I’m a gadget guy. Shiny objects distract me. I buy all the newest gizmos, and if it begins with the prefix “smart-,” I probably own two. So it’s surprising that I won’t leave the trailhead without my McMurdo FastFind 220, a clunky personal locator beacon that I’ve carried for 12 years—but have never used.
I came close, once: The summer after high school, I planned a 100-miler across Yosemite, from Sonora Pass to Happy Isles. My mom was leery of the idea—broken ankles and hungry bears headlined her list of fears. Of course, having a teenage son who wanted to exercise his independence in Muir’s country seemed preferable to other forms of rebellion, so she relented. She bought me the FastFind 220 and dropped me and two friends, Joel and John, off at the trailhead.
We circled granite domes, plunged into evergreen-studded canyons, and camped each night beside remote lakes, the FastFind 220 hanging from my pack all the while. It was an amazing, life-altering trip, but it wasn’t easy, and we paid for it in body parts: After 50 miles, John’s feet were covered in blisters—the deep, subcutaneous, festering kind—from toe to heel. The guy could barely walk.
And so, a reckoning. We could activate the FastFind 220 and initiate a rescue, but I was trying to prove to my mom—and myself—that I could handle a trip like this. Instead, Joel and I divided John’s load between us, and we began to walk very slowly, even carrying him at points like a human throne. We inched 15 miles south over two agonizing days to White Wolf Campground in the northern part of Yosemite, where we dialed 1-800-COLLECT on a payphone to summon a ride.
Since then, the FastFind 220 has offered more than peace of mind to my mom. It has given me the confidence to plan bigger trips—like thru-hiking the Sierra and an off-trail epic near Mt. Whitney. It also reminds me to plan and approach each backcountry outing with obsessive care, lest I overlook something and find myself in trouble farther down the trail.
There are newer and shinier options out there, but none of those beacons are tied to my past. It’s still the best piece of gear I’ve never used.