Let's talk Communications

12th May 2021|4min

A common question we get here at NZ Mountain Safety Council is around the differences between emergency communications devices. Our Operations Manager Nathan Watson gives a break down on how to find the right device for you.

One of the reasons so many people love getting outdoors is the opportunity it provides to disconnect from technology. No emails, no notifications, no texts. But being able to maintain communication with the outside world when you’re in your own little natural world is essential.

For your own safety and the peace of mind it brings for your loved ones having the ability to communicate while in the outdoors is incredibly important.  

A decade ago your options were very limited, aside from a mountain radio (which do still exist and are a great option in some situations) there were very few, if any, other viable options. Nowadays, communication devices have seen some of the most rapid advances in technology and multiple good options exist.

Below we will explore the five critical questions you should ask yourself when considering what communication device is best for you, and a brief pros and cons list for each option.

The five important questions you should ask yourself are:
  • Where am I going, and do I know if there will be mobile phone coverage?
  • Who else knows where I am going and do they know what to do if I don’t return?
  • Do I want (or need) to regularly ‘check-in’ with someone at home while I’m out?
  • Is your financial situation a barrier when considering which device is best for you?  
  • Will you use the device regularly, or occasionally?

There are many other questions, or situations to consider, but these five will help you speed up the selection process.

Where am I going and do I know if I’ll have mobile phone coverage?

This is a logical place to start because for many people you may already have the best communication device in your pocket already. The key here is not to assume anything. All network providers have coverage maps on their websites, and while they are not always easy to use when identifying places, typically ‘outdoors’, but with a little bit of practice you can usually get some good help out of them. In addition, asking those in the know is well worth your time. A call to the local Department of Conservation office, or a quick post in some of the more popular Facebook pages and you’ll have an answer that you can use alongside the coverage maps to be doubly sure.

You may be surprised by the number of walks, especially those closer to more urban areas, with no coverage. But further afield, in places such as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing has coverage in many locations, as does many of the higher huts and ridgelines in the Tararua Ranges.

If you’re going somewhere that doesn’t have mobile phone coverage, take your phone anyway! Make sure it is fully charged and put it on flight mode or turn it off.

Who else knows where I am going and do they know what to do if I don’t return?

Telling someone your plans is almost as important as carrying a communication device yourself. The great thing is it’s so simple, free to do, and is your reliable backup if things go truly pear shaped.

Using Plan My Walk you can create a simple trip plan and share it with a trusted emergency contact.

Do I want (or need) to regularly ‘check-in’ with someone at home while I’m out?

This is a really good question to ask yourself as it helps to identify communication devices that will be more suited to you.

Some options, broadly known as Satellite Communication Devices, provide functions that allow you to send a preset or custom message to contacts. These messages can be as simple as “All ok, at our planned location, no issues”, or you could say “We’ve been delayed, but everything is fine, we’ll be out a day later”. You get the idea. The added bonus though, is that your contact can reply to you, “Great, the kids are fine, see you soon!”

Of course, these devices also have the ‘SOS’ emergency function, for when you need emergency help.

If the ability to ‘check-in’ is not important to you, then your search for a communications device is almost complete and you can focus on a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB).

Is your financial situation a barrier when considering which device is best for you?

Despite the reduced prices as technology has advanced and as options become more mainstream, there is a still a cost involved, and for some this may be a barrier, or at least a consideration. We don’t want your financial situation to stop you from taking a communication device, so outlining some options to navigate through this is important.

Assuming you’re looking at options beyond your mobile phone, both Personal Locator Beacons and Satellite Communication Devices can be purchased outright or hired.

Hiring is a really good option if you don’t intend to use the device frequently. Devices can be obtained from a growing range of locations, and you don’t have to worry about registration, batteries, or servicing. Hiring is also a great option if you like to ‘try before you buy’. Assuming you won’t need to use the emergency function, you can at least get a feel for the device.

Packing your beacon in the top of a pack

Packing your beacon in the top of a pack

Will you use the device regularly, or occasionally?

For this purpose, ‘regular’ is a minimum of once a month (12 times a year), any less than this and we’ll consider you an ‘occasional’ user.  

Personal Locator Beacons don’t have any on-going subscription costs, other than the purchase price you won’t have to fork out any extra. However, when the beacons' battery needs replacing (check your model, some are five or 10 years), it’s typically cheaper to buy a new one rather than get the battery replaced. Also consider that if you use the ‘help’ function on a Beacon you will need to replace the battery, or buy a new one.

A Satellite Communication Device is typically cheaper to buy outright, but has a monthly subscription fee. These services usually offer different tiers of subscriptions, but expect to be paying about $30 per month. However, you can ‘suspend’ your service when you’re not using it, so if you only go out occasionally you can ‘enable’ the service for a month at a time. This could make this option much more cost effective. Additionally, the batteries don’t require replacing after a specific period of time.

Use this simple equation to help you establish the cost difference between a Personal Locator Beacon and a Satellite Communication Device over an assumed 10-year lifetime (a common timeframe for Beacon batteries).

(purchase price) + (monthly subscription x 12) months = total annual cost assuming your subscription is not suspended

(Total annual cost) / (12) months / (10) years = avg. monthly cost spread over 10 years  

It’s likely the figure is going to come out less than $10 per month, over the assumed 10-year lifetime. Yes, most of that cost will be upfront in purchasing the device, but over its lifetime it’s a small price to pay for what could be a life-saving help.  

NOTE: This article isn’t designed to provide every answer, or cover every technical element, so if you’re after more details send us an email, or connect with us on Facebook, and we’ll point you in the right direction.

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