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Before you get lost, grab the right gear to get found

Most of us planning a hiking adventure off the beaten path often fantasize about the experience. We select a location, dream of all the sights and make sure our camera is charged. Rightfully so, and no one wants to think of a negative experience happening during their trip. Unfortunately, this is also when we fail to account for the exposure to potential dangers and take steps to prepare for it.

Planning to get out of a bad situation should always be high on your trip prep list. With the proper gear and planning you can take an active part in helping search and rescue teams find you should the need arise to request their assistance while on the trail.

Pre-trip planning

Calling for help during a wilderness emergency can be a true challenge. Remote locations, dead batteries, and damaged or lost cell phones can significantly affect the response time of search and rescue teams and getting help. One way to alleviate this is by using an overdue notice website such as HikerAlert.

HikerAlert is a web-based service that will automatically send text message alerts and emails to your designated emergency contacts if you don’t check in from an outdoor trip by your scheduled return time.

Hiker Alert

Developed by David Diaz in 2012, HikerAlert was a natural product of his unique combination of careers, and life-long love of the outdoors.

“In my 20’s, I was a full-time EMT/Paramedic, and I also volunteered for my local mountain SAR team,” Diaz said to Digital Trends. “I can’t tell you how many SAR missions could’ve been conducted quicker, safer and with better outcomes if the subjects would’ve simply left behind some details of their plans.”

Because HikerAlert is web-based, rather than a mobile app on your cell phone, you will never need to download or install updates, and you can access it on any internet capable device, including iPhones, Android phones, PC’s and tablets. So, even if your cell phone is unable to call for help, HikerAlert will still do its job.

“I can’t tell you how many SAR missions could’ve been conducted quicker, safer and with better outcomes if the subjects would’ve simply left behind some details of their plans.”

HikerAlert makes pre-trip planning simple. You voluntarily supply information such as the gear you are carrying, vehicle you are driving, hiking partners, dogs, and kids into your account. When you supply the trail information and location of your trip, HikerAlert recommends local first responder agencies in the area to contact during an emergency.

Lastly, schedule your overdue date and time. If you have not logged in to cancel the notification, HikerAlert will send you a text message and email to inquire if you have returned from your trip. If you do not respond, the system emails and text messages your trip details to your emergency contacts and advises them that you are overdue and to contact the suggested authorities.

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The subscription to the website is very affordable at only $5 annually and after the initial profile setup, is relatively user friendly.

“We don’t spend a penny on advertising of any kind, so we can keep our annual registration fee to an absolute minimum,” Diaz said. “We rely entirely upon organic search engine optimization, word-of-mouth, social sharing and positive reviews.”

Digital distress calls

As an avid hiker and backpacker, there is a constant struggle between necessity and weight when it comes to gear. Many of us will opt to pay more for the coolest and lightest weight gear only to have our pack weight’s efficiency robbed by other add-ons. Exercise careful scrutiny when determining what to take and what to cut from your packing list – especially with items related to first aid and rescue that are worth their weight in gold in a moment of need.

One of the most commonly referred to technologies for hiker reassurance in wilderness emergencies are portable location transmitters. The two most common are Personal Locator Beacons or PLB’s, and satellite messengers. Although both are portable transmitters, some important distinctions should be evaluated on an individual basis to determine if they are right for you.

PLB’s are high-powered devices designed primarily to send out an emergency distress signal. The distress signals are sent to orbiting satellites at 406 MHz, an internationally recognized distress frequency monitored by in the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. The AFRCC operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and serves as the single agency responsible for coordinating on-land federal search and rescue activities in the continental U.S., Mexico and Canada.

After receiving your transmission, these satellites calculate your location and relay it to the AFRCC, where search and rescue operations are initiated. When activated, a PLB not only sends a distress signal but a 121.5 MHz homing frequency as well. The initial 406 MHz signal from the satellite will get rescuers to within 2 miles of your position, then search and rescue teams will use a tracking device to home in on the 121.5 MHz frequency.

Personal Locator Beacons are very rugged and can operate in extreme conditions and generally only require a line of sight to the sky. These systems also do not require a subscription or monitoring fee beyond the purchase price of the original unit, which can be made at most outdoor retailors.

Much like PLBs, satellite messengers are handheld transmitting devices that are useful in backcountry areas far from reliable cell phone coverage. These devices allow you to communicate location coordinates or short text messages with friends or family back home, and in an emergency, request help. This allows for some non-emergency communication, which is not offered by a PLB.

Satellite messengers are GPS-based devices that rely on commercial satellite networks rather than the military network used by PLBs. Emergency calls on these networks are routed to privately run response coordination centers and require a subscription fee to use. The subscription terms, rates and reliability of satellite messengers do vary and should be researched prior to purchase.

Both of these options provide peace of mind and can significantly increase your odds of surviving a wilderness emergency.

Other gear considerations

Cell phones are one of the most common gear items on the trail, and rightfully so. Although cell service may be limited, there is still value to carrying one with you. For starters, due to FCC regulations, a cell phone, even one without a current service subscription, can always be used to call 911. Keep in mind that the GPS feature may not function to identify your location and there is no call back number associated with the phone. So, if you are disconnected you must make the call back to the 911 operator.

Cell phones are also a valuable tool to access information and can even be used to store maps, first aid instructions, and wilderness skills resources that can be accessed even when off line.

PLB’s are high-powered devices designed primarily to send out an emergency distress signal.

When outside your cell provider’s coverage area, your cell phone may still be used by search and rescue to establish your location. By analyzing digital exchanges between your phone and cell towers in the area, a forensic technician can calculate an area of focus for first responders to search.

Keep in mind that it is always a good idea to have other visual and audible distress signals with you at all times. For example, a signal mirror, or strobe light can help catch the attention of first responders as they get close to your location.

Many search and rescue personnel credit a basic whistle to more recoveries than any other single items. The sound of a whistle carries farther and uses much less energy to project than yelling.

Solar blankets are another great item to pack with you. They are light weight, and with a reflective coating, can be used for trail marking, signaling, and help keep you warm through the night.

Should I stay or should I go

When you realize you have lost your bearing or have suffered an injury that may prohibit you from returning to the trailhead, you must decide if staying at your current location is best or if looking for a trail out, signs of civilization, or a person to provide assistance would be better.

These are difficult decisions to make. Sometimes, staying put may leave you stranded in a dangerous situation while help is only miles away. Conversely, wandering around may make it harder to find you and get yourself even more lost. So, which approach is the best one to take?

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Ultimately, it depends in large part on factors unique to your situation.

It is important to familiarize yourself with a map of the area. Pay special attention to key terrain features such as a mountain peaks or waterways. Also, know where there are open areas to signal from or seen by searching aircraft, and where they are in proximity to your hiking route.

Are you in a vast wilderness area or in a comparatively smaller park that is only a few miles from civilization? The more manageable the surroundings, the more it is worthwhile to self-rescue.

One of the main reasons to stay put and wait for help is that someone else knows generally of your location and of your plans. When they realize that you have not returned, they will likely contact authorities and initiate a search. In this case, you are more likely to be found by trying not to wander.

The two biggest mistakes a hiker can make is over estimating their skill level and under-estimating the wilderness they are planning to explore. With the right planning and gear, you can mitigate these perils and maximize the enjoyment of your trip with peace of mind, knowing that help will be on its way if needed.