Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
Radios, Satellite phones, inReach and more
Last winter, after a long day of ski touring in Colorado’s Elk Mountains that was followed by some shoveling at WildSnow Field HQ, M and I skinned uphill to the truck to head back home. What had earlier been a bustling trailhead parking lot was now reduced to just two vehicles. Seemingly on queue, a lone skier emerged on the road just as we crested the snowplow berm into the lot. We had passed by him and his partner a couple times on the skin track and exchanged snow stoke and pleasantries, so it was hard not to notice that he was alone. We offered to wait with him until his partners returned. After ten minutes, it was clear that we had to put our boots back on and go looking.
I am as guilty as anyone of paring down my ski pack for light and fast backcountry day missions, but luckily M and I were using our BCA Link Radios that day. With the help of the radios, M could wait in the car while I went up to look for the missing skier (neither of the other skiers had radios). I started a brisk yet long and lonely climb back up the skin track after a very long day of skiing, and had a lot of time to think.
The scenarios running through my head were numerous and foreboding. What if the solo skier had wrapped himself around a tree? If he was unconscious our immobile, would I have the strength to make it back down and pull our emergency toboggan back up the hill to assist? What would I instruct M on the other end of the radio to do when I eventually found the skier? Now a solo skier myself, what if I discovered new avalanche debris and had to begin a search? But most of all, how could I locate a missing solo skier in the midst of the vast terrain in the Elk Mountains?
If anyone else has been in this situation, you know how anxiety and uncertainty have a way of elongating the minutes. Just as I was getting lost in hypotheticals, M’s voice crackled over the radio. All skiers had returned to the parking lot and now I was the solo skier with one last powder run on tired legs to get everyone safely back to the bottom.
It turns out, the two skiers had leap-frogged each other. The missing skier was actually the first one back to the car. When his partner didn’t return shortly after he got there, he skinned back up to look, again, without a radio. That’s when we came upon the second skier, who had taken a different line down than his partner. If we hadn’t had radios with us, would this cycle have repeated itself until darkness or our strength gave out?
There are increasing options to address communication in the backcountry and as technology improves so does it’s accessibility. Listed below, a few gear items that at the very least might save you one exhausted bonus lap, and at the most, a ski partner’s life.
BC Link is the standard for backcountry snowsports, with its waterproof hand-mic you can clip to your shoulder strap. But any of the cheap “talkabouts” you can buy at the discount store will also work (albeit with more concerns about moisture), and are compatible with the BCA. There’ve been some FCC changes to these types of radios of late, which you can read all about on WildSnow and BCA. The changes don’t affect you much, if any, if you’re just using such radios for intra-group comm. See our enormous quantity of 2-way-radio exposition.
The two most common choices in “satphones” are Iridum and Spot/Globalstar. Iridium is expensive, but works anywhere in the world with a view of the sky (albeit being problematic with closed horizons, such as a narrow valley.) Spot/Globalstar costs less, but has limited coverage regions due to the satellite needing a ground station within reach. By way of examples, Spot/Globalstar is not reliable in northern Canada or Alaska, nor in the northern half of Norway. In either case, texting is always better than voice communications as you can be precise and clear. Iridium does two-way texting, while Globalstar phones ONLY receive text; they gloss over this in their documentation.
Another caveat with satphones is you can’t dial 911, and due to issues with caller I.D., dispatch centers may block your call if you use their non-911 contact number. We’ve experimented with that and found it frustrating. We recommend programming the numbers of responsible friends who will receive emergency calls and act as go-betweens for communication with authorities.
inReach and other S.O.S. messengers
These two are the gold standard for backcountry “emergency beacons,” and generally what we recommend. With one caveat: Be sure you purchase a device with two-way communication. The inReach is our favorite. They’ve got a nice inReach Mini model if you really want to keep it minimal. SPOT formerly only offered S.O.S. services but they now have two-way communications of sorts with the SPOT X (but be warned, SPOT’s sales documentation about this is confusing and perhaps even disingenuous, so be diligent in your vetting if you go with SPOT over inReach). In any case, using a device that only pings emergency responders (e.g., the original SPOT) is difficult for them, and could be deadly for your or yours.
(We’ll get scolded if we don’t mention the “PLB” type emergency locator. While these used to be somewhat desirable, and perhaps still are in nautical and aviation applications, we see the two-way inReach as being far superior.)
Satellite “hot spots”
There are a variety of devices that hook up to Irridium, Globalstar and other satellite systems, and provide internet connectivity. These can be useful, but they’re expensive. Nonetheless, you could use such devices for emergent comms, and some have a button that’ll directly contact a dispatch center. If you go with this option, consider water resistance and durability. As with all other options, test and practice.
And… Two-way radios for calling in a rescue?
Two-way radios are important, sometimes mandatory, but they’re not an emergency locator unless you learn how to work the amateur radio systems in many parts of the world. Even then, there may be no one monitoring the frequency you call out on. As WildSnow is a big advocate of two-way radio use among parties on the trail, we have an enormous amount of radio content. Try this search query.