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Re: [John Muir Trail] Emergency devices

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  • Roleigh Martin
    Herb, you write so well, this should be submitted as a short article for Backpacker or Outdoor magazine. Try it. Good job! (from someone who has been
    Message 1 of 2 , Dec 1, 2010
      Herb, you write so well, this should be submitted as a short article for Backpacker or Outdoor magazine.  Try it.  Good job! (from someone who has been published 125 times but currently retired for the last 10 years).

      On Wed, Dec 1, 2010 at 2:37 PM, Herb <herbstroh@...> wrote:

      There has been an extended discussion on the PCT-L list about emergency communication devices. Below is my post to that forum, which may be of interest to readers here as well:

      Recently I have been researching SPOT and sat phones. I frequently hike alone, often in remote areas and almost always out of cell phone range. Since there has been an extended discussion on this issue, I though I would share what I have found to date.

      I think most readers here are well aware of SPOT devices. Along with SOS, help, check-in, and track progress features, the latest generation offers one-way text messaging with extra cost. It does require purchase of a DeLorme PN-60w GPS with spot satellite communicator for over $500, although there are some seasonal promotions offering the GPS and Spot for $400. If you already have a GPS, then this does represent an added cost. The regular service plan is $100 per year, plus 50 cents per message, or bundled at $30 for 100 messages or $50 for 500. The messages are limited to 40 characters.

      Sat phones, plans, and options are confusing at best. Focusing on the highlights, the satellite phones most applicable to a hikers' needs are the Globalstar 1700 (or 1600 used), and the Iridium 9550 (or the 9505 used). The Iridium provides 4 hours of talk time and 30 hours standby. It is SMS capable (up to 120 characters), voicemail is available, weighs in at 9.4 ounces and its dimensions are 5.6L x 2.2W x 1.2D in. Data rates are 9.6kbps with compression. Coverage is superior to the Globalstar both in the US and worldwide. Price new is about $1,200 to $1,300 for the phone and a basic kit that includes chargers and some other goodies. Older used models are available for about $1,000, but are heavier and bulkier.

      Airtime prices for the Iridium are high. You can buy prepaid plans like 75 minutes for $199, good for 30 days. To get six months of minutes you need to spend $449, which gives you 200 minutes. With these plans there is no monthly access fee or startup, and it includes voicemail and SMS.

      The alternative is a monthly plan with or without minutes. A no-minute plan costs about $40.00 per month and a 10 minute plan per month runs $45.00. Both have a $50 startup fee. Calls cost $1.40 to $1.70 a minute. SMS/text is .59 cents per message, and voicemail is $5 a month. Note that with Iridium unless you pay extra, you get an out-of-country phone number. People calling YOU could be charged over $5.00 per minute. To avoid that you can add an Iridium +1Access for another $9.00 per month. There are rebates and deals to the above pricing based on length of commitment.

      The Globalstar claims a 4 hour talk time and 36 hours standby. It too is SMS capable, has voicemail available, data speed of 9.6Kbps, (38.6 comparable compressed data service with extra cost XGate Wireless Option), weighs 7.05 ounces and is 5.3"H x 2.2"W x 1.5"D in size. Coverage is more of an issue for the Globalstar. They are currently upgrading and replacing satellites, but until that is done—sometime next year if they can meet their current launch schedule—there are reoccurring gaps in coverage. That is, there is coverage for 10 minutes, then its out for some period of time, then its back for 21 minutes, then it is out for 5 or 20 minutes, then back, etc. You can go to the Globalstar web site and put in your latitude and longitude and it will calculate your available/unavailable call times. I put in Mt. Whitney and found that coverage was usually on for 10-15 minutes and then off for about that time. The call availability tool is up so that the schedule can be emailed.

      So why even consider the Globalstar given the coverage gaps? Price, price, and oh yeah, price. Globalstar knows that they have a problem, albeit temporary, so they are running a big promotion: $499 ($299 for a used 1600 model) if you buy before 12/31. They also have a great deal on airtime: $19.99 per month, 1 year commitment, unlimited "home" minutes (basically US), free voicemail, text, data. So for $750 you can get a sat phone and unlimited US use for 12 months if you sign up by 12/31. Globalstar provides a US number at no extra cost. Callers to the cell phone will be charged like a call to Texas or Florida.

      Sat phones can, of course be rented. The cost is about $9 per day or $200 per month. A 50 minute bundle would cost $80, or you can just pay $1.79 per minute as you go.

      Keep in mind that sat phones are not as functional as cell phones. They need a clear view to the sky, thus do not work indoors. Supposedly they will connect in moderate tree cover or a tent. A retractable antenna must be pointed at the sky in order for the phone to function, but supposedly it will "ring" to alert you of a call even with the antenna retracted. A steep sided canyon with limited sky views will be a problem for making and receiving calls. Minutes are expensive, but I think for a hiker's purposes could be minimized by using text. The Globalstar provides GPS coordinates. While not as accurate as an actual GPS, the user will be able to provide location coordinates without also carrying a GPS unit.

      Having the ability of two-way communication in an emergency is certainly a big plus, as is the ready availability of current weather information. That alone provides an added margin of safety. Not to offer tax advice to anyone, but hikers who have a legitimate need to be in contact with their business during extended hikes may find the sat phone a deductible expense. I don't think a SPOT or PLB would offer that option. Finally, a non-hiking benefit is that the sat phone with service plan would provide communication in a natural disaster when lines are down, or road trips to remote areas devoid of cell service.

      Worth it? Clearly that is a matter of personal choice. A sat phone may be the most expensive piece of useless equipment one throws in the pack—at least until you, a hiking partner, or fellow hiker trash needs it, in which case it will become the best and most cost efficient emergency device you ever packed.

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