When To Initiate A Backcountry Rescue With Your Garmin Inreach Plb Or Spot

When to Initiate a Backcountry Rescue (with Your Garmin InReach, PLB, or SPOT)

In This Guide
  • What’s the best SOS device to get?
  • When is it okay to hit SOS?
  • How does the rescue work?
  • What you can do to increase your chance of survival.

The popularity of satellite communicators like InReach, PLBs, and SPOT has opened up a never-before realized lifeline from the backcountry to the outside world. For most of us who use these devices, this means sending a text message or track log to a loved one to let them know that we’re okay. But what happens when you get in trouble? How do you know what it’s okay to hit the SOS button? How “in trouble” is “in trouble,” and when is it enough to warrant an SOS?

As someone who reviews InReach devices, It’s a question I get asked often. Questions I get include:

And they’re all great questions.

So I sat down with Director of Technology for SAR / Los Angeles County Sheriff, Steve Goldsworthy. Steve has over 30 years of experience with LASD and was kind enough to share some practical insights on when to hit that SOS button. I’ve also added my thoughts from interviewing hikers who hit the SOS button, and my experience from pressing the SOS button myself to aid other hikers.

Steve Goldsworthy And Cris Hazzard
A big thanks to Steve Goldsworthy and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department, who carved out time from a busy schedule to talk backcountry rescue and address your questions.

And just a note, the guidelines in this article are in no way an official policy of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The recommendations here are my own based on their generous input and insight, my experience, and the experiences of other hikers.

Let’s Talk SOS Devices First

Acr Resqlink And Garmin Inreach
Today’s hikers are lucky; backcountry SOS devices are reliable, easy to get, and only cost a few hundred bucks. Your life is worth it, so please get one.

There are a few flavors of SOS devices that most people have in the backcountry: a PLB (like the ACR), a SPOT satellite communicator, a satellite phone, or an InReach satellite communicator. Each flavor has a different way of communicating with first responders.

The Two-Way Advantage

Garmin Mini Sos Message
Having a two-way communicator like the InReach Mini allows you to chat with rescuers once you initiate an SOS.

If you have an InReach or two-way satellite communicator that uses GEOS, you have some distinct advantages over a one-way distress call.

The downside is that you have to pay for this service as a subscription. I don’t mind paying a few bucks for a service that increases my chances of surviving. If you don’t want to pay for a subscription, your other option is to get a PLB like the ACR ResQlink.

You can check out my guides and reviews of the InReach devices: InReach Mini, InReach Explorer, and GPSMAP 66i.

What if I only have a cell phone? Well, it’s not nearly as good as a satellite communicator for backcountry SOS, but there might still be a chance to communicate with search and rescue. I’ll talk about your options later in this article.

When to hit the SOS button

Gpsmap 66i Sos Button
Rescue is only a button press away, but when do you really need it?

Let’s get to it. When should you hit the SOS button? Steve Goldsworthy of LASD SAR has a great answer to that question.

Hit the SOS button in the backcountry when you are in doubt about your outcome.

You won’t ever get in trouble for hitting the SOS button if your request for help is genuine. That guidance is flexible enough to account for your experience (or inexperience) level.

And if it further helps your decision-making process, hit SOS when you think you are in danger of life or (loosing a) limb. That’s a piece of advice I received in a NOLS class, and it can help clarify “outcome,” especially if you are a more experienced hiker.

I would add that having a two-way communicator like an Inreach device will increase your options and make your evacuation potentially easier for all parties.

New Guide Notifications
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SOS Scenarios

Montrose Search Rescue
Make sure you are responsible when hitting the SOS button. Most search and rescue teams, like the Montrose Search and Rescue Team seen here, are all volunteers. When you hit the SOS button, you potentially put all of their lives at risk. Photo Montrose Search and Rescue Team

Let’s walk through some potential SOS scenarios based on your questions and the criteria we just outlined. And here comes another disclaimer. There are no absolutes, and these are all hypothetical judgment calls to illustrate the SOS criteria in action. All emergencies are different. There are many variables for every situation. Only you can make the final decision on whether to hit the SOS button or not.

What Happens When I Hit SOS?

Lasd Super Puma
If conditions permit, you may be recused quickly by an aircraft like Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Helicopter, Air Rescue 5. Otherwise, a rescue could take many hours or days.

The process varies slightly depending on your situation, device, and location, but the basic workflow is

  1. Someone monitoring the SOS channels (GEOS, the Air Force, etc.) gets a distress call. Generally, the distress signal will also include GPS coordinates.
  2. They will look up any information associated with the beacon, such as your name, age, experience, etc.
  3. They will reach out to state emergency officials.
  4. State officials will determine the appropriate county officials and contact them.
  5. County officials will determine the appropriate first responder team(s).
    1. Weather-permitting, this could be a helicopter.
    2. If the conditions don’t allow for a helicopter, it will likely be a search and rescue (SAR) ground team.
    3. A SAR ground team could also come in to support a helicopter.
  6. The SAR team will contact the agency that received the SOS call (such as GEOS) to get all the information they can, including your GPS position.
  7. The SAR team will try to communicate with you if you have a two-way communications device.
  8. They might use software such as SARTopo to plan an approach to your position based on the conditions and their local knowledge.
  9. Aviation units can potentially reach you quickly, but may not be able to evacuate you based on the conditions.
  10. Ground teams will probably take a bit longer to reach you than it took for you to get where you are.
  11. If you have a two-way communicator like an InReach, GEOS will check in with you periodically and update you on the situation.
  12. Maybe a helicopter will swoop in and airlift you away to safety if the conditions permit. If the conditions are bad, a rescue could take days. Most ground rescues take at least several hours.

