Emergency Communication in the Backcountry

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Silas Rossi, IFMGA

As a mountain guide and alpine climber, I spend a lot of time considering the “what if” of a worst-case scenario in the backcountry. While I work diligently on the prevention side of the equation, I’m sure to always have a good emergency plan in place before heading out. And, like it or not, in this day and age it is important that emergency communication be part of that plan.

What you bring, of course, depends on where you are going and how long you’ll be there. A satellite phone, VHF/UHF radio, SPOT, and PLB are four commonly used devices for times when you are without cell service. They each have advantages and disadvantages to consider when choosing.

Satellite phone – While expensive and heavy, SAT phones are the most user-friendly and reliable form of 2-way communication available. Depending on how long you’re away, consider how you’ll recharge the battery. $500-$1000 + minutes.

VHF/UHF radio – 2-way VHF/UHF radios have long been used by outdoor professionals and work well for inter-group communication as well as reaching people outside your group. Because they don’t utilize satellites, it’s necessary to have line of sight to another radio operator or a repeater operating on the same frequency. You’ll need to be in tune with other operators in the same area in order for these to work! Radios are a bit tricky to use and require a HAM license to operate. For more info on amateur radio visit: www.arrl.org. $100-$400.

Personal Locator Beacon – Although only allowing the user to send a distress call, Dual Frequency Personal Locator Beacons are the lightest and most reliable form of emergency communication available. The newest versions weigh 4 ounces, have a 5-year battery (turn it on only to request help), and are bombproof. There is no subscription fee, but they are somewhat pricey at $250-$400 for only 5 years. You can rent a PLB for about $75/week at www.plbrentals.com. Although spartan in function, PLB’s are your best bet for reaching help when it is needed.

SPOT II – Gaining popularity recently among recreational users and guide services, these devices are somewhat similar to Dual Frequency PLB’s, but use private (commercial) satellites and emergency response center to relay a signal to appropriate government emergency services (PLB’s use government operated satellites and emergency response center). The SPOT II also allows “check-in”, “tracking”, and “non-emergency request for help” functions. There is a yearly subscription fee ($100) in addition to purchasing the device ($120), making the 5 year cost a hefty $620. SPOT devices are also limited geographically.

Every one of these devices is a good tool when used properly and within it’s respective parameters. Choose wisely and enjoy your next adventure!

Silas Rossi is a climber and IFMGA guide based in New Paltz, NY. You can contact him at Sila[email protected] or by going to www.Alpine-Logic.com


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