How to stay safe in the wilderness

The beginnings of the East Fire on Aug. 25 (Credit Jim Burns)

As regular readers of this blog know, I had a scare several weeks ago when I hiked back down from a local stream to the parking lot here in Southern California — plumes of smoke rose about a quarter mile down the road. A narrow bridge connects this parking lot to the also narrow main road. 

I raced to get in my car and get out as fast as I could. Only a couple of years ago, another fire, the Bobcat, decimated a nearby fishing stream I’ve gone to for some 30 years. 

As I passed the intensely hot fire, still small, I asked a couple watching it burn if they had “called it in,” meaning contacted 911. They said, “No signal.” My cell didn’t have a signal either and it wasn’t until I’d drive about 10 miles down the canyon that I got one. By that point, green forest service trucks with the lights and sirens flashing were making their way up to the fire. 

That one has been put out, but I saw in the news another has just started basically in the same mountainous, very dry brush area.

A friend of mine recently said, “After all the fires of the last few years, we all have PTSD when it comes to flames and smoke.”

I never thought of it in that way, but I’ll tell you my heart was racing as I drove over the parking lot bridge, worried for myself and the hikers still somewhere on the trail.  

As I passed the first green Forest Service emergency vehicle on the way down, I wondered who had called 911 – and how?

For answers, I turned to the Trout Unlimited Trout Community Forum, which includes many dedicated and knowledgeable anglers from around the country. I include some of their responses below.

By far the forum’s most popular company that gives fly fishers the ability to contact the outside world in case of an emergency is Garmin. This Swiss-based company began by providing consumers with GPS for autos in 1989, a market that largely dried up with the advent of the IPhone.

Today, the company offers lots of tech for everyone, including gear that gives bicyclists emergency “crash detection” if they have an accident and need help, motorcyclists a reason to not use their cellphones on the road, truck drivers cozy headphones and runners a smarter screen on their sports watches.

For fly fishers and those who enjoy the wilderness out of cell range, Garmin offers peace of mind, as commenter Jeff Greenberg wrote on the forum:

“Can only echo previous comments regarding the Garmin InReach. We bought ours after my wife had a run-in with a rattlesnake on a hiking trail in Arizona and she carries is with her when she hikes.”

Closer to home, Tim Huckaby wrote a harrowing rescue story about a juvenile rattlesnake bite during this year’s annual trip of the San Diego Fly Fishers to the Upper Kern. With the help from two Garmin InReach devices, a young man was helicoptered to a hospital and is alive today.

Garmin offers different models, all lightweight and compact. The main feature of the InReach is its emergency SOS, if you need help, but there is also a track back feature, in case you get lost, as well as different levels of battery life, which can be important for back-country fishers who will be off grid for an extended period. The company the battery life will last for two weeks.

Although reasonable for some, others complained the Garmin is too expensive – The Mini is about $400 with plans ranging from $11.95 a month for the Safety plan, $24.95 for Recreation and $49.95 for the Expedition.  

A relative newcomer to the two-way satellite space is SPOT X, which has stepped up its game since 2007, when, according to Switchback Travel, they were made famous (or infamous) early on for their implication in accidental SOS calls and non-emergent rescue initiations. The device offers rescue services and messaging to your contact list over satellite. The cheapest plan is $11.95, with Spot Gen 4 costing $170. It’s battery life, according to the company, is 240 hours.

“You can also send a text for help in a non-life-threatening situation such as a vehicle breakdown,” wrote Rob Murthiah on the forum. “SPOT has insurance and will come retrieve you or your vehicle in most places in the world.”

Cellphones are the great business disrupters of our age and I’m sure both Garmin and SPOT execs are wondering how the new IPhone 14 will affect sales to wilderness lovers.

The latest IPhone release includes two-way emergency satellite communication, with the caveat that you need to point the phone at the satellite to get a connection. Apple also includes location tracking date for free the first two years.

According to its release notes, the average emergency message takes less than 15 seconds to send, if you have a clear view of the sky. The user holds the phone in the air, and it finds a satellite so you can communicate with rescuers and share your location.

The price, including trade-in of your old phone, is $799, off contract, and before trade in, which will bring it under $500.

Also, on the horizon, T-Mobile and Starlink are joining up to offer emergency text communication through its satellite network.

Another forum user is a CB radio operator and reminded us that a vhf/uhf is also an option, if the area you’re in has radio coverage. Also, remember that ham operators need a license.

My brush with that wildfire convinced me to invest in one of these systems and I’m thinking seriously about SPOT.

One forum user, however, remained unconvinced, even in the face of all of this new tech. “Sticking with smoke signals,” he wrote.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

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