Big Sur, California

How to survive wilderness emergencies


In May of 2017, Outdoor magazine published an article entitled “How 1,600 People Went Missing from Our Public Lands Without a Trace“.

Of course, Bigfoot and Alien conspiracies abound, but the fact remains, too many people explore the wilderness totally unprepared.

Keep in mind, if you get lost in the wilderness, you’re basically on your own for a while. If nobody knows where you’re at and you’re injured, you better be prepared as you may be on your own for a long time.

How do you prepare for a wilderness emergency?

Preparing for a wilderness emergency includes being aware of your surroundings and ensuring that you have the right survival gear.

Being aware of your surroundings includes preparing for your excursion. Get a weather forecast and make sure you’re dressed accordingly. It’s easy to concentrate so intensely on your photograph that you lose track of time or direction. Stop to reflect on these two factors. How far have you traveled and how long will it take to return.

Having the right survival gear is equally straightforward. Here’s the minimum you should carry:

I pack most of these items in a small Maxpedition Cocoon pouch. Then, whether I’m photographing or fly fishing or just hiking, I can easily keep this bag with me.

Here’s how my survival kit looks.

portable survival kit

But how will they find me if I’m lost or injured?

Most people stop with the above survival kit. And, that all good, but, you may need more. If you are truly lost or injured deep in the wilderness, you can whistle till your heart’s content but if no one is even looking, you may be whistling (Dixie) in vain.

You need a locator.

Really, I’m amazed at the level of risk some are willing to take with journeys deep into the wilderness without any method of contacting the outside world in case of an emergency. And, this is even more critical if you’re alone.


There are essentially two types of locators.

  • Personal locator beacons (PLBs): These satellite-based handheld devices provide a powerful safety net for wilderness travelers.
  • Satellite messengers: These handheld devices—such as those from SPOT—are less powerful but offer additional text communication options.

Personal Locator Beacons

PLB’s are high-powered (typically, 5 watts) devices designed specifically and exclusively to send out an Emergency Stress Signal.  Over the years, it has been estimated that these devices have saved over 43,000 lives.

When activated, the PLB will transmit a power signal at 406 MHz which is internationally recognized as a distress signal by various agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC), and the United States Coast Guard (USCG). The signal is also sent to an international affiliation of governmental rescue agencies and works worldwide.

It also sends out a second signal at 121.5 MHz which acts as a homing frequency to assist search-and-rescue teams to rescue you within 5 kilometers of your position.

Federal law requires all PLB’s to be registered in the NOAA SARSAT (Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking) database. This registration is free and needs to be updated periodically. Additionally, there are no other fees or charges with PLB’s. When registered, NOAA effectively links your Unique Identifying Number to you and your personal information. This includes name, address, contacts etc.

The image below is my personal locator from ACR, which I highly recommend, showing the NOAA sticker which proves registration.

It is important that any locator is kept as close as possible to you and even on your body at all times. If you were to slip off mountain, you don’t want to be lying in the ravine with your PLB in your pack on top of the mountain. The ACR 2880 above, is not only waterproof and buoyant, it has a velcro strap on the back which easily affixes. The deeper in the wilderness you go, the closer you’ll want your personal locator.

Satellite Messengers

Satellite Messengers are a more recent innovation and allow two-way text messaging along with an SOS distress signal over one of two available satellite networks.

Products such a DeLorme utilize the Iridium satellite network and offer 100% planetary coverage. SPOT devices use the Globalstar network and cover the globe with the exception of polar regions and sub-Saharan Africa.

These devices are less powerful and depend on commercial vs. military networks as used by PLB’s. Additionally, they require a subscription that ranges from $12 to  $100 per month based essentially on the number of text messages you desire.

Although there is an attractiveness based on the ability to communicate while in the wilderness, I would not recommend them as they are considerably less powerful and reliable. They are not based on government or military response rescue operations and there is the additional monthly subscription fee which is required to keep them operational.

You may want to research more on Satellite Messengers but remember, you are betting your life on their power and reliability.


As a Landscape photographer, you’ve spent thousands on cameras, lenses, tripods and miscellaneous photo gear. Do you have some basic survival gear and maybe an emergency locator?

You’re only talking a few hundred bucks, certainly a small fraction of what you’ve spent on photo equipment. Make sure you’re prepared and that you have a locator you can depend your life on. As an outdoor photographer, you may just have to rely on your awareness, your survival kit, and your personal emergency locator to come back alive.