Thursday, March 1, 2007

Locator beacons for everyone!

Posted by: Andrew Engelson at 12:58PM on Feb 26, 2007 in the Washington Trails Association Signpost

Should all hikers carry locator beacons?

In Friday's Seattle Times, columnist Nicole Brodeur said they should. Her column was in reaction to news that a rented locator beacon helped save three climbers lost on Mount Hood earlier this month.

Responding to a bill in the Oregon state legislature that would require beacons for all climbers in Oregon, Brodeur takes the idea a step further:

"Why split hairs over elevation or season? The locators should be added to every gear list handed out to hikers in the Northwest. How hard would it be to add an 8-ounce locator in with a plan, a map, a compass, a pocketknife, waterproof matches, a first-aid kit, a flashlight, a cellphone, batteries and rain gear?"

How hard would it be?

Personal locator beaconWell, first of all, after making calls to several outdoor gear shops, I could find no one who rents locator beacons in Washington state. Yes, you can rent them for relatively little at Mount Hood, but search and rescue and the Forest Service there have set up a complex system, including the equipment to track the beacons--which apparently is quite expensive. The scale and cost of what Brodeur glibly suggests is quite staggering.

And who would enforce this? And what would define a "hiker?" Anyone entering wilderness? Or would a family out for a 1-mile stroll at Twin Falls be required to make a stop at REI to rent a beacon? What if they're out of beacons for the weekend? Would you have to stay home? And would a trail runner at Tiger Mountain need one too? What about urban hikers in Seattle's Discovery Park? Why split hairs over elevation, after all?

And purchase a unit? Not many will be able to afford them at $450 a pop.

The trouble with Brodeur's suggestion, and with the Oregon beacon legislation, is that it oversimplifies the problem of getting lost during outdoor recreation. Beacons are seen as the easy "pill" to fix the problem. These sorts of proposals ignore other, more complex measures that could truly help prevent rescues: carrying the ten essentials, leaving your trip plans with someone you know, calling ahead for weather conditions, taking classes in routefinding and wilderness first aid, and knowing when to turn back when you're in over your head.

Beacons could also promote a false sense of security. That's why even some folks at SAR are hesitant about requiring beacons. A recent AP story quotes Charley Shimanski, an official with the national Mountain Rescue Association:

"They might think, `I've got this gizmo that tells everybody where I am, so I can take greater risks.'"

Locator beacons are not an easy fix.

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