Tag Archives: SPOT2

Bushwalking Equipment | Can I Really Do Without a Smartphone?

As a bushwalker, can you afford not to own a smartphone? Which smartphone apps can replace dedicated equipment? What are the limitations?

Over the last few years technology has made smartphones invaluable to bushwalkers, replacing many of the devices, which previously had to be bought and carried individually.

Probably the first device carried by bushwalkers to be incorporated into the iPhone was the still and movie camera. Today’s smartphone has a high quality camera which can take video and stills, including panoramas, mark each with the location at which the photo was taken, and then upload it to the web using wifi or mobile (cellular) data.

Next, the GPS became available, allowing routes to be mapped live, waypoints determined and marked, and distances accurately determined. Recently, apps which allow the viewing of calibrated digital maps have become commonly available, and some apps now incorporate the navigation features found in a dedicated GPS. High resolution colour screens make viewing these maps and navigational features easy. Modern smartphones have built-in compasses which can be calibrated and are accurate enough for the day walker, but not accurate enough for bearings over long distances.

Then high quality heart rate sensors came on the market which could pair with a smartphone, initially using a “dongle” plugged into the earphone socket but more recently using low energy interference-free Bluetooth.

Some apps even use the smartphone camera and built-in light to measure blood flow pulses in a finger, without the need for an independent sensor. Fitness training had become more scientific!

The next advance was the ability to measure heart rate variability (HRV) (see previous post), using the powerful analysis capabilities of modern smartphones. Initially measuring HRV was only possible with expensive laboratory based equipment, but soon Polar had incorporated this ability into some of their top-of-the-line wrist computers. In the last few years, this technology has migrated to the smart phone, allowing bushwalk training to be fine tuned.

Bush walkers visiting remote areas often feel the need to take emergency devices with them to obtain help if an emergency occurs. We are all familiar with personal location beacons (PLBs) which can transmit a message, including location, to an overhead satellite, and from there to emergency rescue services.

SPOT gen3 s can send a message via satellite to your emergency contacts or to the same rescue service. Version three is much better functionally according to the reviews, but has a more expensive subscription.

Recently smartphone apps (GetHomeSafe) have become available which can send an SMS or email, if a bushwalker fails to return on time, without the need for any action by the “injured” or “lost” person or instantly in a critical emergency to a contact list or even rescue services directly, including the current location, participant details and a route plan. “You don’t need a working phone (be within range) or even to be be conscious for an alert to be sent.”

Bush walkers on day walks and within range of a mobile tower, up to 70 km from a high enough vantage point, can add weather and tide apps  and the ability to visualise routes or places in 3D using Google Earth.

We now have GPS, fitness, navigation, mapping, emergency notification and weather services available at low cost in the one device! The only problem is a lack of battery capacity, but even this can be overcome to some extent with a solar charger.

What is next?
How do you overcome these limitations?
Where will the future take us?

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Is Solo Bushwalking Safe?

Why walk solo? How can trip planning reduce the risks ? Solo communications? What additional equipment do you need for a solo walk? How can you make it easier for rescuers?

Why would anyone want to walk solo?

If you have ever walked in a large group, you would understand why someone might want to walk solo. Rarely will the speed of the group match your own; you may want to stop for extra photos or to check a bird call; you may be slower up hills than others but be able to keep up on the flat or downhill; you may not like the company or find that their noise spoils the wilderness for you.

Then on the other hand, you make not  have walking partners who are free when you want to walk; who want to go where you do or have your experience or motivation. Perhaps you want to climb seven peaks in seven days, in which case you have probably narrowed down the list of potential companions who either want or have the fitness to walk with you.

The dangers of solo walking

Traditionally walkers have been taught to never walk in a groups smaller than four:  two to get help and one to look after the injured party. With the advent of  personal locator beacons (PLB) which can summon emergency help easily and even in the remotest location, a group of two is feasible and safe, in my opinion. The other major problem with solo walking is the added weight of no longer being able to share a tent or stove. Added weight increases the risk of injury, slows down progress and makes for longer days on the track.

But a group of ONE…. still not recommended by any authority of which I am aware. Despite this, with adequate trip planning, equipment and experience, solo walking can be safe and certainly enjoyable.

Pre-trip planning to reduce risks

 The inherent problems of solo walking can be reduced by selecting routes that are popular, so that if the need arose, you can  call on other nearby walkers for help. Not my style, as I like to be self-sufficient, and would be too embarrassed to do so.  Selecting a walk that you have done before and avoiding an isolated route, where there is a high risk of injury, both add another level of safety.

The trip intention sheet becomes more important for solo walkers, as it lists where you will be each night, how self sufficient you are and gives details of when you will arrive at your destination and what to do if you are late. This sheet, and its lodgement with authorities and a trusted friend becomes essential on a solo hike. Solo walkers unfortunately have a history of getting lost and requiring rescue, often with serious consequences.

 Be aware of the common injuries you may expect and do a relevant first aid course.

Making it easier for rescuers.

If you are unfortunate enough to require rescue, you can help by trying to be rational  about the things you do while lost:

  • make sure that you mark your route if you go off the track
  • leave a track marker which can’t be missed
  • show with arrows or boot prints the direction in which you have gone
  • make sure you and your campsite are visible from the air: carry a signaling mirror, reflective space blanket, flashing torch, light a fire, but make sure you observe any bushfire bans.
  • make sure you can be heard: always carry a whistle and know how to use it in an emergency.

Solo Communications

New technology such as the SPOT gen3 allows you to keep in contact with friends by using satellite technology to send SMS and emails to your emergency contact. If you fail to send this each day, they can then activate the emergency plan you have given them. Your PLB or SPOT can be used in an emergency to call for help from rescue authorities, but the PLB, being dedicated for this purpose is much more reliable. The PLB has  much stronger signal strength and is recognised by authorities as a call for help, which they will not ignore. The SPOT has the potential to do the same thing, but there are more steps in the emergency response chain and hence more likelihood of a step failing. SPOT has an annual subscription fee which makes it much more expensive  to run over a few years than the purchase of a PLB.

If you have mobile (cell) phone reception where you are walking, then the risk of a life threatening situation is  much reduced, and  this becomes an essential part of your equipment.
Solo equipment

Beyond the lack of ability to share a tent or stove, which will obviously increase the weight of your pack, there are other weight increases you may need to consider.

 Is there some equipment that you would normally share around the group that you will now have to carry yourself?

  • a better first aid kit
  • better or more navigation equipment?
  • a rope
  • different food packaging with individual serves
  • an inflatable raft!!

See also

Black Hills Hiking Safety: Risks of Hiking Alone Copyright 2002-2009 Travis N. Wood
Planning a Walk
 Communications for Bushwalkers Rik Head Bush Search and Rescue Victoria (Version 1.0 March 2009) pdf
Creative Commons License
This article by Bush Walker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.