Gary Jones Photos | Blog | Into the Field and Back Safely
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Into the Field and Back Safely

Whether you go out to shoot and spend  several days hiking or are just out for a day-hike there is always the possibility of getting turned around or lost.  As photographers, we tend to wander off the trail to find the shots others have not taken and that has the potential to put us in situations we had not anticipated.


The first time I had ever experienced this was in the mountains outside of Vail, Colorado shooting in the Shrine Pass area.  It’s a beautiful area to shoot in with a trail that winds through the mountains that is well marked.  But, there are even better shots to be had if you move off the trail and head out a bit cross-country.  In my particular case I stepped off the trail to shoot lower in the pass and by the time I had finished shooting I realized that the sun had dropped well below the mountain peaks and it was getting dark.  Of course, in my mind I felt I remembered how I got there from the trail – which would probably have been all well and good – had it still been lighter.  Heading back in the direction of where I perceived the trail to be soon came to be worrisome as the signposts I noted in the light of day no longer stood out.  I was quickly becoming uncomfortable and unsure of where I was!


I quickly pulled out my flashlight and began moving faster in an attempt to come across the trail before it became totally dark.  Even with the flashlight and some daylight left it was hard to pick out the signposts and apprehension was quickly turning to a bit of panic.  I worked my way back up and tried to orient myself based on the peaks I could see and tried to recall how they looked from the trail.  In doing so, I worked my way back to the trail and with an audible sigh of relief I found my way back to my car in the dark along the trail.


What I learned from this lesson was a couple of things.  First, really be aware of your surroundings and how much light you have left given how far you’ve traveled. Second, is that there is technology you can take with you into the field that can get you out of some situations like this or even worse. Let’s take a look at a couple of my favorites.


Portable GPS

image of a garmin etrex portable GPS


My first purchase was a Garmin eTrex Trail GPS with trail and topo maps of the United States.  It’s small and lightweight and easily clips onto my camera bag.  My favorite feature is the ability to set a waypoint at my point of departure from my vehicle and anywhere that I might depart from the marked trail.  Now, I have a way to get back to the trail or my vehicle from any location I have hiked into.  You still need to remain situationally-aware of your surroundings, but getting back to the trail or my vehicle isn’t as much of a worry now. Garmin is one of the best known brands out there, but with a little research I’m sure you can find the best portable GPS for you.


Personal Locator Beacon

image of a SPOT PLB device

The second piece of portable personal technology I recommend is a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) for use in an emergency situation.  A PLB is a satellite-based transmitter that will send an SOS signal to the nearest Search and Rescue Center (SRC) should you find yourself in truly dire straights.  It also has the ability to send non-emergency messages to people you know to help them keep track of your whereabouts.  It is a subscription-based service which will monitor your device when it is on and send emergency requests to the local SRC or text others about your status as you hike or travel.  One of the features I like about the device is that it will plot your location on a web-based map that you can give people access to so they can see where you are.


hiking map

There are two buttons on the PLB that allow you to send out a “come rescue me SOS” to a Search and Rescue Center or a “here’s where I am – all is well” text to friends.  When you are injured or in peril to the point that you need rescue, then the SOS button will send the nearest SRC the SOS message and your GPS coordinates so they can get there quickly.  Bear in mind, you bear the cost of the rescue should they decide to charge you for it – but, you can buy Rescue Insurance beforehand that will cover that cost for a nominal fee.


In the images above, I am showing the SPOT Personal Locator Beacon as it is the most well-known PLB on the market, although there are a couple of other PLB’s out there.  It is lightweight and like my Garmin eTrex GPS it has a long battery life and clips easily onto a camera bag.


To save your bacon — and yourself on a trip, I highly recommend getting these devices and learning how to use them so your next trip off the trail is a rewarding one.

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