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How Can I Activate a Satellite Communicator or Personal Locator Beacon If I’m Unconscious?

How can I activate a personal locator beacon if I’m unconscious

If you have a hiking or backpacking emergency and lose consciousness before you can signal for help with a satellite communicator or personal locator beacon, you’re out of luck unless you’re with a partner who can activate it on your behalf. The same holds if you carry a satellite communicator or personal locator beacon but can’t reach it because it’s buried in your backpack or not within easy reach. This is one of the biggest limitations of backcountry communications for solo hikers if you need to contact Search and Rescue for assistance in situations where cell phone network access is unavailable.

High-Frequency Tracking

What about high-frequency tracking? Most satellite communicators have a tracking option that will periodically record GPS locations along your route and plot them on a map so people following your progress can see how far you’ve traveled. You have to buy a more expensive satellite messaging plan to implement this feature and set it so that it updates your location frequently. But it’s one way to ensure that someone following your progress could contact Search and Rescue on your behalf if you stop unexpectedly and don’t change locations for a worrisome period of time. Personal locator beacons do not offer a tracking feature and can only be used to request emergency aid.

For example, Garmin offers an Expedition Tracking Plan on their inReach Explorer+ and inReach Mini devices for $50/month (in the US) that will track your location every 2 minutes, as long as your device is powered up and has satellite contact. Since you can only travel a short distance by foot in 2 minutes, that would give Search and Rescue a decent chance of finding you, especially if you were following a well-defined route that you shared with the person tracking your progress.

SPOT offers a similar feature in their premium plans for $30/month with the SPOT X and SPOT Gen 3 satellite messengers that can track you every 2 and 1/2 minutes. However, if you stop and remain stationary, none of these Garmin or SPOT devices will update your GPS location: they are movement activated only. Frequent GPS updates also use considerably more battery power, so you’ll need to recharge your device battery much more frequently if you use high-frequency tracking.

If you stop moving unexpectedly, does that mean you’re unconscious and need emergency assistance? Not necessarily, and you wouldn’t want the person tracking you at home to call in Search and Rescue for a false alarm. People stop all the time on hikes to dig pebbles out of their shoes, wait for a rattlesnake to slither across the trail, or for a herd of bison to pass. Activating an unnecessary Search and Rescue mission not only puts Search and Rescue members at risk, but it could get quite expensive since many Search and Rescue teams have started billing people for unnecessary rescue activations. So what good is frequent GPS tracking? Indeed.

Two-Way Messaging

If the person tracking you sees that you’ve stopped unexpectedly, they could try contacting you using the two-way messaging features on an inReach or SPOTX devices to see if you’re ok or injured. There’s no guarantee that you’ll see their message though, even if you set the device to make a sound when incoming messages are received. You might simply not hear it. If you don’t respond, it doesn’t mean that you’re unconscious or incapacitated.

Device Pings

Garmin’s inReach Devices also give you the ability to “ping” a device to determine its location as long as it’s powered up and can be reached by the satellite network. If you were unconscious, this could help pinpoint your location in an emergency. Of course, the person initiating the ping still wouldn’t know if you were actually having an emergency or whether you’d simply stopped for a rest. Still, if you’d had an accident and gotten a message out before collapsing, this ping feature could be of some utility to a Search and Rescue effort.

Search and Rescue in the Grand canyon


Satellite communication devices have become quite popular amongst hikers and backpackers, but you can argue that they provide a false sense of security for solo hikers if you have a serious accident that renders you unconscious. If you have an accident and can activate a Search and Rescue help request before you lose consciousness, they can be invaluable, but there isn’t any surefire way for anyone to confirm the need for a Search and Rescue activation if you’re unresponsive. Your best bet is to hike with a partner who can send a request to Search and Rescue via a satellite massager or personal locator on your behalf in an emergency or to define a scheme of regular check-in messages with a person who has your trip plan. If you don’t check-in on schedule, that might be grounds for a Search and Rescue callout, depending on the circumstances, although there are still many reasons why you may not be able to respond that aren’t due to a medical emergency.

