Ramble On

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tech-watch geek: Those GPS Trek-tools

This post is not exactly about a tech watch, but I’m categorizing it with that label, since it is about similar gear.

Yesterday my buddy Chris told me he was looking into a "Spot" GPS tool yesterday – these are the devices that can journalize your location on a map, and also send out a 9-1-1 call if you run into an emergency. Coincidentally, I came across this interesting news story about using the locators on Sunday.

“FRESNO, Calif. - Last month two men and their teenage sons tackled one of the world's most unforgiving summertime hikes: the Grand Canyon's parched and searing Royal Arch Loop. Along with bedrolls and freeze-dried food, the inexperienced backpackers carried a personal locator beacon — just in case.

In the span of three days, the group pushed the panic button three times, mobilizing helicopters for dangerous, lifesaving rescues inside the steep canyon walls.

What was that emergency? The water they had found to quench their thirst "tasted salty."
If they had not been toting the device that works like “Onstar” hikers, "we would have never attempted this hike," one of them said after the third rescue crew forced them to board their chopper. It's a growing problem facing the men and women who risk their lives when they believe others are in danger of losing theirs.”

By the way, from the NPS Grand Canyon website, here are the warnings about the Royal Arch Loop trail: “…The Royal Arch Loop is appropriate for experienced canyon hikers only, walkers who have paid their dues and acquired the appropriate wilderness skills, whose experience allows proper rigging of rappel anchors, and who can easily and safely rope down vertical cliffs. For such people the Royal Arch Loop offers a top drawer canyon adventure, replete with more natural beauty than humans can absorb. For those lacking the required skill and judgment this hike offers about a million ways to get into serious trouble in a remote part of the Grand Canyon.”

I’ve actually been thinking about these products to add to my gear while I continue exploring the hikes of Shenandoah National Park. I’ve enjoyed posting hike reviews on the Hawksbill Cabin site and have even considered compiling them into some sort of a guide, recognizing that they need a bit of technical enhancement information that gear like this could provide.

In my research I checked the Outside magazine gear guide to see if any of these accessories were reviewed or recommended there – none were. Chris had read a number of reviews, most of which indicated that there was trouble with the devices – not in the emergency call mode, but because the map tracking element failed to transmit – something you wouldn’t find out about until you returned from your adventure. Imagine returning from your once in a lifetime trip (one that you were well prepared for, not like our hikers above) only to find the GPS marker from where you saw the grizzly on Denali hadn’t been recorded, or your swordfish mark off Saipan was not to be found?

Maybe it’s a gene pool thing, heading out unprepared like this, trusting in one’s own resourcefulness to stay safe, but it’s just common sense to realize that these devices aren’t going to replace good preparation for a rigorous hike. That’s coming from someone who won’t even do Old Rag without a shakedown hike to prepare – and it is patrolled by qualified volunteers (see http://oldragpatrolsbyrsl-blook.blogspot.com/ for more information about what these folks do). It can't be underestimated, how important it is to know your own limits and limitations.

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