The Case For Common Sense

Abby Flantz and Erica Nelson received recent notoriety because of the four day search that was conducted for them in the Denali National Park area this past week. Thankfully, both ladies were found alive and in good heath, and were reunited with their families within the past twenty-four hours. Sometimes, things do end well. However, this case and others recent cases like it have begun to bother me somewhat. 

I’ve scoured the news releases on this particular case to try and find specific information regarding how they navigated and what their experience level was before heading off into the park. The most that I could find was that they were “experienced hikers” and that they supposedly had a compass. But, for the life of me, I don’t know how experienced hikers with any kind of knowledge or preparation could really walk around like that for four days.

In my mind, “experienced hikers” would not have gotten into such a situation. This wasn’t a case of where they were attacked by a grizzly with no provocation and grievously injured. Nor did a two-thousand pound boulder fall and trap them in a ravine. And, it wasn’t a case where they get caught on a mountain by a freak winter storm that blew in without warning. They just kind of wandered around and got lost. That’s it. So, because of that, four days were spent searching for these ladies at the cost of volunteer efforts and of taxpayer money which has been estimated to be around $120,000.00. Another fact worth noting is the the worry and grief of family members during the period of time during which the search was conducted.

Aside from the monetary losses and the worry for the family, there is also the risk to volunteers, pilots, and other rescue personnel. Any time in the air or out in the wilderness poses risks to rescuers—not to mention those efforts and resources could be diverted from other, more necessary emergencies. So, in my opinion, situations such as this that could easily be avoided with simple planning and preparation grind on my nerves just a bit for the reasons mentioned above.

Don’t misunderstand my intentions with this article. I’m glad the two young ladies were found in good health, and as they say, hindsight is always 20/20. But there was a case last year where a computer gear writer and his family was lost in the wilderness in their car during a winter storm, but really had no emergency supplies in their vehicle for bad times. That case came to mind when I read about these two ladies being lost and I can’t help thinking that several steps could have been taken to avoid much of the activity and worry that took place during the past week.

Basic experience with a compass and a topographic map would probably have precluded the pair of backpackers from getting lost in the first place. Rather than just using a park map or “winging it” by following trails, there should have been some attention paid to the directions they were heading and making sure they had some reference points for their return. In some of the articles referencing the rescue of these two ladies, it was pointed out that much of the park is unmarked and trails are very difficult to find or follow. This would have been revealed with the right amount of research and preparation before the trip.

When in an area that one is not intimately familiar with, there should be a plan for navigation and there should exist the ability to execute that plan. First, and foremost, is skill with a compass and map to find one’s way in the wilderness. Orienteering 101 should be one of the primary things a person learns before heading into any kind of wilderness situation. There are plenty of resources available for folks to learn orienteering. They can be found online, in libraries and book stores, and there are actually quite a few groups and clubs that teach this skill for free. There’s really no reason to not have that basic knowledge when adventuring in the outdoors.

But even without the orienteering experience a person should have before venturing into wilderness areas, there are still other alternatives available to compensate for that lack of skill or knowledge. First, is a GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) system and second, is a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). The one thing that helped in finding these two ladies was that officials were able to roughly triangulate their position because of their cell phone signal that the ladies were able to emit at some point. That’s some of our excellent technology at work right there. However, it took four days of searching and a particular moment in time for the ladies to find a spot where they could get a signal, and a little help from Lady Luck.

Handheld GPS systems use orbiting satellites around the earth to constantly track and measure a person’s position on the planet in relation to the position of those satellites. It’s basically the same type of triangulation procedure that officials used with the ladies’ cell phones. However, the signals are much easier to receive in the wild since they come from orbiting satellites overhead and do not rely on the existence of cell-phone towers to relay signals. Ms. Flantz and Ms. Nelson were very lucky to find a spot where they could get a cell phone signal that authorities could use to track their location.

Almost all of the recent GPS models allow the user to set waypoints and create routes on the handheld devices. It allows for a person to not only periodically mark where they have been, which direction they are going, but it also allows for them to backtrack on the path as well. There are many models today that use color screens in conjunction with different map styles (i.e. city street, topographic, etc) to show a person their exact position in relation to specific landmarks or waypoints. Some of the more advanced models will also give measurements for altitude, speed of travel, barometric pressure and so forth. Today’s GPS devices are very durable, and they are very accurate in their ability to show a person’s position. In fact, with the new WAAS (GPS Assistance system) standard, a person’s position can be narrowed down to less than three meters.

