Plan B: Look to the Sky
Radios work wonderfully when they have line of sight to someone else listening on the other end.
Place a large mass of rock in the way – they don’t work so well. Flying alone with no one on the other end, might as well carry on a conversation with the clouds.
Flying XC or even just bobbing about at your local site alone – you need a Plan B to back up that radio.
The answer: satellite tracking.
A satellite overhead will have a much clearer line of sight to you than a pilot on the backside of the mountain and the two options I will present have contracted out to a dedicated emergency response service in the event the subscriber (you) is in trouble.
SPOT Satellite Communicator
Almost always the initial choice of pilots wanting a backup to their radio.
Compared to its main competitor, the Delorme InReach, the SPOT is priced much more competitively both in terms of unit cost and subscription plans (especially for Canadian residents). The Gen 3 messenger unit above can be found retailing for just over $150 Canadian (of note: there is a promotion at the time of this article offering a 50% rebate) and service (including unlimited tracking) is $150 / year.
The one catch: the SPOT Satellite Communicator utilizes the Globalstar Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation, which comes with some limitations.
Notice India/Nepal and especially notice South Africa – spotty to zero coverage in some of the meccas for paragliding.
Paraglider pilots are increasingly turning to the Delorme (recently acquired by Garmin) InReach for their satellite tracking needs. Utilizing the Iridium LEO constellation, InReach has complete global coverage (unlike SPOT). The service is also capable of transmitting not only location information, but altitude as well – useful for a retrieve service trying to determine if the pilot is about to land. The ability to do two way messaging via a SMS like service is also available.
But these improvements come at a cost.
One can expect a unit to cost 2 to 3 times as much as the SPOT (the above InReach Explorer will cost north of $450 Canadian) while subscription plans go anywhere from reasonable for EU and US residents to outright highway robbery for those registering from Canada/New Zealand/Australia (especially with respect to tracking). Mitigating the pain for those of us in Canada is the ability to suspend service for part of the year.
GEOS Worldwide Monitoring
Both SPOT and Delorme have partnered with GEOS Worldwide to provide 24/7 monitoring in the event a subscriber requires assistance (triggered by activation of the SOS button on the device). GEOS helps coordinate with Search and Rescue and will notify the emergency contacts you have registered on file with your device.
Of note: Service levels will vary across the world, especially in countries that may be facing a trade embargo by the United States (where GEOS is based). Additional costs incurred by GEOS in the subscribers rescue may be passed on to the subscriber (i.e. helicopter extraction). Accidental activation of the emergency beacon can result in expenses and penalties being levied upon the subscriber (don’t let your toddler get a hold of the device).
One Last Note (or two… or three)
Regardless which unit you get – they need to be fed with lithium batteries. Alkaline will not be able to keep up with the power draw these devices require nor do they work as well in the cold temps we frequently find at altitude.
If you are going to get an InReach, be sure to get a plan with tracking (which the SPOT includes). Tracking allows others (via a webpage) to see a breadcrumb trail of our movements. This is very useful if you fail to arrive at a predetermined time/destination – fellow pilots and rescuers can narrow down where they need to search (or simply hang tight while you hike out).
If you are a paragliding pilot and do get a SPOT/InReach (with tracking) – consider signing up for Dave Wheelers XCFind page (a donation of $20 I am sure will be greatly appreciated by Dave). XCFind centralizes the SPOT/InReach tracking info for pilots, making it a one stop shop for figuring out who is where.