Handheld GPS devices, such as the SPOT, are changing backcountry dynamics. Increasingly, lost hunters and hikers are finding their own way out of the woods.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Handheld GPS devices, such as the SPOT, are changing backcountry dynamics. Increasingly, lost hunters and hikers are finding their own way out of the woods.

Technology changes backcountry dynamics

Search and Rescue missions adjust to GPS devices

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Routt County Search and Rescue volunteers Andy Kerrigan, left, and Chad Bowdre participate in a GPS-training exercise during summer on Rabbit Ears Pass.

— Technological advances are not only making more tools available to search and rescue crews, they're allowing lost hikers and hunters to help themselves.

Everyday outdoorsmen regularly are using their cell phones in the backcountry - where they once could only dream about getting a signal - and equipping themselves with GPS and satellite-linked gadgets. As a result, Routt County Search and Rescue's workload has evolved to include more rescues and fewer searches, member Darrel Levingston said.

Increasingly, calls for assistance are made by the lost parties themselves. In the absence of complicating factors such as injuries or inclement weather, lost hunters, backcountry skiers and hikers sometimes can be talked back to camp without Search and Rescue even having to mobilize a field crew.

"We get cell phone calls from people saying, 'I'm lost, I don't know where I am,'" Levingston said. "A lot of times, we can walk them out over the phone."

While the number of missions Search and Rescue embarks on each year varies widely and is dependent on unpredictable circumstances, the 15-year average is about 46 missions a year, Levingston said. Crews have taken part in 47 missions thus far in 2008, and only about a quarter of those have involved hunters in need of assistance.

In the 1990s, about half of Search and Rescue's annual missions took place during the fall, and most of them were hunter-related, Levingston said. Levingston directly attributed the decline in hunter searches to changing technology.

Handheld GPS devices are helping people in the outdoors keep better track of their location, and cell phones help them keep in touch with friends and family back home during multi-day hunting trips, he said.

While hunter calls have decreased throughout the years, snowmobilers are rising to take their place in the ranks. Fifteen years ago, the machines were more likely to be used as a tool by ranchers than they were by outdoor recreationists, Levingston said.

Search and Rescue had only two hunter missions in 2007, compared to nine snowmobile missions.

"We're just as busy as ever, just in a different way," Levingston said. "A lot of our focus has changed due to the types of activities people are participating in."

GPS gaining popularity

"In the last 15 years, technology has been a huge change for Search and Rescue, and not just in the types of calls, but in how we're able to make our job a little easier and a little safer," Levingston said.

GPS devices quickly are becoming a must-have in the outdoors, along with the more traditional supplies such as food, water and fire starters, Scott Singer said. Singer, who owns Singer RV and Marine in Steamboat, has been selling GPS devices for years and uses them in his vehicles and aircraft.

"More people are getting into GPS, especially if they're hiking alone or with a small group, just one or two people," Singer said.

It helps that GPS technology continues to get better and more affordable. Just a few years ago, the cheapest portable units cost between $700 and $1,000, Singer said.

Now, advanced models such as the SPOT satellite messenger retail for as little as $100, plus annual service subscription fees.

The SPOT quickly is becoming a go-to model for outdoor enthusiasts because it goes beyond just providing GPS coordinates to the user, Singer said. The device allows people to dispatch emergency responders or friends and family to their location if they need assistance or to send prerecorded messages letting loved ones know they are doing OK in the absence of an emergency. It also allows people at home to track a user's location on Google Maps.

"It's starting to become popular," Singer said about the palm-sized SPOT. "So far, this is the smallest one I've seen."

Practice makes perfect

For recreationists, outdoor safety is not just about having good equipment; it's about knowing how to use it, Levingston said.

In the case of two men who lost their way outside Columbine on Thursday night, their GPS unit was useless because they had failed to set their starting point. Ultimately, it was a considerably less high-tech compass that got them back to civilization.

Luckily, the lost men knew they were somewhere west of Columbine, and they were able to follow the compass until they hit a road, Levingston said. From there, they found their way back on their own without any field assistance from Search and Rescue.

"We've seen this before. People get something as a gift, they go out and they don't really practice with it until they need it," Levingston said. "Unless you know how to use it, it does you no good whatsoever."

Singer also advised GPS users to test their devices in the types of extreme conditions they may face in the outdoors. The LCD crystals in a vehicle model he owns, rated to 3 degrees, failed to light up Thursday night at temperatures near 32 degrees.

"Make sure what their coldest operating temperature is, and test it before you go out in the wilderness," Singer said.

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