High-tech locator gear helps hikers, but change of clothes is still best advice

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK — Sending out an SOS to the world has taken on new meaning in the digital age.

Stranded hikers who once sent smoke signals and mirror reflections now have radio transmitters, cell phones and most recently — personal locator beacons.

The beacons are used to send a signal to search and rescue satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The satellite tracking system was only available to mariners and aviators for almost 30 years, until the federal government opened the door for land users in 2003.

Since then, the number of registered beacons has risen from about 89,000 to more than 140,000, according to NOAA’s Web site.

So far this year, emergency personnel nationwide have responded to 36 calls for help on the satellite system, 11 of which came from on-land calls with personal locator beacons.

Hiking group

One of the 11 calls came from a group of four 19-year-olds hiking in Olympic National Park in April.

The group activated the beacon when members of the group started showing signs of hypothermia after being pulled from a creek.

To show how complex the beacon system works:

The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center in Langley, Va., which received the beacon signal, contacted rangers at Olympic National Park.

A Coast Guard helicopter was dispatched from Group/Air Station Port Angeles, and with the exact coordinates provided by the PLB device, quickly located the distressed hikers.

Park rangers eventually caught up with them and treated them for mild hypothermia.

“We don’t discourage people from carrying things [personal locator beacons] like this, but encourage them not to rely on them solely or cut corners in preparing for the hike,” Olympic National Park spokeswoman Barb Maynes said Tuesday.

The hikers who sent the distress call didn’t have along a dry pack with extra clothing or blankets, according to a news release issued by PLB Rentals LLC, the Mukilteo-based company that rented the beacon to the hikers.

“Nothing like this can ever take the place of having a good map, knowing how to use a compass and just using common sense and preparation,” Maynes said.

Extra clothing

The No. 1 item listed on Olympic National Park’s list of 10 essentials for a hike is “extra warm-when-wet-clothing.”

The nine other items include extra food, a topographic map, compass, flashlight and batteries, sunglasses and sunscreen, pocketknife, matches in a waterproof container, candles and a first aid kit.

“If you put reliance on technology, what happens when it doesn’t work?” Maynes asked.

Another caution given by Maynes in using locator beacons and cell phones is that they should only be used in an absolute emergency.

“Anytime a rescue crew or search crew is set into action, there are many, many risks,” Maynes said.

“If people are going to use things like PLBs or cell phones, and if they do work . . . it should only be for genuine life and death, or personal injury situations,” she said.

For more information on how to prepare for a hike in Olympic National Park, visit www.nps.gov/olym/wic/travel.htm.

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