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Electronic devices are not always a safe bet in the wilderness

Electronic gadgets can be useful tools, when and if they work. They can also be a huge liability if the operator does not know how to properly use the device. It is OK to use your GPS but also make sure you have solid map and compass skills and bring and use a map and compass with you anytime you venture into the wilderness.

When using anything electronic do not depend on it. They can and will fail at the most inopportune moment. Batteries will go dead, screens will break, buttons will stick, or it just simply will not work. I generally resist getting the latest electronic toy. My GPS, a Garmin 60Cx was purchased in 2003 and my phone until recently looked like a Star Trek communicator.

A recurring theme in past articles has dealt with not being able to get a message out. Whether you just need to tell your wife that you are running late, that you bagged a big buck and you need help to drag it out, or there is a medical emergency. Being able to get a message out can save precious hours. However being able to communicate to the outside world can also lead to problems.

We were recently called out by New Hampshire Fish and Game to assist an injured hiker who was unable to walk. After being told that it would be several hours until the rescue team would be able to get to him, he made a miraculous recovery and was able to walk out on his own and we got the message to stand down.

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There is a device that can get that message out no matter where you are. I have purchased and use a DeLorme inReach®. This small unit, about the size and weight of a GPS, allows text messages to be sent to any email address, cell phone, or another inReach device. It also sends details about your current location and can be set to automatically send a “ping” of your location on a scheduled timetable. One new feature is the ability to get a basic weather report for your current or other location. They work off satellites so as long as they have a relatively unobstructed view of the sky they will work. No cell towers needed.

The unit itself costs about $350 and then you need to have a “data plan” that will run you another $180 per year, depending on the level of use you plan on. If you don’t want to invest that much up front you can rent one for around $120 for 4 weeks.

It may seem a bit pricey but for the peace of mind it gives me, and my wife back home, it is invaluable. With a battery life of around 100 hours, it is a rugged and reliable piece of technology that has not let me down yet.

Related: Kayaker injured but alive after plunging over Allagash Falls

When these and similar devices, also called personal locator beacons (PLB), came out there was some concern among the Search And Rescue community that the device would give people a false sense of security. The thinking goes that people could take bigger risks and if things went south they would simply activate their PLB and someone would come and rescue them.

Fortunately, that does not seem to have happened. What it does allow is a faster response time and a more accurate location, with good information about the nature of the emergency. If the user is alert and conscious they can text back and forth with the rescue coordinator. There are numerous accounts of how the devices are used almost daily to save the lives of people in remote locations.

Another use for the devices that we have been experimenting with is tracking Search And Rescue teams in the field. Currently, when we go out each team will have at least one GPS. The GPS will track where the team goes and allow search managers to see exactly where the team went and which areas were covered. After getting their assignments the teams go out, cover their assigned area and return to the CP. The data from the GPS is downloaded into a master file and overlaid with all of the data from the other teams. This gives the search managers an accurate picture of what areas have been covered and where to focus resources.

The problem with this is that the search managers have to wait for the teams to return. If each team had an inReach during the search then managers could see all of the team’s locations in real time. Additionally, information and new search assignments could be sent to the teams in the field without the limitations of cell phones and radios.

Related: Man who went over Allagash Falls and lived is my new hero

I must admit that I break one of the cardinal rules and do go hiking, paddling, hunting, etc. alone or with just my dog. With the inReach on and in an outside pocket of my pack, my wife can check on me. I can use it for simple things like letting my wife know I have arrived safely at camp, or that I am out of the woods and heading home. She can connect to the internet with either her phone or laptop and see where I am and whether or not I am still moving.

If I were hiking and stopped moving for a long period of time she could try to text me and if that failed could remotely activate the SOS function and get help moving my way. The potential uses are endless. The SOS function connects you to a call center that is staffed 24/7/365 by professionals that can relay messages between you and the local authorities. This could be anything from a serious injury to simply needing a tow.

But you still have to realize that there still will be a delay of several hours from the time you make the call for help until someone can actually be on scene to assist you.

There was an article recently that highlighted how a device like the inReach can come in handy.

Bryan Courtois is a hiker and camper who is an active registered Maine guide, head of Pine Tree Search and Rescue, a volunteer search and rescue responder and the statewide education director and a member of the board of directors for Maine Association Search and Rescue. For more information check out the following resources:

Maine Association for Search and Rescue

Pine Tree Search and Rescue

Maine Wilderness Guides Organization

Pine Tree Search and Rescue Facebook page


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