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Summer 2007 Issue
    Cover Article
    Message from the Director
    Field Notes: Leave Only Footprints, Take Only Pictures
    Mission at High Altitude: KCS & NOLS Team to Train Sherpas
    A Wilderness Twist to Traditional Medical School
    Wild Side of Medicine: Heat Illness in the Backcountry
    NOLS Environmental Sustainability Initiative Update
    NOLS River Courses
    Alumni Profile: Nico Marceca
    Recipe Box: Creative Menu Planning for Short Trips
    Gear Room: Personal Locator Beacons
    Book Review: Give Me Mountains for my Horses
Movie Review: Everything's Cool
Matching Gifts Stretch Your Scholarships Giving
Passing it Forward: NOLS Donors Support Student Experiences
Issue Room: Land Development Looms Around NOLS Mexico
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Taking the Search out of Search and Rescue: Personal Locator Beacons Can Provide Extra Peace of Mind

By Meredith Haas, NOLS Alumni Intern

For some, the outdoors is a tranquil sanctuary, while for others it is a boundless wilderness.

Regardless of your pursuit, Mother Nature has always stuck to her own agenda. So what do you do when caught between a rock and a hard place, which can be, literally, on those off-beaten paths?

While nothing should substitute good old common sense, personal locator beacons (PLBs) are an option for added peace of mind. “If you’re by yourself, the question is ‘Do I want to be found?” said Drew Leemon, NOLS Director of Risk Management, noting that there are some situations in which a person is beyond self-help and a PLB could make a difference.

PLBs are pocket-sized, battery-powered emergency locating devices that use two outgoing signals, at 406Mhz and 121.5Mhz frequencies, which can detect your position anywhere in the world using global satellites. Satellites work with ground stations to relay distress signals that are digitally encoded to the registered owner to the appropriate Rescue Coordination Center (RCC). Many models also have built-in GPS systems, like the MicroFix shown here, that can narrow the search range to  within a couple hundred yards.

Ed Gilbert, NOLS WMI grad and a wilderness leader, suggests a 406Mhz personal locator beacon as an item that should be on the gear list for outdoor enthusiasts. “I’m convinced that anyone involved in activities in the loneliness of the wilderness should carry a [PLB]…the life you save may be your own.”

While NOLS courses do not use PLBs, most courses do have satellite phones. “The obvious benefit of a sat phone is two-way communication…you at least know if it is working or if you have to wait for a better signal or move to a better place for a signal,” said Dave Watson, NOLS Patagonia Sea Kayaking Program Supervisor.

PLBs are helpful tools when in a tight position, but are manually operated and can’t help you if you become unconscious, and, like any other form of technology, they run the risk of failure. The best method to ensure you’re found is to leave a well-planned itinerary with someone, especially when you’re traveling solo. However, as Drew notes, your itinerary will only help you if you stick to the plan.

For much more information on Personal Locator Beacons and how to register yours, see the NOAA Satellite and Information Service website at

Got a great new piece of gear that you’d like to tell other NOLS alumni about? Write to and share your gear thoughts, questions and opinions. If it ends up in print, we’ll hook you up with a spiffy NOLS t-shirt or hat.

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