True North Blog

Communicating from the Backcountry

Communicating from the backcountry for non-emergency reasons is a real challenge.  Heck, that is an understatement.  More to the point, unless you have a satellite telephone, very often one is simply cut off from the frontcountry world.  Yes, of course, cellular coverage in remote settings has vastly grown in the last ten years, but it is still limited, and it is worse for those (like me) who use smartphones.  However, thanks to a new generation of Personal Locator Beacons (PLB) this is beginning to change.

Historically, PLBs have been used solely for emergencies.  They are designed so that in case of an emergency, no matter how remote the location, one can signal for assistance with just a click of a button.  Not all products are created equally, though, as some of the more popular ones have technical limitations, thus giving a false sense of security.  Arguably the best and most dependable PLBs are made by ACR which solely uses satellites to communicate an emergency signal and identify the location.  In the last thirty years, their PLBs have been credited for saving more than 28,000 lives.  Still, such products didn’t offer any other communication options.

However, this has begun to change.  Last year, PLB manufacturers started to offer products that allow the user to not only send an emergency distress call, but also to send non-emergency email or texts — and all using satellites, not just cellular towers.

The first on the market was the SPOT “Connect Satellite Communicator” which pairs with a compatible smartphone app.  This lets the user send predefined text messages to select friends, plus post to social media like Facebook and Twitter.

Recently, Delorme, widely known for its GPS units, began advertising its “InReach.”  Basically, it operates just like the SPOT, except that  it can send both texts and emails, and they need not be predefined.

This all sounds great, but I am not sure that I am completely on-board yet.  I need to do a bit more research about their technical abilities … and limitations.  Also, while the products themselves are priced fairly reasonably (about $100 for the SPOT and around $250 for the InReach), one needs to subscribe to a monthly price plan … which adds up quickly!

Still, for our True North multi-day course and trips, it would be nice for students and staff to be able to reliably communicate for general purposes.  So stay tuned for upcoming reviews about these products!

Erik Kulick leaning aginst wall with True North badge on blue shirt

About the Author

Erik is the founder of True North Wilderness Survival School. He is a police officer, EMS provider, a Wilderness EMT, and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine. He has been featured in national and international media, including CNN, the Associated Press, and Backpacker. To learn more about Erik, visit him on LinkedIn and be sure to follow him on Facebook and YouTube.

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