girlfriend wanders the desert
January 31, 2006 8:35 AM   Subscribe

Emergency GPS suggestions for girlfriend who is compelled to travel alone in the desert for a week.

I have read through several posts on Ask and didn't see anything that wasn't for "normal" GPS use. What I need is something affordable, basic, and simple- but will work in the case of "damn, I'm lost in the desert." I've seen emergency GPS beacons for $1,000, but I was hoping to spend closer to $100. Any suggestions?
posted by pissfactory to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total)
Can you give us some more detail? Will she be walking, biking, or driving? Will she have maps of the area to refer to? Will she be travelling between two points, or will she be entering and departing from a single place she will need to get back to?
posted by procrastination at 8:47 AM on January 31, 2006

Let me say that on the first part of her journey, she should look at all the life. Plants and birds and rocks and things.

Garmin has a number of basic GPS uints that are inexpensive.

The cheapest, the eTrex, is about $100 US. basic lat/long, compass, waypoints. No maps.

The cheapest unit with maps seems to be the eTrex Legend. $180 USD apparently. I would expect that this would get almost anybody un-lost throughout North and South America.

Garmin isn't the only manufacturer out there, but it is a well known name and has wide distribution. You certainly don't need to spend $1000 unless you want something really fancy.
posted by GuyZero at 8:55 AM on January 31, 2006

I think Magellan makes a superior GPS to Garmin, though in the desert she shouldn't have much problem picking up a signal. Also, you might consider a personal locator beacon - there is at least one company that will rent them.
posted by exogenous at 9:00 AM on January 31, 2006

Pretty much any of the portable consumer GPS units geared toward hikers, that you can get at a store like REI, will work.

But they only do so much for helping you find your way -- they still require the user to look at maps, plan a route, etc. Some of the new ones allow you to download maps to them. Mine doesn't do that, and if the one you get doesn't, it's a tool that really requires a little bit of thought and planning to be of much use. If the unit can download topo maps (rather than just street maps), it could be easier to use. I don't remember if any of the newer ones do that.

For a complete emergency, if she has a cell phone AND can get reception where she's lost, a GPS could lead rescuers right to her. Anything beyond that will require a little bit of effort on her part.

(For instance, most GPS units have a "reverse my route" feature. Say you set out for a day of hiking, but get lost. As long as you had your GPS on, it can plot a course for you, telling you exactly which way to go to get back to where you started. But, it won't be at all obvious how to do that if you don't read the manual, and even if you do, if you are not at least a little bit versed in land navigation, you won't be able to understand what the GPS is trying to tell you.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that these devices are not magic).
posted by teece at 9:02 AM on January 31, 2006

Where in the desert? In New Mexico all but the most remote sections have some sort of connectivity. I routinely drive out to the middle of nowhere and am usually within 1-2 miles of a signal on Verizon.

Does she have a cell phone with GPS options? I just turn mine on when I go out wandering. Though I've never had to use it.
posted by FlamingBore at 9:18 AM on January 31, 2006

If she's really going to be out in the desert alone for a week, she'd better damn well know how to use a map and compass and have them with her. A broken GPS unit can cost her her life.
posted by driveler at 9:27 AM on January 31, 2006

Her batteries died, then she did. I second driveler's comment.
posted by furtive at 9:33 AM on January 31, 2006

For navigation, she's best off with a compass and good set of maps, and possibly a cheap GPS backup in case she gets totally turned around.

For emergency rescue, I'd suggest outfitting her with a PLB (personal locater beacon) and registering it with the NOAA.

A non-GPS unit is a huge help to start, since they include one coded beacon that says where the emergency is within a fairly wide range, and then another low-power beacon on a different frequency, to help rescuers narrow the search area.
posted by I Love Tacos at 10:22 AM on January 31, 2006

Well, acquiring an emergency beacon for the price of a half-decent passive GPS receiver is probably not going to happen. You can get them for well under $1K, though. Here's a page on various "rescue-me" options, including coverage of Personal Locator Beacons, aka PLBs. From the same site, this chart shows the cheapest PLB at suggested retail price of $599, without built-in GPS. A quick check of Froogle shows you might get the price down close to $450 for a low-end unit. If one wants to try auctions, eBay shows a PLB currently at $199 and another not yet reaching reserve currently at $50. PLBs do have to be registered with the government of the country one is in. That link with the rental solution looks awfully good if you're staying in-country, though the rental company might be able to adjust for a different country, or help find a comparable company elsewhere.

Something to think about: If all the major manufacturers are selling basic emergency beacons at a minimum of a half-grand, how wise is it to trust one's life to a cut-rate unit they managed to dig up much cheaper?
posted by mdevore at 10:38 AM on January 31, 2006

I'd also chime in with this: you don't need an emergency beacon.

You either take the responsibility to take care of yourself and accept the risk of going into the back-country, or you don't go.

