Blog: Making It Home With Magnets

Part of what we do at the Mountain Safety Council (MSC) is try to work out the best way to help people who participate in outdoor recreation have a good time, and stay safe. This challenge stems from trying to reach New Zealand’s 1.15 million annual participants across Tramping, Hunting, Mountain Biking, Mountaineering and Trail Running.

“Safety is the outcome of good planning and good decision making”

One of the primary concerns we have been tracking — particularly this year — is the ‘unexpected night out’ which typically arises from a day walk or day hunt that goes wrong. In the last few months, we’ve had a series of near misses that could well have had a very different outcome. In two cases there were small children involved in winter conditions.

Thankfully search and rescue teams along with local Police were able to find the lost parties and a debt of gratitude are owed to the service of these incredible people. The question we ask is ‘how do we prevent this from happening again?’

We’ve had folks proposing solutions for this issue on our Facebook page. A lot of people suggested that we should all carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). Truly, in a perfect world, there would be one in every pack of every person going outdoors. It would certainly save a whole lot of time, money and worry searching for lost people. Sure there’d be a whole lot of ‘false alarms’, but at least the location of lost people could be pinpointed quickly and accurately. Some people have mentioned that this amounts to a 111 call in the wilderness. Although the call out cost is — obviously — much higher than a squad car on the corner of a cul-de-sac, the principles are roughly the same, they’d say. It seems like a sound enough argument until you begin to consider the “real world” practicalities.

Unfortunately, these PLB devices are currently pretty expensive. I don’t mean new iPad pro, or new jet ski expensive, no, something similar to new Scarpa boots expensive. You can rent them of course, but for the average day walker, that’s unlikely. In some respects, PLB’s are similar to handheld GPS devices. A GPS does have some benefits over a map and compass and have come down in price over the years. But like the PLB you won’t find a GPS in every pack, and you may not as the cost and reliability (versus map and compass) are barriers for most people, especially day walkers who often rely on track signage to navigate.

Under this sort of logic then, is it reasonable to ask the 1.15M participants in the outdoors every year to stump up $300–500+ for a PLB? Probably not. Don’t misconstrue this; it’s a great investment in your personal safety, and we encourage you to get one if you can, especially if you’re walking or hunting in remote terrain. However, there are many other items to include in your day walk that will increase both your enjoyment and safety. Head to our website for hints and tips on this.

Again, safety is the outcome of good planning and good decision making. If your planning and decision making is to invest in a PLB for a ‘call Batman’ moment, that’s fine. If it’s in place of sensible and very cost effective trip planning procedures, or in place of good decision making then it could be a problem, a big one.

’Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed, Though to walk near its crest was so pleasant; But over its terrible edge there had slipped A duke, and full many a peasant; So the people said something would have to be done, But their projects did not all tally. Some said, “Put a fence around the edge of the cliff;” Some, “An ambulance down in the valley.” Joseph Malins — Full Poem

‘Carry a PLB’ is getting close to ‘wear a lifejacket’ message for the land-based ‘outdoors’ community. What I mean by that is that if you have a lifejacket (and are wearing it) during a survival situation at sea your chances of survival are dramatically increased. Unfortunately, after decades of messaging and intervention, there are still people that either don’t have or refuse to wear lifejackets at sea — much to the frustration of safety organisations. Perhaps the PLB will be the same; will the technology be refined and brought to the mass market? Time will tell. It must be stated that a PLB simply makes you easier to find, a lifejacket helps to prevent almost certain drowning if you don’t have one.

So, in the short term are we back to square one? Perhaps it’s a combination of both PLB awareness and much more basic methods that the typical day walker can (and will) use?

New Zealand’s Outdoor Safety Code encourages people to ‘tell someone your plans’ along with four other simple things to help you make it home safely. We’d encourage folks to tell someone your plans for every trip in the outdoors. ‘Telling someone your plans’ alone may not have helped prevent the recent near misses, but it would have gone a long way to reducing the time it took to find them I suspect.

There is a ‘Good / Better / Best’ moment regarding PLB’s and ‘Telling someone your plans’ that’s worth exploring because for a number of reasons the 750,000+ people that go ‘Tramping’ alone won’t all take a PLB. In relation to telling someone your plans,

* ‘Bad’ is doing nothing at all, that’s obvious.
* ‘Good’ might be doing something — say a text or a call to a friend and avoidance of the hazards + good decision making if things change while you’re out there.
* ‘Better’ might be a text as well as an intentions form and avoidance of the hazards + good decision making if things change while you’re out there.
* ‘Best’ might be a text, an intentions form, a PLB and avoidance of the hazards + good decision making if things change while you’re out there.

Some people might say “Set high expectations and others will rise to meet them, eventually.” Unfortunately, there are some for whom a PLB may never be an option, particularly the ‘unexpected night out’ day walkers who might view a PLB as overkill for a simple afternoon walk. So for those participants, shouldn’t there be simple practices that demonstrate the value of ‘Tell someone your plans’ in the first place?

We’re very keen to get your thoughts on PLB’s. Do you see them as a mandatory item in the bag, or are they more appropriate for overnight or multi-day trips? Head to our Facebook Page or Twitter Page and let us know your thoughts.

Mike Daisley, CEO

Mountain Safety Council

mountainsafety.org.nz