could not bring people to risk themselves for me if I was not in serious danger, so on that point I agree with f klock "why not?". I do not personally own one, but I took a friend's SPOT out last summer on a solo and my family sure appreciated knowing that I was safe each night. I also felt a lot more comfortable since I was in an area not heavily traveled. Again though Bill S makes a good point. I think nothing is better that proper planning and having proper skills when in the backcountry

3:28 p.m. on January 21, 2009 (EST)
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AGAIN, as a SAR tech: I am one of those people who risks life and limb (Not really, SAR is pretty safe, we carry all kinds of safety gear like cell phones and PLBs when we're out) to look for people who are just tired.

A PLB or SAT tracker makes SAR easier by locating the victim for us. We risk much less by not having to do as much grid searching in unknown territory, very often in the wrong area. PLBs can remove as much as 80% of the time we spend looking. That means an 80% risk reduction for us. I like those figures.

8:07 p.m. on January 21, 2009 (EST)
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I suppose the issue of "personal responsibility" would be valuable, except that in the North American culture the concept is now largely unknown. If I drink too much at a tavern and have, as a result, a car accident; I can sue the tavern, the bartender, perhaps even the hops grower -- nothing is ever the individual's responsibility.

That extends into the backcountry as well.

OTOH, I like the idea that if I can get myself into a mess beyond voice range, I'd better be able to get myself out as well. Would I be able to cut off my own arm, as the fellow did a few years ago when trapped in a rock crevice; probably not, but I hope, in a similar circumstance, that I could die with a measure of good humor and optimism. :)

Again, YMMV. Some might say "If a tool exists that can help you or even save your life, the question should never be "WHY?" More correctly, "Why not?" Let no one tell you otherwise." Well, I have told you otherwise. :) And the tool (cellphone or PLB) is not saving anyone's life, it is the hard work and bravery of people like f_klock who go after the "victims."

12:53 p.m. on January 23, 2009 (EST)
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I'm suprised no one has mentioned that you need a service plan with your SPOT. I'll carry a map and compas and hope for the best rather than pay another fee for something I probably won't need.

10:38 a.m. on January 28, 2009 (EST)
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I didn't mean for this to evolve into a quest to determine the "right answer". Just as backcountry backpacking isn't for everyone, perhaps a PLB isn't for everyone. The determining factor is, I suppose, the level of risk one is willing to carry along. Now, that all said, this could seem to be kind of a worthless discussion, but I hope no one has seen it that way, or will. Hearing reasons why others (esp. experienced others, like f klock) are in favor (or not) may help one to see and consider things that hadn't previously come to mind. For instance, the point klock makes about much-reduced search times. It makes me reconsider the idea that even if I do all the recommended bits about leaving itinerary with responsible folks, etc., if I don't show up at the end of a 5-day, 45-mile trek, there's one heck of a lot of ground to cover, whereas if the SAR personnel can home in on a PLB beacon, they can at least remove my carcass from the trail more easily. (Leave No Trace, ya know!)

Thanks all for the comments.

10:39 p.m. on January 28, 2009 (EST)
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Here is a review by a hiker who used one on the JMT.

May 26, 2018
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