This little news item from California reminded me there are right and wrong times to ping your rescue beacon. Scenario:
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  • Two guys go out winter camping, get caught in a white-out almost immediately. Snow covers their tracks and they get lost.
  • Wisely, they stick together and set up camp.
  • They ping their rescue beacon.
  • SAR team comes out into the blizzard and finds them 100 feet from the parking lot where they started out.

“They didn’t need any help except to find their way out,” Wilson said.

So, yuppie 911 or an urgent call for help in a genuine emergency?

First off, let’s be clear: the guys got home safe, the rescue beacon took the SAR team right to them; a problem fixed isn’t a problem anymore. Nobody asked us to play judge and jury, in any case, but it occurred to me that it couldn’t hurt to develop a list of questions to ask if you own a rescue beacon and find yourself in a fix. Here’s mine:

1) Does anybody need immediate medical attention?

If not, the likelihood of requiring an SAR crew is probably pretty small.

2) How long could you survive with the gear you’re carrying?

Remember the Rule of Threes, which says you can survive:

  • Three hours without warmth.
  • Three days without water.
  • Three weeks without food.

If have the proper gear for an overnight backpacking trip, you’re probably in very little danger, no matter how lost you may be. With shelter, insulation/fire and a water supply, you can last for days out there.

“Hey, I had to be back at work on Monday” or “well, I didn’t want to worry anybody” are not urgent enough reasons to invoke the costs and risks of a rescue.

3) Are you motivated by an urge to get your money’s worth?

Remember, the few hundred bucks you paid for the gadget and the monthly fee are trivial compared to cost of sending a rescue out into the woods. And you could get charged for rescue, depending on who’s doing the rescuing.

Every rescue call exposes SAR people to risk and takes them away from more urgent emergencies. Ignore that voice whispering, “hey, you paid good money for this thing.”

4) Is it obvious that you’re royally screwed?

Let’s give our snow-campers the benefit of the doubt and assume they realized the No. 1 risk of winter outings is getting lost in a white-out, and the best way to prepare for that danger is to take a working GPS unit along, using its “trackback” feature to get you back where you came from.

So they’re out there in the white-out, trying to navigate with their GPS unit, but everything goes wrong — batteries die in the cold, they forgot to recharge their backup batteries and their back-up compass is sitting on the kitchen counter back home.

They stumble around for hours in the dark before giving up and pitching their tent; during the night it collapses under the weight of 18 inches of fresh snow.

All very bad, all very scary. But does it cross the Royally Screwed Threshold? A few examples of fate handing it to you royally:

  • Broken fibula 15 miles from the trailhead
  • Unconscious climbing partner 1,300 feet up El Capitan
  • Treed by pack of hungry wolves.

The defining feature of Royally Screwed is an insurmountable obstacle between you and a safe return to civilization. Corollary: ingenuity and dogged determination won’t get you out of it.

5) Have you exhausted every option except calling in the cavalry?

If so, then click away (and pray that it works as advertised).