I still consider myself a ‘casual’ hiker and backpacker. I don’t do any trails that are too dangerous, and still have yet to do a multi-night trek. So why buy a pricy safety device?
I told myself for years if the boyfriendo and I ever did a multi-night, we’d of course rent or borrow a device, but I really saw no need to own one. But last February, a news story hit that convinced myself that if there ever was a need for aid, having aid more accessible was priceless. In summary, a trail runner with only an out-of-service cell phone broke their leg on a lonely trail and had to crawl (on said broken leg, in snow and ice) FOR SIX HOURS to get in cell range and then crawled several more hours before he met up with his aid! If I were ever in a similar situation, I’d probably have just rolled over and accepted death, so I decided then an SOS beacon would be worth every penny if I was ever in a similar pinch.
There’s several devices on the market that offer varying levels of aid, for varying prices. If you truly only want to have a button you push that summons a helicopter or rescue team to your satellite-derived location, a Personal Locater Beacon (PLB) is the best option. ACR is a company that makes such a device. The pros are there is no monthly subscription fee, but the cons are it’s the equivalent of throwing a flare into the sky–people know where you are and that you need aid, but it is a one-way message and there is no other way to communicate any other details or even to know your message was received!
I, however, went for a PLB+Satellite Messenger. These devices (the most popular are Garmin or Spot) do require the added cost of an active subscription to their service to be used, but you can communicate back and forth, not just with your rescuers, but sending texts to family members to keep them posted. I envisioned tons of situations where the messaging would come in handy–if I had car trouble and needed a tow from a service-less trailhead, I could message someone with my coordinates for them to call me a tow. If I was running late or cutting a trip short, I could keep people informed. I also read this article from a hiker who activated their SOS when there was a fire on the trail and they didn’t know if they could get out safely (this is also a great walk-through of what happens when you press your SOS as well).
I chose to go for a Garmin InReach Mini. The overwhelming consensus when doing my research was that Garmin was more reliable than Spot, but that might have changed. Neither option appears perfect–many Garmin users said they were confusing to use, and that pairing it with your phone (supposed to be for easier texting) was super-clunky. A big purchase like this is hard for an imperfect product, but I will take clunky and confusing over unreliable any day. The Mini (3.5 oz) is definitely better for casual hikers and backpackers, as the ‘full-size’ option (7.5 oz) is larger, but with a bigger screen for navigation. I’ve seen tons of hiking vloggers thru-hiking with these devices, and a charge can last for days, depending on use, and can be charged from a USB bank.
I won’t go too in-depth on the different subscription options, but for all of them, you get 3 preset messages you can send to others unlimitedly. You do have to set the messages and recipients before you leave and update your device, so don’t forget that! My three are “Starting my trip,” “Done for the day” and “Running late but everything is okay.”
So far, I’ve used my Garmin a few times backpacking, and brought it on day hikes. I only hiked with it paired to my phone and tracking my location once, and I found that it killed my battery (unsure if that was the pairing or location tracking or both?). For all backpacking trips, I’ve sent the “starting my trip” and “done for the day” each day. I know it provides Mama Boots or the boyfriendo peace of mind, even on these single-night trips. However, once it didn’t send the message (I might have turned it off too soon, or the tree cover was too dense) until the next day, so I have warned people that technology is imperfect and just because they didn’t receive a message doesn’t mean something is wrong (I also could have forgotten to send it!).
I have never needed to push the SOS button (and fingers crossed I never will!) but if you do, your emergency contacts will be informed. I’ve explained to my emergency contacts that I might be pushing it for myself, a member of my party, or a stranger I come across on trail in need of aid, and that I’ll try to let them know what’s going on if it’s the third scenario. You can also preset info for emergency responders, like allergies and blood type. This article has a great run-down of what happens when you push it, and also covers some scenarios when you should or shouldn’t use it. Keep in mind this is an emergency device, like calling 911, and only should be used in emergencies.
While the price is steep, these devices can go on sale at REI (like when I bought mine) and have even been sold at Costco! I am hoping to get the hang of using mine better, especially with my calendar filling with trips for 2021 already!
I was not asked to write this post or compensated in any way, all views expressed are my own.