McMurdo Fast Find Ranger Personal Locator Beacon allows you to alert rescue services even when there's no phone signal - like Lassie in an orange box...
Just arrived via OM's wilderness HQ in London, is a new McMurdo Fast Finder Ranger Personal Locator Beacon, a small, orange box of electronic tricks that promises to use GPS satellites to call out the cavalry in case of emergency even in remote locations with no mobile phone network available.
Personal Locator Beacons - PLB for short - have been legal in the UK since January 2012 and the McMurdo Fast Find is available to buy now. The way it works is that in case of an emergency, you activate the unit which, in turn, communicates with the COSPAS SARSAT GPS satellite system and effectively tells it both exactly where you are and that you're in big trouble.
Those details are then passed to your local rescue team who, hopefully come out and get you. As a secondary measure, the unit also works as a location beacon, pumping out a local signal for up to 24 hours to help rescuers on the ground to find your location. It will also emit morse-code SOS LED light flashes if you choose.
Small But Tough
The unit itself is a small, orange, plastic thing which is waterproof to 10m, claimed to be 'rugged' and weighs 160g plus 27g for the storage pouch supplied. It's quite a chunky little bit of kit and about the size of an early mobile phone.
Battery life is said to be around six years, after which time you'll need to have it replaced at a McMurdo service centre. You can check on the state of the battery using a test button on the side of the unit, which triggers a series of flashes. You can also make sure the GPS gubbins are working properly with a longer press on the test button.
McMurdo suggests that you check the batteries once a month just to make sure you have adequate power, but the idea is that the rest of the time, it simply dozes quietly in the lid-pocket of your pack unless things go horribly wrong.
The Fast Find is very single minded. It does one thing and one thing only, tell the emergency services where you are if something goes wrong. It has no conventional GPS functionality and there's no Tracker-style subscription or updates on your position. It is simply an emergency only device.
All you need to do is register it with the Coastguard - you can do it online - and you're good to go.
When Things Go Wrong
How well does it work? We can't tell you from personal experience, but the technology is proven in the marine and aviation industries and McMurdo says that 'in 2010 alone, 2,338 people were rescued globally using information provided by the COSPAS SARSAT system'.
To activate the Fast Find, you flip-up thge red cover then slide off the top section of the unit to uncover the on/off button and associated bits, then simply press the button to switch the unit on. Switching it off is the reverse, but you'll need to order a new cover, which is why we haven't dismembered it yet.
Obviously the cover is to prevent accidental activation and false alarms. There's a label under the flip-off reading: 'USE ONLY IN SITUATIONS OF GRAVE & IMMINENT DANGER'
In some situations, it's possible that the Fast Find PLB could literally be a life saver, but whether it makes sense depends a lot on you and what you get up to in the outdoors. At a RRP of £270 and with a weight of 160g it's both expensive and relatively chunky.
On a warm, summer's day in the Peak District it would arguably be overkill, but for a multi-day trip in the Highlands in winter, or a solo trek abroad in remote areas, it starts to make a lot more sense and in that context, the relatively small additional weight isn't a lot to carry in exchange for a bit of added safety and reassurance that if things do go wrong, you have an emergency option - assuming, of course, that there is a rescue service to come looking for you.
Finally, for some people there will be an ethical angle, a feeling that devices like these will detract from the self-reliance that's part of being in the outdoors - you could, of course, apply the same logic to mobile phones.
But initially, at least, we'd say it's something we'd definitely consider carrying in wilderness areas with sparse phone coverage, perhaps in certain scenarios where a relatively minor incident could have major consequences - severe winter conditions, solo, at night for example - or in particularly remote areas, though clearly it's something we hope we never have to use.
Ultimately there's no right or wrong answer. The bottom line is that the PLB exists and is legal to use if you choose to. You can find more details at www.fastfindplb.com.