[Originally posted at http://www.whiteblaze.net/forum/showthread.php?86715-PLB-or-no-PLB&p=1318047#post1318047]
Under what circumstances is carrying a PLB warranted?
I'm sure this topic has been done to death here, but a quick search of
the archives surprisingly turns up only a few threads, and most of the
comments there are, shall we say, not exactly nuanced. (In other words,
typical WB opinions. ) So, with more enthusiasm than sense, I'm going to open up my very first new thread on WhiteBlaze.
While I'm a clueless weekender, I can sometimes be a bit of an adventurous
clueless weekender, and so a week ago, my college-age daughter and I
went on a weekend hike trying to bag a couple of trailless peaks in the
Catskills of upstate New York. For WB'ers who aren't familiar with the
territory: the Catskills are New York's answer to Pennsylvania Rocks,
and are in fact made, geologically, of pretty much the same stone.
Off-trail hiking on that broken rock, with the blackberries, nettles,
and balsam fir in profusion, can be a trifle challenging at times.
Anyway, what with one thing and another, by sundown on the first night
we found ourselves still on the way down from the first peak, in the
rocks and prickers, and a fair distance south of the ridge we planned to
be hiking. (We weren't lost in the conventional sense. We knew where we
were, and where we wanted to be: they just didn't happen to match up,
because the terrain offered routefinding challenges.)
The place we found to set up camp was less than ideal, but it was the
biggest flat spot we'd seen in about half an hour, so it would have to
do. We managed to get warm and dry, even though we were just on the tent
footprint under a rainfly, because the flat space was slightly smaller
than our tent. But then my daughter turned out to be really scared by
the fact that we were probably half a mile of nasty rock and prickers
from where hikers, even peakbaggers, usually go. She had nightmares all
night, mostly of me having a heart attack or falling off a cliff. And
this kid is not new to backpacking, she's weekended with me before a
number of times and enjoyed it.
When we got home (earlier than expected, because we decided when we got
back to the trail that doing more peaks that weekend would not be fun),
she told me that she thought she'd sleep a lot better if we'd brought a
personal locator beacon along. I know that PLB's are a controversial
topic, at least in other forums, and in fact, I'm of two minds on the
subject. I'm writing this piece partly to share my opinions, but at
least as much to clarify them in my own head and get the thoughts of
others. (Knee jerks - either in the direction of "the peace of mind is
worth any price", or "carrying a PLB will just make you take risks, and
shows you're not accepting responsibility for yourself," will not be
appreciated: I've heard them before!)
So, let me try to review the arguments:
The PLB gives peace of mind. Well, maybe. Surely - all else being
equal, which it seldom is - you're safer being able to call for help
than having to rely on your own resources. But it will still likely take
hours or days to muster a SAR party to come and find you. How much
peace of mind will that really give? But that's really a good thing; out
in the woods, especially off trail, you have to be ready to rely on
your own resources.
At the opposite extreme - the PLB leads to false alarms, or to "yuppie 911 calls"
(OMG, we've run out of Perrier! Call Search and Rescue!) Here, I'm
reasonably confident that I can resist temptation: I personally am not
likely to activate a PLB in any situation where I think I have a good
chance of self-rescuing. And I've been in a couple of self-rescue
situations: one time in the Whites, I was caught by unforecast snow in
June and had to hunker down on the lee side of a rockpile until it blew
over and then posthole down by flashlight through a nice layer of wet
stuff; another time, I took a fall down a talus slope and had to walk
out on a badly sprained knee, leaning heavily on two companions and
loopy from codeine. Both of those incidents took place before there were
PLB's, but I don't see why I'd have activated a PLB if I had one; in
both cases, my party could rescue itself before help could have arrived,
By the same argument, a PLB could lead to overconfidence, and taking needless risks. Since
I don't like even minor accidents for which I'd easily self-rescue, I
don't see where suddenly having a PLB would make me go charging off and
do stupid things. I'm surely a clueless weekender, but I've been a
clueless weekender for forty-odd years and I've at least learnt
something about weekending. Again, I think I can resist temptation.
In the event of an emergency, it's likely the victim's fault. Setting off a PLB is endangering rescuers' lives for something that the victim could have avoided.
This is getting to be a thorny area. If I carry a PLB, will I someday
make a series of mistakes that means I have to use it? Surely. I'm
human, and we all make mistakes. But - by the time I'm in that
situation, the decision will already be out of my hands. Once I'm
late enough showing up, Search and Rescue is coming after me - whatever
my wishes in the matter. Because they're human, too - and trying to
rescue victims, as long as hope remains and even beyond, is one of the
things that humans do. By far, the most expensive part of Search and
Rescue is the Search. Once you've found the victim, you know where you
are, and you know what's wrong, and you have resources at your disposal.
Search is facing the unknown - the victim could be anywhere, you need
to cover a lot of ground, and a lot of the ground you do cover will be
both difficult and fruitless. So by activating a PLB in a bad situation,
I'm actually mitigating damage that I've already done: SAR is coming
after me anyway, but at least I can let them know where I am, come after
me with a much smaller effort, and come after me in much greater
safety. I like that tradeoff.
My conclusion - On the whole, the arguments favor having the signaling
device. In the end, the arguments about false alarms or overreliance on
the safety net, I think, represent temptations that I can resist, and
the argument that actually activating the device is reckless
endangerment of the SAR forces is simply wrong.
A follow-on question is: what sort of emergency is dire enough to
warrant calling in the troops? I'd say that certainly anything I'd call
an ambulance, the fire brigade or the police in a city for likely
qualifies. But another rule of thumb might be, "assume activating the
device were a crime. Would I prefer a nice warm jail cell to the current
situation?" That's also a fair working definition of an emergency. Or
if "I am so impeded from traveling that SAR will come after me anyway
before I can get out of here," then it's safer for everyone if I
activate the PLB.
The next question is what sort of signaling device to get; it basically
comes down to a 406 MHz PLB or a satellite text message device (e.g.,
SPOT). There are advantages and disadvantages to both:
PLB: A PLB is a single-purpose device; all it can do is scream "Help!"
and give a position report. But it has a very powerful scream: under
heavy tree cover, it can still be Doppler-triangulated to within a mile
or better; if the cover is light enough that a GPS works, then it can
give its position to less than a football field. It doesn't require a
subscription to a messaging service, and it will get attention. (It will get very unwanted attention if you set it off frivolously.)
SPOT: A SPOT is considerably less reliable; it needs nearly an
unobstructed view of the heavens to get messages through. But it can get
a greater variety of messages out: some can even do full text
messaging, and all can at least send a position report and "I'm OK" or
"I need help." They need a service contract.
I'm inclined to consider a SPOT considerably less useful, because of the
fact that it might not deliver a message at need (because I can't get
it a clear enough view of the sky). If I'm going to devote a few ounces
of weight to an emergency signal, I want it to work every time. The one
major advantage I can see to a SPOT is that I can use it to send "I'm
OK" messages, which may make my wife sleep more easily at all times, and
hold off SAR if for some reason I'm delayed but still in good enough
shape to travel.
As far as I can see it, neither one is worth the weight if I'm hiking a
popular trail where there's likely to be another hiker along in a few
hours. But if I'm literally wandering far from the beaten track, it
strikes me that a 406 MHz PLB might well be a wise thing to spend a few
But I'm just a clueless weekender. What do the Real Hikers think?