Saving yourself from danger in the wilderness used to require skill. Also plenty of effort.
Now, all it takes is the touch of a finger.
Press button. Distress call transmitted. Authorities notified. Help on the way.
When used correctly, personal locator beacons and satellite trackers greatly assist search-and-rescue efforts by providing exact Car GPS coordinates for a person who is lost or injured.
But as more people take these devices into the backcountry, more people are using them irresponsibly, say rangers at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Too often they decide to push a button instead of using their heads.
"We've had more illegitimate distress calls this summer than ever before, thanks to these gizmos," said wilderness coordinator Gregg Fauth.
Among the examples from this summer:
A Pacific Crest Trail hiker, frightened during a lightning storm, transmitted two 911 calls on her personal satellite messenger. A widespread search ensued, only for a sheriff to find her in Lone Pine several days later. She neglected to tell anyone she had gotten out.
Barely a mile from the trailhead, a Boy Scout troop sent a 911 emergency call because someone had sprained an ankle.
A 68-year-old-woman, backpacking solo in a remote section of the parks, sent an ambiguous "Help" message to her husband 15 times over a 12-hour period after falling and hitting her head. The woman never stopped moving, sending rangers on a needless chase, before she exited the wilderness on her own.
"We're going to respond, but we don't have the resources to be chasing people," said parks spokeswoman Adrienne Freeman. "Pressing a button is not the answer. Assessing risks is the answer."
Sequoia and Kings Canyon occupy 1,352 square miles of the Southern Sierra Nevada, 83% of which is designated wilderness. The jointly managed parks, visited by about 1.5 million people annually, contain the range's tallest peaks, including Mount Whitney, and the most remote river canyons.
Along with phones and Car GPS units, the introduction of satellite trackers and messengers for personal use raises the eternal debate over whether (or how much) technology belongs in the backcountry. And whether relying on computerized gadgets at the expense of tried-and-true backcountry skills somehow dilutes the experience.
"It should not replace basic skills like knowing how to use a map and compass or reading terrain," Fauth said. "And it shouldn't replace the basic reason why people go into the wilderness, which is about challenge and learning self reliance.
"Where's the sense of accomplishment if all you know how to do to get yourself out of trouble is push a button?"
How they work
Since purchasing his SPOT satellite messenger in June 2008, Steve Cosner never goes hiking or backpacking without it. Not only because he may need to summon help, but also to comfort his wife back home in Fresno when he's out rambling in the mountains.
Cosner's unit, the most popular in the marketplace, contains three function buttons labeled 911, Help and OK.
Press 911 and the GPS coordinates of your location are transmitted to the GEOS International Emergency Response Center, which in turn contacts local authorities.
Press Help or OK, and a pre-programmed e-mail or text message of your choosing is sent to up to 10 people. Help is designed for nonemergency assistance that could mean anything from "Send food" to "Pick me up a day early."
The OK button is to let folks on your list know all is well and also to provide a link of your location on Google Maps.