FYI, in Los Angeles, all SAR team members are certified EMTs.

Here’s a video on how the process works with an InReach device.

And this video shows the Montrose Search and Rescue Team in action. It’s not hiking specific but still interesting in terms of rescue workflow.

And here’s what it’s like to be rescued from a cliff from a helicopter.

And lastly, here’s a rescue where it took 5 days to find the missing hikers. If the hikers had been carrying a PLB or satellite communicator, the rescue would likely have been a matter of hours.

What to Do After You Hit SOS

Cal Guard Hoists Injured Hiker Off Mount Whitney
Once you hit the distress button, it’s important to stay where you are so that search teams can move into your position. In this photo a team from Inyo County Search and Rescue gets ready to search for a hiker who tried to take the challenging Mountaineers Route up Mt Whitney. The team has been inserted into the area by a California National Guard helicopter, which would also evacuate the hiker when she was found. Photo courtesy Inyo County Search and Rescue

The most important thing is to stay put wherever you triggered your distress call.

First responders will travel to the distress call’s GPS position. If you move, they then have to try and find you.

Other things you should do are:

How to Increase Your Chances Of Rescue Before Leave Your House

essential hiking emergency gear
I always carry some form of an emergency kit with me when I hike. It doesn’t have to be heavy or complicated, but it will dramatically increase my chances of survival and comfort level if something goes wrong.

There are some simple steps you can take before your hike to increase your chances of survival.

Want some gear recommendations? Check out my gear page. Only hiking gear that I use, no paid BS.

What If I Don’t Have a Satellite Communicator?

Lost Hiker Gaiagps
It’s hard to beat a smartphone that can offer precision mapping and a great camera in your pocket. But it’s not built for the backcountry; screens can break, and batteries can die. And of course, you may not have a cell signal miles away from civilization. So my advice is to get a satellite communicator.  But if you only have a phone, there are some things you can do that help with a rescue. Photo GaiaGPS

If you find yourself in distress without a cellphone signal in the backcountry, there are some steps you can take that will assist SAR teams.

Who Pays For My Rescue?

In California, you pay nothing for a rescue. In Los Angeles County (and many others), volunteers perform the rescue in conjunction with the Sheriff’s Department. If you want clarification about who would pay for a potential rescue, give your local sheriff’s department a call.

However, you might have to pay for an ambulance or emergency service when the rescue ends. If a SAR team transports you from the trail to the road and a private ambulance service picks you up, you (or your insurance) may be liable for the ambulance transport costs.

If you’re not critically injured, you have the option of not getting professional care and simply driving home or to your doctor.

If you are hiking in an area without free SAR services, InReach offers affordable rescue insurance that you can buy through the online InReach control panel.

What To Do If You See Someone In Need

Helping Injured Hiker
If you see another hiker injured, is it okay to hit SOS on your device for them? Photo and search and rescue story from Jay Johnson.

I’ve used my InReach for emergencies, but they weren’t my own. If you hike enough, at some point, you’ll encounter others in need. The great thing about having a satellite communicator is that you can use it to get help for someone else. Ideally, you have an InReach where you can relay the specifics of the situation to GEOS.

Now I’m not a lawyer, and there’s probably angles here where you could potentially get sued for helping someone and also for not helping someone (duty to rescue). So don’t take this as legal advice. I’m just sharing based on my experience.

I’ve hit SOS on my Inreach twice to assist other people. Both times it was because of altitude-related sickness. In both cases, I messaged GEOS during the beginning of the SOS call and told them that it was for another person. There wasn’t a problem with this, and I simply waited with the people in distress until a SAR unit arrived. Then I canceled the SOS on my InReach and moved on.

Note that if you have rescue insurance, it only covers you, not anyone else in your party, or strangers you may assist on the trail.

Help Those That Help

Montrose Sar Team
It’s easy to say thanks to the volunteers who are there for us 24/7/365. Here’s the Montrose Search and Rescue Team, made up of dedicated volunteers from the local community.

Most search and rescue operations are nonprofits run by volunteers. And while they get some assistance from local government organizations and grants, they still rely on the public’s aid for funding. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue Team members are Reserve Sheriff’s deputies who volunteer their time to help others for $1 a year, and who partner with sheriff’s civilian volunteers who volunteer for free.

These men and women volunteer their time and risk their lives to save others, please give back and say thanks. Here’s how you can give back to SAR teams in Los Angeles County:

If you’d like to donate to a SAR team near you, just Google it or call your local police department.

Putting It All Together

Garmin Inreach Mini Mounted
It only takes some simple steps to dramatically improve your chances of surviving in the backcountry.  Here I am with a small InReach device, worth every ounce and penny in my book.
  1. Carry a satellite communicator like the InReach.
  2. Prepare for your hike responsibly.
  3. Hit the SOS button in the backcountry when you are in doubt about your outcome.
  4. Wait for rescuers in the same place that you hit SOS.
  5. Help others in need with your device.
  6. Help SAR teams by donating.

A big thanks to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department for helping me with this article. Specifically, I’d like to thank Deputy Morgan Arteaga for setting this all up, and Steve Goldsworthy, Director of Technology for SAR / Los Angeles County Sheriff, for taking the time to answer my questions and talk about SAR with me.