Despite these limitations, satellite communicators and personal locator beacons still have value, but they fall short of hiking with a companion who can activate one if you are unable to.

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  1. Food for thought indeed. Seems like a major flaw with the device paradigm. That’s a lot of money to spend for something that won’t help you in an emergency if you’re alone.

    • Only if you’re unconscious will they not help you. Nevertheless thousands of lives have been saved because most people were conscious but still needed emergency rescue. These devices still have major value when compared to not having them at all. If you need proof just read the many rescue stories of people who might have died had they not had use of these devices.

  2. This is a great post. I had an accident where I fell and passed out. I was lucky that a Good Samaritan came across me and activated my inReach when they couldn’t revive me. I probably owe them my life.

  3. I see Bobblehead already posted a response which does go against this in some ways but …. Assuming the device is attached to your shoulder strap or somewhere equally accessible (and not buried in your pack), how likely is it that you are so injured that you cannot hit the SOS button but would be able to survive long enough for SAR to find you? I am just thinking if I am that injured, the chances of them finding me before I die are not real great. These would be things like a seizure, stroke, heart attack, severe animal (or human) attack, etc. In those cases I am so incapacitated that in addition to not being able to hit the SOS button, I would not be able to take the basic steps to ensure survival until help arrives.

    I really do not have an answer or suggestion how this could be solved, other than these are a great tool, but like all tools, they have their limitations.

  4. I have a contract for my inReach mini via a German firm, Protegear, and they offer a service like a deadman switch as an add on. A deadman switch is a system in place in trains where the train driver has to prove to the system that he or she is alive by pushing a button every 30 seconds or so.

    In effect when you are not moving the device can initiate an alert on its own. I don’t know how exactly it works with respect to breaks and in camp time because I lack the maturity to take advantage of this service even though I am a solo hiker and disappear into the backcountry for weeks at a time.

    Thanks, Philip, for this post and pushing me to investigate how this works in detail and using this for my next hike that’s going to be pushing me to my limit. It’s going to be a route rather than a trail and the chances of being found accidentally are seriously low.

  5. The other problem with tracking is power. If you are sending out a signal every two minutes, you’ll be draining the battery and may not have power when you really need it.

    I turn off my InReach between messages to conserve power but I still use four to five percent of the battery per today.

  6. It may just be me, but I embraced the outdoors because it was trying to kill me. Other than my wife getting my insurance, I really do no obsess about rescue or recovering my body

  7. I consider myself an “expert” at using an inReach; I used it on my 4-year attempt at the AT and used it TWICE to activate SAR, for a small bowel obstruction. The second time at Niagara Falls inside Baxter SP and less than 10 miles from the terminus!! Ugh!

    I teach it to all my students and preach to all my friends to use it. I even let them borrow it to see how cool it is. As a matter in fact, as I write this reply, it is being used for a FKT on the AT in CT. The other great part is how your community can track your progress. It is VERY accurate, and my B-I-L outed me for no movement from downtown Damascus, VA (caught me at Blue Blaze Cafe!).

    The last time I talked with Yarmouth, they mentioned an alarm similar to the alarm Firefighters use when there is a sudden impact and the FF doesn’t move. The thought was, that cyclists could also use it too and dial 911 on your cell if you don’t turn off the alarm when it goes off.

    The inReach is such a cool gadget platform, and if anyone can make it for someone unconscious, it’s Garmin!

  8. All of these devices rely on satellites? Also, if you fall under canopy, they do not work? What’s the difference between public and private government satellites?

    • Sometimes they work under canopy, sometimes they don’t. Depends on many factors, such as canopy thickness and the distance/orientation to the nearest satellite. There’s no difference in the satellites themselves, only in whether you can connect to them, and how they route your information.

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