Wilderness smarts with satellite technology
Two years ago my brother and I set out to check off a major bucket list item: hiking the Comox Glacier on Vancouver Island. It was something we had wanted to do for over a decade. The day we set out, a thick layer of mist hung low over Strathcona Provincial Park. As a purely recreational hiker I was all too happy to charge my outdoorsy older brother with organizing the equipment, food, communications and navigation. (Don’t feel bad for him, he’s a forestry professional who traverses some of the province’s most remote forests.) We arrived in the parking lot, loaded our packs, paid the park fees and off we went.
Not long into the hike I was already enjoying some deep contemplation afforded by the serenity of the woods. I looked over at my brother who was noticeably not sharing that same sentiment. As it turns out I had been completely oblivious to some slight trip anxiety. The culprit? Let me explain…
We live in a hyper connected world, and it’s one in which we have information at our fingertips. It allows us to easily navigate cities we’ve never been to and gather real time information on demand. But in the throngs of the wild this disconnection can create a sense of uncertainty. Decisions must be made on experience, logic and gut feeling. (And if you’re lucky enough – word of mouth information from other hikers on the trail.) I was hiking with a person who had extensive outdoor experience and had planned effectively, but for all intents and purposes, we didn’t have a communications safety net which was causing the anxiety. Of course we had our smartphones but between spotty cellular service and conserving battery they suddenly seemed unfit for the job.
We never summited the glacier and our story didn't end with an SOS call, but it could have. Our bucket list item still needles us but one thing I know for sure is, that when we attempt it next time we’ll pack a reliable satellite-based device that lets us get off the grid with the comfort of knowing back up can hear us and find us, if and when we need it.
Outdoor SOS – 1,000 rescues in Canada
While my experience now has me firmly erring on the side of safety, it seems some outdoor adventurers could benefit from taking added precautions. That’s evidenced by the number of news stories we see about active search-and-rescue operations.
Globalstar Canada, distributors of tracking adventure devices such as the SPOT Gen3 GPS Satellite Messenger and the SPOT Global Phone see it every day. Since SPOT was introduced in 2007 it has been used to initiate a whopping 1,000 (and counting) rescues in Canada alone (that's an average of one rescue every three days!), with more than 3,500 globally. Think of it this way – that’s potentially 1,000 more headlines about missing or distressed Canadians adventurists.
Where are rescues happening?
Of the 1,000 SPOT rescues in Canada, British Columbia has seen the most with 376 total incidents. That’s not totally unsurprising. The province has an expansive coastline that buzzes with marine activity. From power boating to cruising to kayaking, watersports are inherently vulnerable to environmental risk and a lack of cellular connectivity. Additionally, B.C.’s mountain ranges are well explored by hikers and climbers in summer and snow sport enthusiasts in winter. B.C. also sees many tourists and while being a local doesn't exempt one from accidents, intrepid visitors should take extra care and be aware of the risks.
SPOT rescues by the numbers:
- Alberta: 115
- Nunavit: 111
- Ontario: 96
- Quebec: 86
Which activities are most 'dangerous?'
When we hear ‘rescue’ we often conjure a headline grabbing, sensational event, but delving deeper into the data, it’s not always the case. The majority of SPOT prompted rescues fall into mountain (hiking and biking), motor sports (snowmobiles ATV, motorbikes) or water (boating) categories. Kayakers and canoeists make up a large percentage of incidents, more in part due to the possibility of something happening in a remote area rather than the sport itself being dangerous. The take away? You just can’t be over prepared for an accident.
SPOTlight on 3 near misses
Rescues can be needed even during the most ordinary of events. In one incident, a father and son were driving the remote Alaska-Canada Highway, a stretch of road with spotty cellular service. 100 miles out of Fort Nelson, B.C., the man's son discovered his father was having chest pains. Using their SPOT Messenger they notified emergency rescue authorities. The nearby hospital was notified of an incoming emergency and sent an ambulance to intercept the vehicle as it returned to the nearest town.
Other times the weather can cause problems such as the rescue of a sailboat off the coast on Nova Scotia. Amazingly a passing tanker was able to shelter the sinking sailboat until the Canadian Coast Guard arrived with emergency gear. Without their SPOT device and the coordinated efforts of the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards, the French sailors would have been lost in the rough seas.
A recent rescue near Kananaskis highlights the usefulness of a tracker system even while on a short hike. Knowing that their geocaching adventure would take them out of cellular range, the experienced trekkers brought along their SPOT Gen3, a decision that proved to be life-saving when a member of the group slipped and broke her ankle. The tired team would not have been able to carry her down the slope before sunset, and had they not activated the S.O.S button the trio would have been trapped on an exposed hill when night time temperatures dropped below zero.
With warming temperatures, hunting and boating season are now upon us. We encourage everyone to be proactive in trip planning, replacing or restocking safety kit essentials and consider satellite communication and back-up to cellular plans. The ability to send an emergency message, especially from areas beyond cellular connectivity, or just keep people aware of where you are can make a difference when the unexpected happens.
Related content on Explore