A device of last resort

Trent Ernst, Editor


Adam Court, president of the Ridge Riders snowmobile club, says that satellite devices like the SPOT and the inReach are, by design, devices of last resort.

“These days, everyone is talking about the SPOTs and the DeLormes, but the biggest thing is you still have to plan your route,” says Court.

Which is not to say that you shouldn’t have one, just that too many people are looking at them like a magic genie: push this button and everything is going to be all right. “You need to know where you’re going and tell people where you’re going. If you get into trouble, you still have to stay out there until they find you. SAR is not going to come out at night to find you. It’s avalanche terrain, so they have to wait until morning until they come to get you.”

TR Search and Rescue manager Sarah Waters agrees. “People using SPOT devices should know that we do not have the capability locally to fly at night, which means that if you press the 911 button within one or two hours of dusk, there is a strong likelihood that you may need to spend the night where you are,” she says. “If we can get searchers safely to that location during the night, we will. And if we can’t get to you during the night, we will be planning through the night to have the fastest response possible response in the place the following morning.”

Waters says that pushing the 911 button is not like calling 911. “In a previous incident when the 911 button was pressed in the Tumbler Ridge area, the Texas call centre contacted Edmonton RCMP, who then contacted Grande Prairie, who then contacted the local detachment in Tumbler Ridge. The RCMP requested the assistance of SAR through the provincial Emergency Coordination Centre (ECC), located in Victoria. At that point, the ECC contacted the local SAR team to activate them. This process took a few hours.”

But as the devices mature, says local rider Jeff Cool, they are capable of doing far more than just alert Search and Rescue when you’re in trouble. “My wife now expects me to check in when I’m out.”

Cool has started uses the DeLorme inReach product, which he calls the “Cadillac” of these devices.

Rather than just send messages, the inReach allows two way communication. Cool also has a SPOT Connect that allows you to link it with a cell phone, turning your phone into a satellite communicator, but says the DeLorme is a lot simpler, as you only need the one device.

With a $30/month service fee, the inReach is more expensive than the SPOT, which costs $150 for an annual subscription, but it is also far more useful, says Cool. “I take it with me everywhere, snowmobiling, ATVing, even when I’m going on a trip in the car.”

The latest edition of the inReach is called the inReach SE, or screen edition.

In addition to having a dedicated SOS button, the inReach allows you to compose, send and receive 160 character text messages.

The newest SPOT device, the Gen3, has five buttons: the SOS button sends a red flag warning to the company that monitors the SPOT system. A second button sends a message to your emergency contact saying: “I’m in trouble but it’s not life-threatening, send help, here’s my coordinates.”

A third button sends an your GPS coordinates along with an “everything is okay” message. The fourth does the same, but with a custom message you’ve set up beforehand.

Finally, the last button sets the SPOT to automatically upload your GPS location to your personal spot page so friends and family can keep track of your location.

The newest inReach has a colour screen and virtual keyboard, like a modern smartphone. Even the SOS button is interactive, allowing you to upload specific information to the monitoring centre.

Which of these devices is best for you? The SPOT has fewer features but is less expensive. It only allows for one way communication, so if your spouse wants you to pick up some milk on your way home, she’s out of luck.

However, the SPOT is an annual contract. If all you do is snowmobile, or if all you do is hike, you can chose to enable the inReach for one four-month season. And you do get two-way messaging with the inReach, which some people will find invaluable.

However, while both products provide a fantastic service for backcountry travellers, the best bit of safety gear is your head. “You don’t go into places where you’ll get into trouble. There’s a point where people have the choice to press on or turn around. The one’s who get into trouble are the ones who keep pushing it and pushing it,” says Court. “In the backcountry if you’re gut instinct tells you this could be bad, it’s usually right.”