Emergency beacons, lost hikers, trip plans, and search and rescue

Are you worried sick? You’re in good company.

If it’s an emergency, call 911. Seriously.

This guide is primarily to support people at home, but it’s also critical reading for people planning a trip on the trail.

If you’re left at home, you might be reading this because you’re in panic mode wondering where your loved one might be. Here’s some advice to get you through those tense times.

When to call search and rescue

While the Pacific Crest Trail Association does a lot of things, it is not a search and rescue organization.

Search and rescue (SAR) is generally organized through the county sheriff. Figure out what county your loved one is in or was last known to be in and call that sheriff. National Parks are the exception. They often have their own SAR teams. Again, if it’s an emergency, calling 911 is often the right course of action. 911 Dispatchers can pass you to the right people.

In less pressing situations, a call directly to the sheriff’s search and rescue team could be in order. They’ll be able to assess whether your situation is an actual emergency that warrants a response. They make this judgment all the time. It’s ok to call them and explain your situation. They’re truly capable and committed and have good training and processes. They’ve very likely dealt with a similar scenario many times.

Important information about satellite messengers

Satellite messenger devices are little electronic units that send “I’m fine,” “I need help” and “Emergency” messages. Some also have the ability to send short text messages.

Some units, true Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), only will send emergency messages. These high-end, regulated emergency beacons use the government-owned satellite network, which is more reliable than some other commercial systems.

These devices can provide wonderful reassurances for people at home. But just as often they are the main source of anguish and anxiety. Example: you’ve been getting “I’m fine” messages on a regular basis, then nothing. The regular messages created an expectation of contact. When days go by, your expectation isn’t being met and panic sets in. How do you interpret the lack of new information? Your mind spins hopelessly out of control. Was your son or daughter attacked by a bear? While possible, that’s highly unlikely.

A Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker in Marble Mountains Wilderness. Photo by Samantha

A Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker in Marble Mountains Wilderness. Photo by Samantha Queffelec

Far more frequently, your son or daughter just forgot to send a message. They got tired or, most likely, distracted by the beauty of their trip. Maybe the unit’s batteries ran out. Or perhaps they’re running low and they don’t realize it. Maybe they lost the device or left it sitting on a log 15 miles back on the trail. Maybe it broke when they dropped it. Maybe they pressed the button, but the satellite system that communicates with the unit didn’t transmit the message. Perhaps they pressed the button while under dense tree cover or in a deep canyon.

The Pacific Crest Trail is a wilderness trail. Yes, there is risk. And even with satellites overhead, it remains a place that’s wonderfully remote. You can travel for days, or even weeks, without cell service.

Hikers: since satellite messengers fail so frequently and create an expectation of contact, we advise  you to take the steps outlined below. It’s wise to rely on time-tested methods by leaving a trip plan that includes a past-due date and a commitment to contact family members through a reliable method, like you’ll find in towns. Designate a person to be your safety net and work together on a plan for making contact during your journey.

Where is your PCT hiker?

Unfortunately, we don’t know where your family member or friend is on the trail. Hundreds of thousands of people use the trail every year. No one keeps track of where they are.

If you’re looking for a loved one, you can try asking on social media. There are lots of hikers on the trail and if you post a photo of the person you’re looking for, and maybe a description of their gear, maybe someone will have seen them and they’ll contact you.

Yes, permits are required for certain hikes and in certain locations. But not everyone is required to get a permit. And the permit system is de-centralized. They are not a good way to track someone on the trail. Usually they’ll only indicate that the hiker got permission and may be somewhere between Mexico and Canada. That’s not very useful if someone is missing.

A forest along the Pacific Crest Trail in northern California. Photo by Andrew Geweke

A forest along the Pacific Crest Trail in northern California. Photo by Andrew Geweke

Registers along the trail are an informal system of notebook logs. The PCTA does not have a complete list of where they are or a way to check them. They’re not placed for the explicit purpose of tracking trail users. We recommend signing them but know that they are generally not a part of a system that’s designed for determining someone’s location should they go missing. Please do not rely on them for that purpose. They’re simply a fun way to record and share thoughts and a great way to communicate with others who might be traveling the trail. Still, SAR officials could inspect them if someone goes missing, so it’s a good idea to sign them.

If you truly have no idea where your loved one is, we sympathize. The PCT covers a lot of ground in three states and all the forests and wilderness areas add up to a very, very big place. You might need to talk to the sheriff’s office and file a missing person’s report. That’s a decision they can help you make. Law enforcement officers can do things like track financial transactions and access phone logs.

Critical importance of trip planning and conversations

Have a conversation with your hiker ahead of time to alleviate worry. If you are their safety net, you might be responsible for calling search and rescue if they fail to check in as planned.  You should have that conversation and create a contact plan before they head out.

  1. These conversations should make it clear who the hiker’s emergency contact will be. Share the information with loved ones. We have spoken with worried parents who didn’t know that “their” hiker had been checking in with a friend.
  2. Hikers should leave a trip plan and stick with it. It should be a detailed itinerary and should tell loved ones exactly where and when the hiker will be reaching the next town. Consider that towns are the only places along the trail where you can expect reliable communications. You might not be able to forecast this months in advance, but you definitely can plan a week or two out once you’re on the trail.
  3. You should know when to consider the hiker is late. The conversation looks like this: “I’m in Etna, California today and I will be in Seiad Valley by Tuesday night at the latest. I’ll call you then. If you haven’t heard from me by Wednesday at noon, you should consider me overdue and you can start to worry.”
  4. If you’re officially a hiker’s support person, you should know some basic details such as:
    1. Their “trail name”. It’s common for hikers to use nicknames on the trail.
    2. The real names, trail names and phone numbers of their hiking partners.
    3. A description of their gear, hopefully including a photo of them with their equipment. Pictures taken on their hike are great.
    4. From where and when did they last make contact? Write down where they were and on what day and time they called. Ask them how many miles per day they are hiking. There is no typical pace. Some hikers will go five miles in a day, some will go 50.

Additional advice

If you’re not a wilderness traveler, you might want to talk to someone who is. Wilderness-savvy folks might be better able assess what is within normal versus worrisome bounds.

We’re happy to talk to you but we’re not always working. Generally, you’re best contacting us via phone at 916-285-1846, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. PDT. We do take holidays off.

The Pacific Crest Trail at it's northern edge in the Pasayten Wilderness of northern Washington. Photo by Andrew Geweke

The Pacific Crest Trail at it’s northern edge in the Pasayten Wilderness of northern Washington. Photo by Andrew Geweke

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Photo by: Nathaniel Middleton