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Staying Safe: Solo Backcountry Camping

The wilderness is becoming more popular, but there are still many places where one can be totally alone, either during a hike, fishing or wilderness camping.

Many times these remote destinations have little or no cell phone coverage. If you are hiking or camping with a partner, and you get injured, they may be able to take care of you or seek help. But another category, which is increasing, is the solo traveler. As a solo, I spend a lot of time hiking alone. I may be hiking on a very popular trail and therefore a stranger could initiate a rescue, or I may spend all day hiking on a trail and not see another person or only pass one or two people during the day.

I have well-meaning friends that say I shouldn’t hike or fish alone. Those of you who are solo will realize that this would greatly restrict my recreational opportunities. There are a number of organizations that link like-minded solo travelers together and these are helpful. But the truth is that even hiking or fishing with another person may not be enough in a true emergency.

Calling for Help

Staying Safe: Solo Backcountry Camping 1

There are a number of satellite communication options available, some allow both emergency and non-emergency communications. Devices like Spot, Garmin Inreach, and Zoleo, to name a few, allow the user to send and receive some form of message and require an annual or monthly subscription. These are referred to as satellite messaging devices and in most cases use a non-government satellite system. A big benefit of these devices is their use for non-emergency messaging. The user can send bread crumbs that allow a designated person to track your progress on the trail, and send pre-set messages, such as I’m safe, on my way home, etc. Some devices allow the user to send and receive any text message. These devices also have a dedicated emergency SOS button to call for an emergency rescue.

A personal locator beacon, or PLB, is simply a satellite SOS device that when activated, sends a signal to NOAA via the COSPAS/SARSAT satellite system with your GPS location. NOAA then contacts the appropriate local search and rescue authority. These devices do not require an annual or monthly fee. As with the satellite messaging devices, there are many products on the market.

I won’t attempt to cover all the details of each device in this article, but rather refer you to the Out Door Gear Lab website: www.outdoorgearlab.com. For information, search “best personal locator beacon.”

I would however, like to provide some assistance as to why, I chose a PLB instead of a satellite messenger

  • Both types of devices function in a similar manner in an emergency. There is data available stating that the Cospas/Sarsat system may be slightly more reliable than the non-government, private satellite systems. PLBs use the Cospas/Sarsat satellite system. All satellite communication systems require a clear view of the sky and, therefore, may not work in canyons or under thick tree canopies.
  • As a full-time RVer, I don’t have a sticks and bricks location, and I don’t always have friends nearby that could help me for non-emergency events, flat tire, or disabled vehicle. So, to solve that issue, I would have to provide my contact person with local services each time I went to a new area or place the burden on them to find a local service.
  • Subscription fees for the satellite messengers can range from $100 to $240 annually. Although some devices allow you to activate and deactivate the plan, I usually do something alone in the back country every month, so I probably would not benefit with a flexible plan. With most PLBs, free registration is required initially and then every two years. The battery has to be replaced by the manufacturer every 5 years at a cost of $150. The manufacturer of my device will replace the unit if activated in a true emergency, after you provide a verified testimonial and return the used device to them.
  • Since the device is a one-time emergency use device, I can be sure that if I am within the date on the outside of the device, it will work. It also has a test mode, and the battery’s life expectancy allows testing on a monthly basis.

Cell Phones

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Cell phone coverage in the back country is often unreliable but hiking to a high ridge or open area might improve coverage. In some areas of the country, 911 centers can receive a text message. If you are unable to make a voice call to 911, try sending a text message. If your message is successfully sent, you will see “delivered” next to the message; you will get a bounce back if the local 911 does not accept text messages. Of course, if your battery isn’t charged, you won’t be able to use your phone. I always switch my cell phone to “Airplane Mode” when heading in to a remote area. I can still use my phone’s camera, but this mode greatly reduces power consumption. During a long hike, I will periodically check the battery gauge on my phone and if it gets below 50%, I will turn it off as a safety precaution. There are also many portable external phone charging devices on the market.

