My hiking around LA has been less frequent than it was in Reno, where I had befriended a serious hiker with wheels. In sprawling LA, I’m far from any good hiking and don’t want to steal the house for the day in order to get to a trailhead. When we arrived, I tried reaching out to potential hiking buddies with limited success. One guy who signed on was a former Air Force member who had decided that it was time to get back in shape. Mistake. He was completely unprepared for our jaunt on the Pacific Crest Trail, had terrible hiking shoes and tried to ‘man through the pain’ until the skin on his heels was torn apart and he could barely walk. Not clever.
It’s no substitute, but I’ve been doing lots of walking around here, trying to cover 5 miles or so per day. I anticipate being able to hike in nature much more frequently in the not too distant future, and with that in mind…
Ever since we got lost in the forest near Big Bear Lake I’ve made it my goal to always hike and backpack as safely as possible. I want to be as prepared as I can for any situation that might arise, and I’ve made a lot of progress toward that goal. But as a (mostly) solo hiker, the thing that I can never count on is someone who I could send for help. On my own in the backcountry, my GPS isn’t very helpful if I can’t walk or don’t have water.*
Today I added to my emergency stuff-sack what I think will be the last piece of equipment to go in there, a McMurdo Fast Find 210 personal locator beacon (PLB). On activation, the beacon will send my precise GPS location to Cospas-Sarsat, the international satellite system for search and rescue. It also emits a radio homing signal that rescuers can use as they approach the GPS location. Some of you may have heard of SPOT, an orange handheld distress radiobeacon. I’ve seen people with SPOTs on the trail, have heard a lot about them, and decided not to get one. Here’s why.
- Power: SPOT is powered by 400 milliwatts, while the Fast Find 210 uses 5 watts. A 10x difference in signal strength is huge, and can mean the difference between a signal penetrating dense foliage and not.
- Frequency: Lower frequencies penetrate buildings, trees, and other obstacles better than higher frequencies. SPOT’s frequency is four times higher than the Fast Find’s.
- SPOT signals are received by a commercial company from a commercial satellite. Fast Find signals are received by the military from military satellites. These satellites cover every inch of the earth, while SPOT’s don’t.
- SPOT is a subscription service and costs ~$100 per year. PLB owners pay no subscription fees.
- The Fast Find has multiple broadcasting redundancies and broadcasts a local homing signal. The SPOT does neither.
- Finally, the Fast Find is lighter.
Fast Find for the win!
One big benefit of the SPOT is its ability to send “Hey, I’m okay and am here [coordinates] right now” messages. That’s a great feature, but when it comes to sending an SOS signal, a PLB is many times better. Equipped.com did extensive testing of the Fast Find 210 and it performed remarkably well, even broadcasting a GPS fix from a fully enclosed home basement. On a large trip, some suggest that one person bring a SPOT to send “Everything’s great” messages and that another person carry a PLB for the more serious stuff.
I’m pretty certain that my small emergency pack is now about as good as it could be. The rest is about the user – me – and I need to remember to keep practicing and learning my skills.
*Signaling equipment is a significant part of my compact but effective survival pack.
posted by jay