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October 2006

The Big Question: Rescue Tools

If you need to be rescued, is a satellite phone a better choice than a personal locator beacon?

YES While a PLB screams for help in an efficient manner–just activate and it sends a distress call–that’s all it does. With a satellite phone, on the other hand, you can tell rescuers the nature and seriousness of the situation. Partner comatose from a head injury? Broken back? Bring ropes or you can’t reach me? A sat phone lets you communicate all of this and more, even the more embarrassing but equally useful message: Abort the rescue, I found the trail.

Satellite phones have excellent coverage throughout North America and most of the world. I’ve found signals to be robust everywhere but in narrow canyons and under thick tree cover. The rechargeable batteries last for 2 to 4 hours of talk time and hold a charge for weeks, and the phones are easily protected with a waterproof, padded case.

Basic sat phones rent for $20 to $50 a week and sell for as little as $325. When travelling with a sat phone, you must know or preprogram the relevant local phone numbers (911 doesn’t work), but you can also call home and have friends or relatives contact the authorities.

I’m not knocking PLBs as a emergency resource in remote, ultra-committing situations. If you’ll be camping in 40°F temps or treading salt water until help arrives, get a PLB. For everything else, I’ll opt for the two-way communication of a sat phone.

Steve Howe is BACKPACKER’s Rocky Mountain editor. He spends about 120 nights a year in a tent as far away from civilization as he can get.

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