Hiking Safety – McMurdo Fast Find PLB Review

11 01 2011

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.

McMurdo Fast Find 210

McMurdo Fast Find 210 (Not My Hand)

  • 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




7 responses

11 01 2011
Sandie Dixon

Thank you so much for commenting on my blog. I haven’t had a chance to read your complete blog yet but I will definitely be catching up as I have time. It is wonderful for us old ones to see young people living their life their way and not just the corporate structure. When we were young, especially us girls, were not encouraged to go our own ways but to find a good man and get married and be a housewife. I rebelled against that stereotype and decided I wanted to make my own way. However, I finally gave in and got married at the age of 37.

Sure am looking forward to following your adventures.

11 01 2011

You may consider ham radio. The material for the technician license is quite easy to learn. I question the validity of some of your bullet points that you listed. I think the benefits of ham radio are: more general in case the beacon company ever goes out of business, 2-way communication, and an opportunity to learn skills.

I mean to be helpful, not too critical. I enjoy your blog; keep up the adventures!

11 01 2011

Thanks for the suggestion. My brother was momentarily into ham radio, so I’ll chat with him about the idea. Two way communication would be a big deal, but my main concerns are weight, worldwide coverage, quick response, and an ability to transmit my precise location. How would those things work with ham?

Also, to clarify, the beacon company (McMurdo) going out of business wouldn’t effect anything. They are out of the picture once the device is manufactured, as the satellites and response system are all government owned and run.

I am curious about ham, however. Looking forward to hearing more about it. And being critical is fine!

11 01 2011

There are many hand held devices, the same size or smaller as the beacon pictured. On a hand held you have access to simplex, satellites, and local repeaters. The last, the repeater, will allow you to from your location to the repeater where you will have a much larger communication span, both geographically since they are typically on top of a mountain and also with more power amplification. For this reason, they are very popular with search and rescue and in trail running emergencies.

If interested, I suggest:
studying for $20 at http://www.hamtestonline.com/ (~10 hrs of studying)
finding a test site http://www.arrl.org/finding-an-exam-session

At the test site, there will be many local, helpful, and enthusiastic ham nerds who can help you find a radio. You need a license before you can get a radio, so this order is logical.

Many trail runners just memorize all the test questions (instead of getting a book or using the tutorial above). In the name of learning, I find this lame. Since ARRL posts all the test questions online, this is a way to save $20 or the effort of finding a book.

11 01 2011

Nice to see a PLB under $500 (other than SPOT). I like the free but we use the OK function every time we park (so family knows where we are…LOL!). I also like the HELP function so my son can call our road service if we are out of cell range.

I think these devices are going to continue to grow in use and we’ll continue to have more and more choices. Thanks for posting!

11 01 2011

There’s definitely a use for both products. It’s wonderful to see the price of technology drop over time, as the Fast Find destroys the competition in price while keeping the quality top-notch. (We got a fantastic deal on ours, too.)

8 09 2011
Don C

Right on. Until SPOT gets text messaging and confirmation of reciept, its is just a toy. Way better of to spend $700 and heavy subscription fees for the Iridium GeoPro if you want tracking and text messaging.

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