In April 2019, my friend Becca and I were antsy to start backpacking season. We were excited to escape urbanite life for a couple of days and hit the trails. We opted to head out on Baker Lake Trail in the North Cascades. The trail is a lower-elevation trail, perfect for early season backpacking when many trails are still covered in snow.
I do a lot of hiking alone and hope to eventually start backpacking alone, so after a lot of research I decided to purchase a Garmin inReach, a two-way satellite messenger with SOS functionality in case of emergency. I feel safer knowing that I can summon help if needed, and I like being able to stay in touch with my family while I’m out on the trail (especially if I’m running late). I’ve also found it to be really helpful when I’m headed out on search and rescue (SAR) missions where I won’t have cell service. I can communicate with our coordinator back in town and keep my fiancé in the loop about my ETA home.
Just as I was about to dig into dessert, I heard my name being called and saw a boat approaching shore. I recognized the voice and people in the boat as my SAR team members.
Before I left with Becca, I charged and updated my inReach. There are three customizable preset messages on inReach devices that can be sent as many times as you want for free. I update it before backpacking trips to reduce the number of text messages I have to pay for. The messages are set in an online account, and then synced with the device afterwards.
The first message I set was “Everything is fine, updating my map with our location,” and the second was “I love you and miss you” for my fiancé. The third message was one that was set on the device when I bought it. I had left it on there since I hadn’t come up with another preset message to replace it. The message said “I am going to press SOS. Call the police station closest to me with my position.”
(Can you see where this is going yet?)
I synced my inReach and Becca and I hit the trail. We hiked nine miles until we found the perfect campsite along the shoreline. We set up our tents and I sent the “everything is okay” preset message to my mom, my fiancé, and Becca’s husband letting them know our position. I set the inReach in the netting at the top of my tent where it wouldn’t be bumped.
Becca and I spent the next few hours building a fire, drinking wine, and making dinner. The scenery around our campsite was beautiful and peaceful. Just as I was about to dig into dessert, I heard my name being called and saw a boat approaching shore. I recognized the voice and people in the boat as my SAR team members.
As they pulled up to shore, my teammate asked: “Where’s your inReach?” I immediately felt my stomach drop. I have always been paranoid I would accidentally press the SOS button or somehow summon help I didn’t need—particularly from my own teammates. I scrambled back to my tent to find my inReach. It was still sitting in the netting just as I left it. I looked at the messages, seeing a number of incoming messages from my SAR teammate, my fiancé and mom, and Becca’s husband, all asking if we are okay. I could feel the tears welling up, both from embarrassment and from thinking how worried everyone was back at home.
From what I could tell by looking at my inReach, there was no request for help sent. There was no message from the monitoring company checking in, and there was no message to our friends and family requesting help. Nothing suggested I summoned help, but the presence of my SAR teammates on the shoreline clearly suggested otherwise.
In the days after our trip, I discovered that something went wrong during the sync I did before I left. When I sent the message “Everything is okay”, it was mis-translated as it passed through my online account, such that our friends and family received the “I’m going to press the SOS button” message. After receiving the message, they called 911 and the SAR team was dispatched after that. The SOS button was never pressed.
I reached out to Garmin about the issue, but they were never able to figure it out. They said they hadn’t heard of the issue happening to anyone else.
I share this story in part as a PSA to all inReach users:
• Always test your preset messages after a sync. Those messages are free, and you’ll avoid these kinds of technological errors if you test the messages before you go out.
• Delete the preset message that says you’re going to press SOS. It is a pointless message to keep on the device. Your emergency contacts will be notified if you press the SOS button.
• Despite the embarrassment of having my teammates come out to rescue me, I am still glad I have my inReach. I will always keep it near me after I send messages (to think I was paranoid before this happened!), but I would rather take the risk of a mis-sent message than take the risk of something happening out in the backcountry with no way to summon help.
I also share this story in part to highlight the awesome SAR teams that respond to emergencies in the backcountry. SAR members are volunteers rarely recognized for the work and sacrifice it takes to be a member. My teammates left their friends and family to spend the entire evening trekking out into the backcountry to come get me, even though they knew it was likely a false alarm. There were even more SAR members on standby, ready to respond if it was not a false alarm. This is ordinary behavior for SAR members. We respond to the call for help, wherever it may be.
My team will never let me live this story down, but at least I know they’ll come rescue me should I ever get into any real trouble, right?
For a breakdown on different backcountry communication devices, check out our story on the differences between satellite messengers and personal locator beacons.
For a full review of our favorite satellite messenger, the inReach Mini, click here.
Photo top: Tim Dennert