Of Boneheads and Beacons

Two news shorts on gas canister craziness and a cheap new PLB

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Gaaah! I’m gone for five measly days and my e-mail inbox is filled with little red exclamation points, DHL couriers are demanding ‘power of attorney’ (fat chance) just so I can receive a test mini-computer from Korea, and my health insurance premiums jumped $92/month – again. It’s all I can do not to turn right around and run screaming back into the woods. Since things are a little hectic at present, here are two tidbits to keep you insatiable readers happy until I regain my composure or decide to vanish like D.B. Cooper, whichever comes first.

Three hikers injured by gas canister explosion

Three students from a Wisconsin school were injured in the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness of Michigan when they built a campfire in an approved fire pit near the mouth of the Little Carp River. It turns out someone had buried a butane fuel canister in the pit, probably on purpose. Amazingly, no one was killed.


I’ve heard of similar incidents involving bullets and shotgun shells. And during one particularly foolish party I was involved in two years ago, me and my fellow researchers found that full beer bottles tossed into a fire behaved in similar anti-personnel fashion. Since copycat crimes are a big deal here in the U.S., I recommend y’all dig around in any fire pits or fire circles before combusting cellulose – especially on shorter hikes and in front-country areas where bonehead vandals tend to swarm.

If you don’t, here’s what you might get. Back in my Andean climbing days, our Peruvian basecamp porters thought tossing Camping Gaz cartridges into fire pits was huge sport. The results were spectacular, and spectacularly dangerous. It goes like this: (DO NOT try it BTW!) Toss can in fire. Dive behind boulder. Count to 10 or 15. (Maybe, no guarantees.) Then WHUMP! You’d get a huge orange fireball 20 feet across, the concussion would smack your eardrums, and you could see little puffs of dust where canister fragments blasted the dirt. This was followed by 10 seconds of stunned silence until the main canister chunks fell back down out of orbit and clanged onto the boulder field.

So, it’s worth being paranoid about your campfire building until any news buzz from this incident dies down – especially up dere in da “U.P.” eh?

Inexpensive Personal Locator Beacon halves the cost for a GPS-enabled PLB

Satellite-based Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are the most secure way to signal for emergency help in remote wilderness. While sat phones, cell phones and SPOT beacons can all save your bacon too (and offer more communications potential) the strong 5-watt signal produced by a PLB can penetrate canyons and tree cover more readily. PLBs with onboard GPS (the only kind worth carrying, IMO) not only transmit a help signal, but encode your location into the transmission, allowing rescuers to virtually eliminate searching time.

But GPS-enabled PLBs cost $600 or more, a steep hurdle for many hikers who really ought to be carrying a beacon. Just recently, however, the Federal Communications Commission approved U.K. company McMurdo’s new FastFind 210, a GPS-enabled PLB that weighs 5 ounces and costs $299.

At present that’s the smallest, lightest, cheapest PLB available. It also has a push-button LED light for night signaling. On the downside, the FastFind 210 doesn’t float, so it’s probably not the unit for sea kayakers. And gearheads should realize that all PLBs have zero toy potential. Triggering false PLB alarms is a federal felony, and to activate the FastFind you have to break a tamper-proof antenna seal.

Still, serious trekkers and adventurers need to start considering beacons as mandatory equipment, just like bike helmets. Now your reasons for not carrying a PLB just got cut in half. The FastFind 210 is already available at U.S. online retailers and REI.

Hike safe out there. –Steve Howe