With safety a primary focus for all backcountry users, especially snowmobilers, GPS communication devices such as an InReach, Spot, or Sat-Phones are highly recommended. Although in theory this is excellent practice, user error and other factors can compromise the effectiveness of these electronic devices.
When dealing with GPS based technology there are very important factors to consider says the creator of the Never Lost Trail Map ap, and owner of Top-line Surveys Ltd. Allan Bouchard.
Sky View: Any GPS unit needs a clear unobstructed view of the sky in order for the satellite signals to be received. An obstruction such as a mountain, canyon, dense forest will not allow for a clear line of site to the satellites needed to relay communication effectively. Bouchard recommends that at least 500 m radius of clear sky view should be present for maximum effectiveness.
Calibration of signal: GPS, which was developed by the American military, uses a network of satellites orbiting more than 2000 km above the earth. GPS devices pick up the signals from these satellites and use them to calculate their position. Satellites are in constant motion and in any given 2 hour time frame multiple satellites may rise and set over the horizon. If you are looking to initiate communication from an InReach or SPOT device, allow for at least 15 minutes of unobstructed sky view for your unit to calibrate. Satellite signals are typically south facing, so allowing for the unit to be pointed in a south facing direction will facilitate the effectiveness of the unit.
Solar Flares: While the average individual will notice very little if any effect on their daily lives when a solar flare occurs, engineers and those who work with electronics will notice disruptions. When magnetic energy builds up in the sun’s atmosphere and needs to be released, the result is an enormous explosion of radiation sending blasts of tiny charged particles streaming into space. Devices that are GPS reliant will notice communication disruptions, for the satellite signal is not coming through a consistent atmosphere. The same disruption occurs with Northern Lights, which are also a solar flare event. It is important to understand the effects of Solar Flares on your GPS communication device and to always have a Plan B for backup.
Plan B: It is always important to have a pre-trip plan including where you are going, number in your party and estimated time of return left with a friend or family not on your adventure. Should you be stranded, they will have accurate information to provide Search and Rescue crews with, facilitating your safe return. Multiple communication devices are recommended, which includes multiple InReach, or SPOT communicators in your group. GPS units can become damaged over time, or as we have discussed human error could prevent a unit from being effective. Multiple communication units could mean the difference between being stranded or rescued.
Damage: Any electronic technology can become worn out or damaged over time. Always provide a secure place for your GPS Communication unit such as a secure carrying case not floating around in a backpack. The vibration alone could compromise the antennae or electronic components rendering the unit useless. Test your unit to insure integrity, and store in a safe location when out in the backcountry.
Be responsible: While there are many stories of the misuse of a Spot or InReach including users initiating an SOS to report a travel-mates snoring, water tasting salty, and other ridiculous situations, there are also real safety concerns to address. Search and Rescue volunteers will be coming out to help you, but this by no means means it’s an instant beaming up and out of your predicament. Be sure to pack anything you need to survive a night out in the backcountry including extra layers, hydration and medications you may need for health and wellness. The ability to start a fire is critical not only for survival but to signal for help. Pack multiple fire starting options to ensure a functional fire. More on what to pack
New Riders: If you are a new rider, or visiting an area unfamiliar with you please hire a guide to insure you are riding within your capabilities. Do not follow tracks and assume it is safe. The Never Lost Trail Maps ap is an excellent resource which not only helps you navigate trail systems, the ap also provides ATES terrain ratings and other valuable navigation suggestions to help you ride within your skill set. Never Lost Trail Maps will also provide you real time navigation, allowing you navigate trails and showcasing potential lifesaving warm up shelters. The ap was created out of Bouchard’s frustration realizing some individuals died from exposure merely 100m from a cabin.
Do not wait till the last minute: If you find yourself in a situation where you must call for help do not wait until the end of the day to do so. Safety is a key concern for everyone including SAR volunteers. Darkness especially during times of high avalanche cycles could prevent a speedy extraction.
To find Never Lost Trail maps, it is available on Google Play and Apple’s App Store