Identification and Medical Information

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The PLB mandatory registration does provide the rescuers with your identification and emergency contacts. However, if you became unconscious after activating the device, they would not have any medical history. There are a number of services such as MedicAlert, www.medicalert.org. I wear a MedicAlert dog tag and pay an annual fee, which provides my medical history to medical staff via an 800 number on the tag. I keep the information updated via their secure website. There are a number of bracelets, necklaces, dog tags and even an Apple watch version. The annual fee varies from $24.99 to $74.99, depending on the plan you choose; I have the $39.99 plan. An alternative is one of the emergency apps for your smart phone, as long as your phone’s battery is charged, such as, www.mymedi – calapp.com. I also keep a photo copy of my driver’s license in my pack, since I don’t always carry my wallet.

Surviving Until a Rescue Team Arrives

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Don’t ever go into the backcountry without the appropriate gear. I have come across solo hikers, six miles from the nearest road, with nothing more than a water bottle, wearing shorts and a tee shirt. A quality day pack with a few things will not detract from your enjoyment, but it could save your life. I leave certain items in my pack permanently and just toss it into a basement compartment in my motorhome when I’m done hiking. Those items include a compass, multi-tool, headlamp, first aid kit, sunscreen, lighter, emergency mylar shelter, wind/rain jacket, fleece vest, and my PLB. The day I’m going hiking, I simply add food, water and a map or guidebook of the area. In winter, I add gloves and a warm hat. Then I dress appropriately for the current conditions and wear a broad brim hat. The plan is to be able to survive for 24 hours while waiting for a rescue. I might not be comfortable, but I would survive.

It’s always better to travel with at least one other person in the backcountry and that is by far the safest way to enjoy it. However, those of us who have chosen to be solo travelers, or become solo travelers by default, can minimize the risk with a little planning. Also, just because you are trav – eling with another person, it doesn’t mean that you should not prepare in this same manner. Depending on a person’s injuries, a hiking partner might not feel safe leaving the injured person while going for help or both hiking partners could become injured simultaneously. I attended a seminar on this subject during an Overland Expo, and the presenter actually carried both a satellite messenger device as well as a PLB device. His reasoning was that he knew that in a life threatening emergency, the PLB was the most reliable, but he also wanted the ability to communicate with friends and family while in the back country.

During my 50-plus years exploring the back country, I have had minor incidents, however I have never been in a life threatening emergency nor needed a rescue. I hope to continue that streak.


Larry Chiuppi

Larry Chiuppi retired in 2017, at age 62, and has been full-time RVing since 1998. Larry says, “I was inspired to write this article because I often meet solo travelers and hikers, who appear ill-prepared for an emergency in the back country. I agree that solo travel is not as safe as traveling with a companion, however; there are things one can do to improve the chances of survival in an emergency.

2 Responses

  1. Excellent article, can’t disagree with anything you mention. I spent years on a SAR team before retiring to RV, & if folks would take these simple precautions they’re much safer. Like you say, doing activities alone isn’t to be preferred. But none of us wants to just stop living & experiencing the outdoors we love because we at times have to do it alone.

  2. Great article. I have hiked and backpacked my whole life, but have never done more than a day hike solo. That is changing however, and I am confident in my abilities to stay safe. I also carry a PLB with 10,000 amp hour battery bank (those small rechargers sold on amazon.)
    I carry at least 1 backpack meal and trail food, as well as a small jetboil and 1-person tent when I am headed in to rough country or bad weather, even when planning a day hike. Often a small injury can prevent you from walking even 1 mile to the trailhead parking. In very cold, hot or wet weather than can be life threatening.
    In our backpack trips, sadly we have become used to finding a solo or group hikers that are experiencing an emergency with no useful provisions. I have provided first aid (I was a medic in the military,) and provided food, water and shelter. We have more than once come across a hiker who lost all there gear when a bear walked off with their kit. We have also come across hikers who lost the trail of their group and are alone, miles in to the back country with nothing, not even a bottle of water.

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