Why You Should Never Adventure without a GPS Messenger Device

A pseudo-Luddite's journey to never leaving home without technology

By: Rickey Minder
July 20, 2016

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“If we don’t see you by dinner on Sunday, we are sending in help.” This is what my parents used to say to us as we headed off into the back country. Not returning, was and still is, the greatest of risks for the outdoorsman. But a risk that many accept, for a remote, romantic rendezvous with mother nature. Then there is the likes of my husband, who is sure to remind me, as I head off on a solo backpacking trip… "You are invincible, until you’re not.”

It wouldn’t seem a dilemma for most, but when my loved ones begged me to start carrying a GPS messenger, I put it off as long as I could. I am, by nature, something of a Luddite, and typically avoid anything that reeks of a bandwagon. It seems ridiculous now, after my time spent on this article, but I was terrified that being “connected” would alter my experience on the trail for the worse. In a world where technology rules everything why, oh why, would I want it seeping into the one place I go to get away from it. What would Everett Ruess had done had his mother demanded he run out and purchase a GPS messenger? 

If statistics sway you, you’ll most likely be running to grab your device tomorrow, because SPOT averages 2 rescues per day. TWO! Even when the numbers are crunched and the statistics point the way, the faithful pessimist in me always digs a bit deeper. So I called up the crew at SPOT and they put me in touch with one of their ambassadors and a client who has used the SOS feature. 

First stop, Washington. Don Chayette, SPOT ambassador, kayaker & owner of Seattle Adventure Sports, he has been using GPS and location devices since 2011 for both personal and business purposes. From his first big trip in Alaska to his 37 day circumnavigation of Vancouver Island in 2014, Don’s SPOT devices are always at arms length. He has thankfully never had to utilize the SOS feature, but fully utilizes all the other functions on both personal and business outings. He is an expert in all things SPOT and I learned a trick or two as how to use it to it’s fullest potential. On some trips, Don utilizes his custom message button as an alternative “help” call to select friends and family. Which is essentially a “nothing urgent, but please come” call. Those friends and family members already have a plan in place if he were to send that message. In the middle of our chat, Don sold me on a SPOT with one phrase, “it doesn't ruin my wilderness experience in the least, it gives me the freedom to go further than I may have before, while keeping safety at arms length.” This is the moment SPOT became this girls best friend. Take me further away from the crowds, still have a sense of safety and give my loved ones a sense of peace? But don’t sign me up yet, just one more interview.

Second stop, Florida. Garrett Atkinson utilized his SOS feature in 2008 during a trip to Colorado. On day two of a four day backpacking trip, Garrett awoke from a sleepless night on which he battled symptoms of HAPE. That morning he was having a terrible time putting together thoughts and experienced dizziness that rendered him unable to walk. At an attempt to reset, he took a nap but awoke in the same state. With many miles and several passes still ahead of them, Garrett hit the SOS button in what he called a, “to hell with it,” moment. He instantly regretted calling for help and tried to cancel (which, lucky for him doesn’t work). During what Atkinson described as a “come with me if you want to live scene,” he was lifted off the mountain in a helicopter which arrived about 3 hours after he pressed his SOS button. A quick side note and thank you to Garrett, who has inspired me to adopt the following policy in my own home. Garrett files a “hiking plan” with his wife before trips. If need be, which happened that day, she has all important information at her fingertips to help the authorities in anyway she can. Garrett was indeed suffering from HAPE and had it not been for his SPOT, the outcome could have been tragic. Healthy blood saturation levels are 95-98% and even after an hour of being on oxygen, Garrett’s levels were only in the 70th percentile.

To be entirely candid, soon after speaking with Don, I picked up my SPOT. By the time I connected with Garrett, I was a few weeks into packing along my own little orange trail companion. Even then, Garrett said something, that eased the tinge of bitterness I had at relinquishing my tech free ways. I asked Garret if he felt that the presence of technology had made his outdoor experience somehow less pure. He answered with this, “I get the feeling sometimes that my life has limited value except as an extension of a computer (now that I have children, some of this feeling has abated, but it's still here occasionally). I spend my life staring at a computer screen. But there are no computers on the trail, and if you get remote enough, your cell phone, mercifully, doesn't work either. You talk, read, think, pray, meditate. Packing an orange button (SPOT) hasn't changed that much, except that it makes others worry a little bit less about me. That safety net would disappoint Alexander Supertramp, but then, I'd prefer not to end up like he did anyway!”

There it was. It’s as if Garrett could sense the stubbornness tucked away in me parallel to that of Chris McCandless. I must agree, I also do not want to die on one of my great adventures. That is, not until I walk off into the abyss in my late 90s to find my spot (no pun intended) to lie down and return to mother earth.

I can’t help but end with a plea to the newbie explorer. With social medias recent fascination with the great outdoors, I see time and time again people on the trail who have no idea where they are going other than a note or two copied from a blog somewhere. Mother nature is not to be taken lightly. Many, many lives have been lost or forever changed in the palm of her hands. Technology has an appropriate place in your outdoor experience, and even I, a stubborn pseudo-Luddite, would say a location device is an entirely appropriate addition to all of your adventures. However, knowledge about the land you are about to explore, as well as when it is time to call for help, is priceless and not always contained in second hand internet information. Do your research, know where you are headed and be as prepared as one could be.

As for my new relationship with my SPOT Gen 3… My life and the peace of mind of my loved ones is worth far more than $20 a month, but I am entirely grateful for the bargain.

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.