Gear Guy

How can I call for help in the backcountry?

Dear Gear Guru, Each year I spend more and more time engaging in technically demanding backpacking, backcountry skiing, and mountaineering trips into the remote backcountry. Due to my exposure, the natural dangers of the mountains, and the probability of accidents, the need for a reliable and durable communications system has arisen. Do you know of a system that has long-range communication capabilities and can withstand the needs of being both portable and durable? Is a satellite phone the answer? As always, I look forward to the wisdom of your responses. Sean Constine


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Well, this is another one of those philosophical questions. What it comes down to is that you want to engage in what probably are riskier pastimes, but not increase your actual risk. Which I understand! In this day and age, there’s an understandable expectation that help is never far away. But keep in mind that it wasn’t all that long ago that people expected to be just about utterly self-reliant when in the backcountry. And that colored their objectives, lending an air of caution to the proceedings which no doubt made them more prudent. I don’t doubt for a minute that today’s plethora of wireless phones, helicopters, and other gadgets makes people more inclined to take risks.

Be that as it may. The fact is, wireless telephone coverage is so good these days that an everyday wireless phone is a pretty good, pretty cheap safety backup. Mind you, a wireless is a line-of-sight instrument, so must be able to “see” a cell tower. That means you’ll need to be on a ridge or peak; valleys will probably eliminate reception. Rescue lore these days is full of wireless-initiated operations, some from extremely remote locales.

VHF radios have the same shortcomings as cell phones—you need to be in sight of a transmitter or repeater. I’ve used VHF’s extensively in search and rescue work and in a lot cases we would have been better served with long strings and tin cans.

A third option in some parts of the world is what’s called an EPIRB, for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. These are what boaters and airplane pilots use to mark their location when they’re in distress. And in fact a personal, backpacker-friendly model made by ACR Electronics has existed for about three years. It’s available in Canada, Australia, and a few other countries, but in the United States has been held up by disputes over what federal agency would be responsible for responding. I sort of understand the problem; an EPIRB signal doesn’t “say” anything, it just screams “help me!” And that’s a pretty wide net. “Help me” as in, I’m about to die, or “Help me,” as in, I’m tired?

Be that as it may, the only sure bet for two-way communication is a satellite phone. The tradeoff there is the price; still about $1,000 for a phone using Motorola’s Iridium system (Iridium went bankrupt, but the system still is operating).

Myself, I’d pack a wireless phone, accept the limitations, and learn to love the freedom —- and take responsibility for the consequences. I don’t mean to sound like some Luddite hard-ass, but I think there’s value to realizing your place in the world and how tenuous it might be.

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