High-tech gadgets help wilderness survival
Mark Coleman pulls a topographic map out of his bag and opens it up on a table in a West End coffee shop. His finger traces over the remote Fool’s Gold route, southeast of Squamish.
“For the whole hike, the terrain is terrible. It’s a route, not a trail, so there is no path. So, you just take bearings off peaks and you use GPS coordinates, and you try and find your way,” Coleman told the Georgia Straight.
The Surrey resident and his two friends were on the third day of a planned five-day trip this past August when they realized they were in trouble near Disc Creek.
“We were stuck between these two streams—with a huge river below us and a mountain above us—so we were on this little square of land,” Coleman explained while tapping on the map.
The group knew search and rescue would have to be called in to get them out. So they did it themselves with the help of a personal locator beacon, or PLB, they were carrying.
Once activated, the small device sent the trapped hikers’ coordinates via satellite to the Canadian Forces, which then relayed the information to local search-and-rescue outfits.
“The interesting thing about the PLB is that you can attach information to it,” Coleman said. “They knew who we were and they had contact numbers. So when we pulled the beacon, they were able to call our families.
“And our families had all of our trip information saved on a computer in a public place,” he added. “So they were able to pull up all of the maps we were using and all of the information we put together, and they could then use that to have a better idea of where we were.”
While rescue teams assembled, Coleman and his two friends sat and waited on the mountainside, unsure if their call was heard.
“That is always something you worry about. Technology is fallible. It is not perfect and we hadn’t tested it out,” Coleman recalled. “We were sitting there saying, ‘I sure hope this works.’ ”
Twenty-four hours later, a search-and-rescue helicopter airlifted the men out of the dangerous terrain.
“They were very professional,” Coleman said. “A lot of the time, search and rescue reads the riot act out to people, because if someone is totally unprepared and they go into the backcountry it’s a risk for search and rescue…and they didn’t really say that much to us about that. They told us we were very well prepared, and they had a very easy time finding us in a very hazardous area.”
Coleman’s not sure what would have happened to him and his friends if they didn’t have the beacon. Neither does Coquitlam Search and Rescue manager Dwight Yochim. He says with the help of technology, such as personal locator beacons and GPS, more searches are having happier endings.
“Speed is everything in a search and rescue, and technology in that area has dramatically improved response times,” Yochim told the Straight by phone from Coquitlam.
Whether it’s a day trip or overnight foray into the wilderness, Yochim says people shouldn’t count exclusively on smartphones to get them out of an emergency situation, though they can help.
“Even in the local mountains, cell coverage is extremely spotty,” Yochim warned. “But what the cellphones have allowed us to do is to triangulate cellphone signals. That has dramatically increased from an accuracy of a couple of kilometres to an accuracy of 20 metres.”
There’s a small black device called SPOT Connect that extends the range of smartphones beyond the cellular grid. The product allows iPhone and Android users to send a GPS distress signal and even put their outdoor adventures online.
“A hiker can go out, give their friends and family a website, and it actually tracks and reports where they are at,” Yochim said. “And then if they get in trouble they can push a button, and it will send a 911 call to their friends or family basically with a pre-recorded message saying something has happened.”
Aside from emergency signals, SPOT sells service plans that enable users to send text messages or emails up to 120 characters long, as well as to update Facebook and Twitter, so people can advise family and friends of their status while in the outdoors.
“The cost of it is fairly cheap,” Yochim said. “They used to be thousands of dollars and now they are a couple hundred dollars, so those kinds of tools could be lifesaving.”
However, Mountain Equipment Co-op staffer Laurence Thor says people shouldn’t be too reliant on high-tech gadgets for survival.
“Anything that requires batteries will need extra batteries,” Thor cautioned as he sat behind a glass counter filled with knives and GPS systems at MEC’s Broadway store.
Thor says technological advances in survival gear have led to warmer winter clothing, faster ways to make fire, and sharper knives, but people still need to understand the harsh conditions that could await them in the backcountry.
“All those clothing basics have gone to synthetics, there are more options in knives than there has ever been in history, and there are more options in fire, but make sure, whatever you bring, you have more than one,” Thor explained. “And whatever it is you chose to bring, make sure that you actually know how to use them.”
Coleman agrees. He says people always need to be prepared for the worst.
“The problem with any trip is that things can go well or they can go poorly. If they go fine, then you don’t need that much planning,” Coleman said. “But if they go poorly, you need backups because otherwise you can very quickly get into a life-threatening situation.”