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Satellite Devices Redefine Safety for Hikers

Pacific Northwesterners love two things: exploring the wilderness and playing with technology. No wonder we like these gizmos.

By Allison Williams August 10, 2022

Some satellite messengers, like the larger Garmin InReach, include maps for route finding.

What fits in the palm of your hand and went from a rare, expensive device to a must-have hiking gadget in just a decade? It's a satellite communicator, a piece of hardware that can connect a hiker, climber, four-wheeler, or boater from virtually anywhere. And they've changed the concept of going off the grid.

The two most commonly used satellite devices are the Garmin InReach and the Spot X messenger, both small gizmos meant to be carried in places where there's no cell service. Users pay a monthly fee to connect them to satellites, and they send only text messages; they're not sat phones. In the case of emergency they have an SOS button that alerts a central call center, that can then relay the location to emergency services. (Non-subscription versions exist, but don't allow for two-way communication; they're typically known as personal locator beacons.)

For King County Search and Rescue, messenger devices can change the course of their work. "One of the first steps that occurs [when someone activates a satellite communicator] is the company's emergency response center notes what state, what jurisdiction the person is in," says King County SAR volunteer and spokesperson Nathan Lorance. The company alerts emergency services, like the sheriff's offices or fire departments that coordinate SAR in Washington state. "That handoff is typically fairly quick," he says. "Not a matter of seconds, but it can be a few minutes."

What's more, a Spot X or InReach can then let the user communicate with a sheriff's deputy or SAR worker, letting them know if they're lost or hurt. Knowing the nature of say, an injury, is clutch. "We can scale our efforts to what that mission needs," says Lorance, choosing between SAR resources like a helicopter, or a team of volunteers to carry a person out, or just a responder to come fetch a lost but healthy hiker.

Garmin InReach reports that they've responded to more than 9,000 emergencies through its GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center since the device was launched in 2011. But more than 85 million messages have been sent through their devices in the past decade, the vast majority not involving the GEOS center or the SOS button. That's innumerable "I'll be late, but everything is fine" missives that kept loved ones back home from panicking.

With nine separate units—one for animal rescues, one that specializes in tracking skills, and so on—King County Search and Rescue does hundreds of missions every year. Lorance notes that the all-volunteer organization is always eager to respond to calls for help, but users may not expect how long it can take to reach a person in Washington's varied wilderness.

"We are blessed to have the expectation in our daily life, that we can call 911 and have a screaming red box outside our house in seven minutes," says Lorance. That's not the case in a wilderness SAR situation; even if King Country SAR utilizes its helicopter, he says, it can take half an hour to get it ready to fly. Satellite messengers enable communication, but the process is a lot slower than texting; they require line of sight to the sky and may only check for new messages every five or ten minutes. 

That's why, even as Washington hikers increasingly pack these devices, trying for phone service is usually the best first step. On many of the most popular local hikes along I-90, it's possible to reach 911 through a cell phone; it won't mean an ambulance arriving in seven minutes, but it is faster than the messenger method.

While satellite communicators have aided many SAR missions, they're also commonly used to let loved ones track a backpacking trip from back home, or send check-in messages. Along Washington hiking trails, it's increasingly common to see the little orange devices dangling from backpacks. Lorance carries one to reach his family when he's delayed. "Nice to have that feeling," he says, "for peace of mind."

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