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THE PULSE - Your source for survival, skills, and more from Rocky Mountain Editor Steve Howe

New Year's Resolution: Learn to Use Your Safety Gear

With tales, and links to user manuals for map, compass, common beacons and GPS receivers

Big Wilderness, Little Human. Approaching Conness Lakes, Sierra High Route. Pic:

Three recent incidents illustrate a common phenomenon: Hikers not knowing how to use the equipment and skills they’ve got. Hey, we all get careless occasionally, but some of us get spanked much harder than others for the lapse. To wit:

Four times over the last half of December, rescue teams in Colorado had to chase after false Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) alerts that went off in the vicinity of Berthoud Pass, a popular roadside ski touring area in central Colorado. Each time, there was no emergency.

All alerts were from the same beacon, an older, non-gps-enabled model that only narrowed the search to a 12-mile radius. Local authorities assumed the alerts were from someone who didn’t know that PLBs mobilize everyone from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to the U.S. Air Force (Rescue) Coordination Center, to the local rescue team. They issued a press statement asking the person to call them for instructions, or stop using the device. The alerts stopped. Spank level: 0 of 1. Total skate.

On November 28th, Robert Sumrall, 67, got lost in sub-freezing conditions in New Mexico's remote Black Range despite being a fit, experienced hiker -  who’d been lost and found before by searchers. He carried food, water, a sweatshirt, jeans, a 38-caliber pistol, and a GPS, in part due to the previous search incident. Unfortunately, Sumrall got lost again, this time on a November/December hike at  8,200 feet elevation with no cold weather gear, flashlight, or firestarting materials. Searchers looked for seven days as 10 inches of snow fell on the region, temperatures plummeted to the high 20s, and winds hit 20 mph.

Sumrall apparently either couldn’t or didn’t  use the GPS  to retrace his way to trailhead, because he ended up nearly 15 miles from his parked car, and was found by sheer chance when two horseback riders discovered him rolling hypothermically in the sand just outside a cabin.  Sumrall had used his pistol to shoot off the cabin's doorknob and get inside, but was apparently too cold and dehydrated to light the wood stove, or find matches that were within arms reach. At the hospital, Sumrall’s core body temperature was 81 degrees. He spent weeks in intensive care. Imaginative newspaper articles credited Sumrall’s dog with the man’s survival because it was lying next to him, but ran off when rescuers arrived. Ironically, more people followed the search for the dog than Sumrall, but it was undoubtedly the cabin’s shelter – and blind luck -  that made the difference. Spank level: 9 of 10. As close as it gets.

On January 2nd, a volunteer trail-safety patroller for the for the East Bay Regional Park District, east of Oakland, California, got lost while hiking in Del Valle Regional Park near Livermore. Albert Rothman, 85, a seasoned hiker, left trailhead at 4 p.m. for a two- to three-hour patrol around 5-mile-long Del Valley Lake and the Ohlone Wilderness Trail. In winter, darkness falls on the region about 5:30 p.m. After Rothman failed to check back in, park officials launched a ground and air search. He was found about eight hours later after officials urged Rothman, via the park radio he carried, to shine a light into the air. Rothman’s keychain LED light alerted helicopter pilots to his location. While Rothman carried warm clothes, he had no real flashlight, or a cell phone, and didn’t know how to use the emergency radio he carried. Spank level: 2 of 10. Embarrassment.

And here's one for the head-shaker files: Last summer one experienced, ultralight PCT thru-hiker carried a SPOT beacon, and sent out several 911 ‘critical emergency’ messages when a long-predicted snowstorm made her hypothermic and scared. When morning sun arrived, she turned the unit off and blithely assumed everything was fine again. Searchers looked three days for her in remote circumstances. She was eventually discovered - by relatives who had traveled west to join the search - when they encountered her walking along Main Street in Bishop, California. Spank level: Not nearly enough, since her blog didn't even express embarrassment.

The common denominator here is people who carry emergency gear and don’t have a clue how to use it. It’s an all too common story. We Americans are a consumer culture, and we often define ourselves, sports-wise, by what we buy and own, rather than the skills we possess. It’s easy to purchase a shiny new toy that makes us feel rugged, prepared, or ultralight, but practicing with it is far less common.

So, sermon over. And since no blog has the space and time to provide instruction on every safety gadget out there, look below for links to the user manuals of common items like maps, compasses, beacons and GPS receivers. Then practice - in your car, on the sofa, while procrastinating in the office, or strolling your backyard. And if you know a friend who fits the bill like those above, do them a favor and forward this list. Hike safe out there. --Steve Howe

Map and compass use: interactive computer animation. Online tutorial. Best book.

SPOT Personal Tracker User Guide

SPOT 2 GPS Messenger User Guide

SPOT tracking application for mobile phones and iPhones

ACR MicroFix 406 MHz GPS PLB User Manual

Garmin GPS Manuals (choose your model)

Delorme GPS Manuals (choose your model)

Magellan GPS Manuals (choose your model)


Jan 13, 2010

I read stories about people who set these things off for the stupidest reasons when they are not in danger just scared, expending precious resources to others who actually need the saving. This is the default about these things is the user. I think there should be a consequence to those who repeatedly use these things for the wrong reasons just for the comfort of knowing that a rescuer will come to their aid. Maybe a person should be banned from camping in certain areas if the call for help occurs more than once in the same place. Just a thought stay out of the wilderness if you are not prepared like a responsible adult.

Kimberly Aardal
Jan 07, 2010

It is amazing how complacent and safe we can feel when we have all of our gadgets with us. Good stories to remind all of us to learn about the things we rely on to get us out of a jam.


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