Having one of these devices and just a modicum of knowledge would have allowed these two ladies to exit the wilderness in a much quicker fashion than they did. Two major suppliers of outdoors GPS devices include Magellan and Garmin. Personally, I have a Garmin 60CSx which is an outstanding GPS device that is waterproof, very rugged, and allows me to do a multitude of functions including transporting data from the device over to my home computers. It also allows for memory expansion with the addition of larger capacity memory cards. Right now, I’ve got very detailed mapping capacity for the eastern half (east of the Mississippi River) of the United States. For more information on GPS devices for the trail, I would encourage you to visit Magellan’s or Garmin’s websites as they are both top-tier producers of GPS systems.

Finally, there’s yet another alternative. I understand that there are some people who have a hard time with orienteering or that just don’t take to high-tech devices where you have punch buttons and navigate through menus and sub-menus. My mother is one of those people that has problems with high-tech things like GPS devices and email. I’ll also admit that while I have basic skills with map and compass, I could certainly be much better educated. So for those folks that don’t really have the capacity or even want to take the time to learn such skills or use those high-tech gadgets, there are the Personal Locator Beacons.

Personal Locator Beacons are high-tech, but they are very simple to use. These devices use overhead satellites much like GPS devices, but they essentially serve a different purpose. Instead of you knowing and seeing your position on a screen (like with a GPS device) your P.L.B. sends out a signal that lets other people know your position. If you are lost or just injured and unable to move, you grab the P.L.B. and flip a switch. That’s it! Once you flip that switch, your unit sends a signal out and it is received by the satellite system that forwards your “call for help” to the appropriate authorities and your unit serves as the focal point for the satellite system to triangulate on your exact position. Once done, authorities are able to hone in on your location with relative ease and in a much quicker time-frame than the four days it took to find the two ladies in Denali. It should be kept in mind, however, that P.L.B.s should only be activated in true emergencies and not used for “test runs” while you’re out in the woods. As mentioned earlier, rescue efforts are very costly to undertake.

I would like to mention that P.L..B.s really shouldn’t be your main line of defense when it comes to navigating unknown areas. Like most practices in the wilderness, there should be redundancy and layers for each need (such as fire-building, shelter-making, water filtration, etc.). In the military, there is an expression that goes “Two is one, and one is none.”—meaning always have a back-up. P.L.B.s should be your last resort measure under a layered approach to navigating safely. You should take all the normal precautions of checking in with the ranger station to file your plan, and you should let family members and friends know your route and the amount of time you’ll be gone. Along with that, you should develop your skills with a compass and map and add that back-up protection of a GPS system. You can get a quality compass for just a few dollars, and the prices of basic GPS systems today are well within reach of the average consumer—especially those that can afford $400 backpacks, $300 sleeping bags, and $100 cook sets, and $350 tents.

But, as that last resort, P.L.B.s can really be a life-saver if you do get lost in a rugged area or if you sustain an injury where the time to your rescue is critical to save your life. Not to mention the fact that having such a device would cut the search and rescue time down to almost nothing in comparison to the four day search by authorities that just recently occurred. It would save taxpayers a tremendous amount of money, and it would save family members a lot of grief.

While I would not presume to begin to offer advice on the best P.L.B. on the market, I can tell you where to get the best information. One of the most authoritative sites on P.L.B.s can be found at Equipped To Survive which is a website established many years ago by Doug Ritter. Doug is a recognized expert in the field of air and sea rescue and preparedness. He has devoted a significant time to reviewing and preparing equipment used by folks around the world whose lives depend on the gear they choose. Doug has also spent a lot of his time lobbying for the common use of P.L.B.s in situations as we’ve just discussed. His site is full of information including the technology and reviews of certain brands and I encourage you to visit his site and really take the time to dig through the massive amount of information he has posted over the years.

I know there’s a lot of information that I’ve listed above, but I haven’t even really scratched the surface of the knowledge and technology that’s out there to help people stay safe and keep from getting lost in the outdoors. There’s a lot that can be learned, and there are sure-fire methods to layer your methods to navigation to ensure that you’ve got at least one back-up plan. Sure, we could all go absolutely nuts and carry five kinds of maps, three compasses, two GPS units, three sets of backup batteries, four signal mirrors, six aerial wilderness flares, and a couple of P.L.B.s thrown into the mix along with a Satellite phone that costs $10.00 a minute to use. That’s not what I’m trying to say with this column. I’m just offering the position that there’s a medium in between what I just listed above and wandering around for four days. Think about it.

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