Q:

Do personal locator beacons actually make you safer?

I’m thinking of renting or purchasing a personal locator beacon (PLB) for winter backpacking trips as an added safety measure. What’s your opinion of PLBs? Bill Billerica, Massachusetts

Nov 30, 2006
Outside
Outside Magazine
ACR TerraFix 406 GPS PLB

TerraFix 406 GPS PLB

A:

I confess to considerable ambivalence when it comes to personal locator beacons, avalanche beacons, satellite phones, and all the other electronic safety devices out there. They certainly do work—I read the other day about a guy whose buddies found him using beacons after the group was hit by an avalanche. But I also believe that they may, in some cases, cause people to indulge in riskier behavior than they might otherwise. I honestly think that sometimes people say, “Well, I have a PLB/avalanche beacon/cell phone, so if I cross this stream/hillside/glacier and have a problem, I can just hit ‘send’ and I’ll be saved!" The avalanche hits and they are pile-driven into a tree, or they slip on the hillside and go over a cliff, or they fall head-first into a crevasse and are never heard from again.

So, do I suggest not carrying these devices? No, I don’t—I’ve carried beacons plenty of times. But I always try to act as if I don’t have one, preferring mental caution to electronic rescue.

In the case of personal locator beacons, there’s also the issue of price. The ACR TerraFix 406 GPS (www.acrelectronics.com), for instance, is designed specifically for hikers, skiers, and the like. It’s compact, waterproof, and broadcasts your GPS-established latitude and longitude. It’s perfectly suited for cold weather, too. But it sells for $700. Yikes! An avalanche beacon might be more relevant to your winter camping, but only if you are part of a party—preferably a LARGE one. A good avalanche transceiver such as the Ortovox d3 (www.ortovox.com) sells for $300.

So, yeah, a PLB does offer that extra margin of safety in the event you break your leg ten miles from the car, a grizzly bear is stalking you, and a meteor shower is about to strike. Better, in my view, is to go out with someone, leave word of your trip with a reliable party, stick to your planned schedule, and ensure that your equipment and skill level is up to the journey. Sure, pack along a wireless phone, too. And if you can afford it, buy a PLB. But don’t EVER say to yourself, “Hey, I’ve got a magic shield!" Because once you do that, what you’re carrying is a body locator. And just today, news sites here are recounting the discovery of a backcountry skier near Mount Baker who was carrying an avalanche beacon, got separated from his party, and was found two days later due to the beeping beacon. Alas, he was quite dead. I’m not suggesting his attitude led to his death. But the avalanche beacon was no protection.

Get more advice from the Gear Guy as he picks this season’s top gifts in Away.com’s Holiday Gift Guide. You’ll probably find a few things to put on your own wish list, too.

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