Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Beam Me Up Spotty!

The Spot personal locator beacon has grown a strong following over the years, such a reputation in fact as a bare bones PBR with a twist that even this, "I escape to the mountains to escape technology like this" backcountry purist has considered one.

As I noted in my prior post, shit happens! While a lot of rescues are avoidable, not all are negligent, and some of us aren't particularly good at sticking to plans. Plans are for work, projects, corporate planning, not for getting out into the mountains. Spot seems like a great way to deviate from plans, yet let someone know where you are headed. Using Spot messaging service you can ping location updates, non emergency help pings to your contacts, and full out SOS to the GEOS International Emergency Response Center. Say I had no particular reason to return home on a Monday, or worse I simply underestimated the difficulty of a hike and decided to spend another night out, I always envisioned being able to send an OK ping and be done with it.

On Sunday, October 17th one of the short falls of relying on something like Spot and it's bare bones limitations can be seen from the DEC Region 5 Ranger Activity Report below:

Town of Newcomb, High Peaks Wilderness Area On Sunday, October 17, 2010, at 3:43 pm, the DEC Dispatch Center in Ray Brook received a call from a woman requesting assistance in locating her husband in the vicinity of Moose Pond. Mathew Crowell, 29, of Syracuse, NY, had been hunting in the area for several days and reported his location each morning and evening using his Spot Locator. Mr. Crowell had not reported in since 10:00 am on Saturday. Mrs. Crowell became concerned that her husband might be injured after learning of the presence of snow in the higher elevations. A DEC Forest Ranger responded and located Mr. Crowell’s car at the Moose Pond Trail Head and started to search the 6 miles of trail into Moose Pond. At 6:05 p.m. the Forest Ranger heard a shot and found the subject in good shape, at the last spot location he had sent to his wife. According to Mr. Crowell, he had sent his wife points from the Spot Locator throughout his trip but obviously the signal didn’t get out due to the steep drainages. Always provide someone at home with your itinerary and when you expect to return. Electronic devices are useful in providing information and communicating with people outside the backcountry – be aware of their limitations.

What this highlights is two things 1) the reason I like a Spot is because of my inability to stick to itineraries. I don't veer from them every trip, but it's not uncommon for me to do so. Spot proved here that when everything is OK, that it might not be the best option for this sort of thing since I would probably use it quite similarly to how this hunter was using it. 2) It shows the limitations of both Spot and satellite based navigation as a sole form of backcountry navigation or communications.

I still like Spot for it's one way only communication, which I find is probably a reasonable compromise for most purist. However, I don't find it to be terribly reassuring that it isn't able to consistently send out pings. In the eastern US forest we have extremely thick forest cover even in fairly open terrain, this often at times creates problems with GPS signal reception, the same signals Spot uses to locate and transmit. Add in steep drainages, canons, cliffs, frequent cloud cover and other features very often found and this device might not be useful when it's really needed. Spot starts looking pretty flaky as a surefire option for location and rescue.

The flip side of this of course, is that if the hunter was pinging his wife his location 2X a day, she should have been able to inform Rangers of his last coordinates and made locating him somewhat easier. So even in the worst case of it working poorly it certainly can be useful in narrowing a search area down.

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