Signaling devices let rescuers get quickly to injured, ill or lost hikers and other outdoor adventurers.

Share story

Lisa Jo Frech was five days into a 10-day, 170-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail near Washington’s Glacier Peak when she passed out. She’s an experienced hiker, had trained hard for the trail and was feeling strong up to that point.

Oh, well, she figured, sometimes people faint.

She walked on with her hiking partner for 8.5 more miles. Then she fainted again. Soon after, when her friend handed her a water bottle, she couldn’t even grasp it.

Her hiking companion set up camp, and they spent a rough night wondering what to do. They had a SPOT, a device that can use a satellite signal to request a rescue in the wilderness. Was it time to push the button?

The next morning, it was clear Frech wasn’t up to more hiking — she was repeatedly passing out. They carefully made their way to an open area at Kennedy Creek and decided to call for help.

Two and a half hours after they pushed the button, the Snohomish County Helicopter Rescue Team arrived. The crew quickly determined that Frech needed advanced medical care. She and her companion were airlifted to an ambulance and transferred to a hospital. Without the SPOT, they would likely have been stuck in the backcountry for days.

The SPOT is just one type of device that, through a satellite connection, can call for a rescue in the backcountry.

Miles Mcdonough, a member of the Snohomish County Helicopter Rescue Team, is a huge advocate for the devices. His reasons are personal as well as professional.

In 2011, Mcdonough fell while climbing on Mount Stuart in Chelan County. He suffered a concussion, broken shoulder, fractured ribs and punctured lung. His climbing partner had to leave Mcdonough on the mountain while he climbed and hiked out to call for a rescue.

Mcdonough spent the night on the mountain. It was 22 hours before he was in a hospital. With a beacon, he said, he could have been there in three hours.

Mcdonough does emphasize that beacons are only for true emergencies. To that end, it’s important to be well-equipped with the 10 essentials, and to have taken a wilderness first-aid course. That will give you the skills to assess whether you truly need a rescue.

There are a few different types of emergency locator beacons. All work using GPS and are capable of sending out SOS messages. If you push the emergency button, a command center is contacted with your location and personal information — entered online when you register your device. The center then contacts local authorities to begin the process of organizing a rescue.

Satellite messengers, such as the SPOT or DeLorme, require a subscription, on top of the cost of the device. They offer more features than personal locator beacons. You can set up tracking and custom messages so your family or friends can know you’re OK. The Delorme allows two-way communication. Prices start around $150 for SPOT, $300 for Delorme; subscription prices vary.

Personal locator beacons like the ACR use the military satellite system — a more extensive system than satellite messengers. The beacons require a one-time fee with no subscription. They are considered to be very reliable. They don’t offer tracking for families or friends. Unlike satellite messengers, they also emit a localized signal, which can help rescuers pinpoint your precise location. Costs start around $280.