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Backcountry Communication - Calling for Help

This article was published February 2013 in the "Backcountry Safety" column of the Hunt Alaska Magazine.

Story by Jon Hunt

“Help, I have fallen and can’t get up!”  We may laugh when we hear these words, but it’s not so funny when we are on a remote hunt and are in need of help.  Each year the Alaska State Troopers respond to dozens of hunters who are injured, need evacuation, or are stranded.  As Alaskan hunters, we push ourselves to the limit, traversing rugged terrain and enduring extreme weather for the chance of a trophy in our sights.  We are aware of the inherent risk, but choose to spend our precious free time with friends and family in the backcountry!

 The ultimate question remains: how can you maximize your safety in the backcountry?  Some important things you can do are to: notify a reliable person of your plan, get wilderness first aid training, always keep first aid and survival gear on your person, have quality gear/clothing, stay calm, and use the buddy system when possible.  Despite your best precautions, if you are far from definitive care, and in need of help, each moment counts.  A reliable, affordable and effective means to call for help is a necessity.

If your contingency plan consists of reliance on cell phone reception, signaling mirrors, smoke signals or a marathon sprint to activate the local emergency medical services, please continue reading.  You will be relieved to know that over the past few years, there have been amazing strides in backcountry communication.  Let me share with you my perspective on a few products which I have researched over the past few years.  Keep in mind that I am biased.  I am a bow hunter and a minimalist at heart.  I don’t like my hunt to be burdened by nonessentials, especially those that are bulky, fragile or too expensive.

A good friend and pilot with whom I often hunt has an Iridium satellite phone.  It works great but is so bulky that we always leave it in the plane.  Besides that, it’s too expensive for my budget.  However, if you are not limited by size and price, I highly recommend the Iridium Extreme satellite phone ($1,495 + service fees).  This phone has many great features, including SOS, tracking, and texting.

ACR now makes a hand-held personal locator beacon called the “ResQLink.”  This innovative, compact, lightweight, and reliable beacon is affordable at $280.  Most appealing is that there are no monthly fees and the battery is good for five years.  The ResQLink provides the user with a reliable emergency beacon with no “bells and whistles.”  This is a pure “Oh crap!” button, the sole duty of which is to transmit an SOS message with a GPS location.  Thankfully, I have, not had to use this device, but am confident the message will be sent due to the excellent reputation of ACR.  Unfortunately, as a 1-way device, the ResQLink provides no feedback to the user, or confirmation the message was sent.

Several years ago, I purchased a “Spot II” device.  This is a 1-way satellite communicator that utilizes the Globalstar satellite network.  The Spot II has an SOS feature, tracking, and the ability to send three pre-programmed messages.  It is compact, lightweight, and now costs only $100 plus a monthly fee.  Admittedly, this sounds appealing, but my experience with this device was very frustrating.  The customer support was lacking, and the inconsistent reliability of the device was intolerable.  I have experimented with it throughout Alaska, from the North Slope to the Aleutians, throughout South East, the interior, Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska.  I measure its success by my wife’s demeanor when I walk in the door.  I know instantly, when I see her face, if she received my messages or not.  Overall, her suggestion to me is that I leave it home because it is not reliable.  It appears that the Globalstar satellite network has limited functionality in Alaska.

inReach 2-way communication

Last year I purchased the “inReach” by Delorme. This is, in my opinion, the greatest stride in the evolution of affordable and reliable backcountry communication technology.  This device has performed exceptionally well in every personal test I’ve thrown at it.  My wife even likes this one!  It is the only affordable ($250 + monthly fees starting at $9.95/month) and reliable 2-way communicating device that I have found on the market.  It operates on the Iridium satellite network, which I find very reliable in Alaska.  The inReach device allows the user to send satellite-based messages anywhere in the world as long as there is a clear view of the sky.  My favorite feature is that, when the inReach is used in conjunction with a smart phone, it will blue-tooth to your device and allow you to view received messages and send customize messages on the fly.  The inReach has detailed topographical maps, tracking features, ping options, an SOS button, and three pre-programmed messages that can be sent if used as a standalone device.  When a message is sent, a waypoint identifying latitude, longitude, elevation and speed of travel is attached is overlaid on the map.


Here is an example of how innovative the inReach is.  This past season a few friends and I registered for the Tier 1 Caribou hunt in Unit 13.  We floated down the Maclaren River and were able to e-mail our transporter at the Lodge.  They confirmed our location and time of rendezvous.  Unfortunately, no one filled their tag, so we were able to notify them that we would need only one trip up river.  On that same hunt, a friend was able to communicate with his pregnant wife who was just a couple weeks from her due date.  And of course, my wife was thrilled to know we were safe!  How nice is that!

Hunting season is rapidly approaching.  Regardless of your hunting style and preferences, having a safety plan is crucial.  The ability to call for help and accurately relay your location to others is essential.  Start formulating your plan now.  Prior to your departure provide detailed hunt plans to a trusted person.  Information on your hunt may include a detailed itinerary, description of gear, a list of medical concerns, planned duration of the trip, mode of travel, and number of people in your party.  Plan to stay longer than expected.  Most importantly, always have essential survival and first aid gear on your person, and know how to use it.  In the next edition of Hunt Alaska we will focus on essential backcountry items that you should always take hunting!  Safe hunting!

Jon Hunt, an avid hunter and fisherman, is an Alaska resident and licensed Wilderness First Responder.  He is the owner of Frontier Safety And Supply, which offers training in Wilderness First Aid, CPR/AED and Standard First Aid.  The company also offers a web-store that sells first aid kits, survival gear, emergency preparedness supplies and high-end outdoor products.  Visit the store at: or call Jon at (907) 301-5155.