Gear Guy

GyPSI 406 PLB     Photo: courtesy, ACR Electronics

Q:

Is a personal locator beacon a wise investment for a solo kayaker?

My boyfriend has paddled a couple of rivers solo and is planning a third this fall. Typically gone for a week, he tries to call me each night to give me his location and coordinates, but sometimes ends up in places that don't have cell-phone coverage. His parents and I are afraid of "sounding the alarm" too soon after not hearing from him for 24 to 48 hours. I can see him peacefully eating his granola as the cavalry rides in to save the day. Therefore, we have decided to buy him a personal locator beacon (PLB) for his birthday for peace of mind! Which one, then, do you recommend? Marisa Charlotte, North Carolina

A:Regular readers of this column know that I am exceedingly conflicted on the subject of electronic gadgets that aim to improve "safety." Partly it's philosophical: What's the point in testing oneself in the wild if you're always hanging on to a battery-powered lifeline? But partly it's practical. While I have no empirical evidence to back up this assertion, it seems clear to me that such devices can foster a sense of false confidence, making an endeavor riskier than it might otherwise be. Avalanche beacons are a prime example. Some people think, "Oh, we're safe, we have beacons," forgetting the fact that merely being hit by an avalanche often is enough to kill you. As they say, prevention can be the best medicine.

That said, there is a time and a place for personal locator beacons, small gadgets that are just now hitting the market after years of bureaucratic delay even though the military has successfully used these things for years. About the size of a cell phone, PLBs, when activated, broadcast a signal that is detected by satellite and relayed to search-and-rescue officials. When search teams are close to the user—anywhere from a few hundred yards to several miles, depending on the unit—a second signal guides rescuers to right the distressed party.

You can bet that Aron Ralston—he of the now-famous amputated arm episode—wishes he'd had one. I think they're particularly well-suited for people who insist on doing potentially hazardous activities solo—sailing, kayaking, climbing, that sort of thing. People like your fella, from the sounds of things.

One drawback: These things ain't cheap. Example: the McMurdo Fastfind Personal Locator Beacon, from a UK-based communications firm (www.mcmurdo.co.uk) now marketing their product in the U.S. following the FCC's decision to permit use of these units stateside in summer 2003. The Fastfind PLB is very light (around 14 ounces) and compact, and when activated sends a signal picked up by satellite, usually within 90 minutes (you have to allow for the time it will take for the next satellite to pass overhead). At that point, the user's bod...I mean, position, is marked to within three miles. Once rescuers come within that radius, a homing beacon on the unit guides them to the exact location. Retail price is a whopping $1,000, but you can search around on the Web and probably find one for $600 or so. ACR Electronics makes a slightly larger unit called the GyPSI 406 Personal Locator Beacon, which sells for about $700 (www.acrelectronics.com). Its bulkier size is compensated for by the fact that it brings rescuers closer on their first cut, as close as 100 yards.

So there you go. Let's bear in mind these units are for pretty serious mariners and explorers, and that activation of a PLB should be an absolute last resort (they also must be registered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages the registration database). Maybe you can join your boyfriend on the next excursion, putting truth to the adage of safety in numbers—although that then leaves the in-laws fretting at home about the two of you. Finally, given all my advice above, I do truly hope that this will be one gift that never gets used.

Read reviews of more of the outdoor world's best electronic gadgetry in Outside's 2004 Buyer's Guide.

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