A $100 GPS, a topo map, and a compass and a trip to the library for a book on navigation (coupled with some practice), can give you all you need to be more than capable of taking care of yourself (and the GPS is 100% optional). It ain't that hard.

Second, human beings are remarkably resilient. As long as your friend is not spectacularly dumb (or very unlucky), she'll be fine.

And lastly, a cell phone and a GPS will give you a little bit of extra insurance if really bad luck does strike. It costs a fifth to a tenth of what a GPS beacon costs because it's not at all guaranteed to work. But if you really think you're gonna need a GPS locator beacon for a week of hiking: it's probably better to stay at home.
posted by teece at 11:19 AM on January 31, 2006

As a female who has driven through some of the most remote desert areas in the US your girlfriend needs a really good map far more than she needs a GPS, although a etrex is nice to have around. Often the best maps are available through the parks service or BLM - they will have all the roads she may find herself on -old mining roads, ranch roads, etc. There is a lot of restoration going on currently, so make sure she checks that the roads are open to motorized vehicles.

You didn't ask about things she might need, but I figured I'd mention some things just in case. I never leave with less than 5 gallons of water in my trunk. I've never actually had to use the water myself, but I've definitely given it away to motorists who have broken down and didn't have any water on them. If she is hiking she should drop a spoonful of powdered gatorade into her water to keep her electrolytes up - even in the cooler winter temps. A leatherman is indespensable

If either of you would like to contact me, my email is in my profile. I've studied desert plants over the last 5 years and know about some truly amazing places in the south west that she shouldn't miss.
posted by a22lamia at 11:38 AM on January 31, 2006

She should keep in mind that any electronic gadget is worth no more than the condition of its batteries. Take non-electronic backups.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:50 AM on January 31, 2006

Casio did a GPS watch a little while back. I've seen it as cheap as A$300. Battery life once you start trying to take readings isn't brilliant, but it has a portable charger that takes 6 AAAs. Whenever I go out of the city I put mine on.

Here's a link I could get to load.
posted by krisjohn at 2:45 PM on January 31, 2006

If she hasn't done this before, you might be seeing her a lot faster than you think, especially if it rains. Make sure she jots a rough plan down with a final, "if you don't hear form me send the search boys hiking" date. All that said, cheap GPS's like an eTrex will give you a you are here and came from there idea of things. However, note these things are not a panacea and don't cover blisters or fix things when you get charged by a crazed BLM piece of cattle...
posted by sled at 5:07 PM on January 31, 2006

teece wrote: don't need an emergency beacon. You either take the responsibility to take care of yourself and accept the risk of going into the back-country, or you don't go.

Because insurance is for pussies.
posted by ryanrs at 5:42 PM on January 31, 2006

How about buying a cheap GPS unit for $100 and renting a sat phone for the trip? They're the size of an old school mobile, and look to be about $40 a week to rent. Check the signal coverage, as the different systems have better/worse coverage in different parts of the world.
posted by MrC at 9:10 PM on January 31, 2006

If you're that nervous about it rent her a Satellite phone and an in car nav system or a handheld $100 Garmin with maps. A GPS beacon is total overkill when you can use a phone and just call someone and tell them what your problem is. You don't need medivac if your car overheats.

I am going to assume this person is not going out in the desert on foot.
posted by fshgrl at 9:10 PM on January 31, 2006

I don't know much about desert rescues, but it isn't all that uncommon for search and rescue people to die looking for lost skiiers and snowboarders who neglected to carry a beacon.
Those are radio beacons that don't transmit very far and their friends or the search and rescue people are searching a small area: in the avalanche runout. If someone is totally lost in the woods, they are not going to try and find them by wandering around with a receiver.

And I don't see what beacon usage has to do with rescuers being killed, which is a very infrequent event, since they are used after the avalanche.
posted by fshgrl at 9:15 PM on January 31, 2006

If the desert is within a national park or monument, it would be wise (or mandatory, depending on location) to fill out a backcountry registration - at least that way, someone local might (a) look out for her or (b) ring alarm bells if she doesn't show up at a pre-determined time.

Also, Between a Rock and a Hard Place is a nice read.

I don't have any suggestion on GPS beacons, unfortunately, but I think it would be more important on having people react appropriately if she's missing than merely relying on technology. (What if her batteries run out? What if the beacon falls and breaks? What if she forgets it somewhere?)

The best "insurance policy" is to have more than one way to get yourself out of a bad situation.
posted by ckemp at 12:58 AM on February 1, 2006

Because insurance is for pussies.

Not what I was saying at all. Going for a hike in the desert for a week is not that big a deal. Any reasonably fit, reasonably intelligent person will be able to do it without getting themselves killed.

A GPS beacon is serious overkill -- and it's a bullshit way to think about a week long hike. You should be prepared to keep yourself OK -- it's your job. The rescuers are there for the super rare catastrophe -- you break a leg or what not. In that event, a cell phone is probably fine. If not, accept the risk.
posted by teece at 10:39 PM on February 2, 2006

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