Using satellite unit for emergency: lessons learned


Arctic travelling on a snow mobile, outside of the National Parks where it's still allowed

After the incident in the remote Arctic mountains, I have received a lot of questions about how a satellite messenger device works during a distress call. Let’s take a look at that, and hopefully you will also be able to use satellite devices to ensure greater safety in the wilderness!

Normally, my use of satellite units relates to sailing. The simple possibility of dropping a line or two to the friends and family (or even business partners or customers) makes a huge difference when sailing great distances and being away from mobile coverage for days or even weeks. The technology has evolved greatly during the past ten years, so today it’s easy to set up the sat unit to receive detailed weather reports, which makes long distance much safer – and also, to send a tracker position, so the whereabouts of your vessel are updated seamlessly! You can even choose to send update messages to be shown together with the position. Here’s a good example of how it may look. With possibilities to charge onboard, it’s easy to pair the satellite device with your regular smart phone and use a more familiar interface to send messages. Often, Iridium satellite products are used, but there are plenty other alternatives depending on where you sail and what your needs are.

This winter, I undertook a solo ski hike to Sarek and further on to the Swedish Point of Inaccessability. After heading well into Padjelanta, I accidently fell and hurt my leg so I could no longer walk or ski. Being alone in the most inaccessible areas of the wilderness, the Garmin Inreach Explorer satellite unit became the key factor for being rescued and avoiding a greater danger.

There are quite a few emergency phones scattered throughout the national parks. However, it could take hours even for a healthy person to reach one of these, and that can mean leaving the injured behind, harder to find. (Check out the note telling users not to panic.) A satellite unit is a better alternative.

I rented my satellite messaging unit from Fjällcom. Currently I do not have the need to own one myself – usually there is already an satellite unit on the boats I am sailing. For wilderness hikes, renting a unit is the best and most cost-efficient alternative. I chose Fjällcom because of their fast reply, a fair and clear cost model, and the possibility to receive and return the unit by postal mail, no matter where in the country (or the world) you reside. I chose the Garmin Inreach Explorer unit, because I wanted to have access to topographic maps and the GPS position, as a backup to my paper maps/compass and the topographic maps with GPS in my smartphone. Fjällcom has many different devices for rent, all depending on what kind of adventure you are setting off to, and what kind of risks there may be. There are some lightweight devices with less functionality, and also full-blown sat phones with voice calling and everything. The weight of the unit was not too important for a trip with a pulk, but the function was. However, I did not have the need of voice calls, so I settled for this choice as being the best for a solo winter ski hike.

Here's the Garmin Inreach Explorer sat unit that I had rented.

To begin with, I used the device for sending a tracker position. At the start I was sending it too often, which was draining batteries, but I noticed that and changed it to every two hours. Those who had the correct link, could see my position on a map, normally updated as I started moving in the morning and every second hour until the evening. I sent an additional position for every night’s camp, and then turned off the device during the night to save batteries. After a few days, I started downloading weather reports, which was a great feature. During the trip, a weather warning with high winds, fog and heavy snow came through. I could not do much about the weather of course, but it was great to be mentally prepared – and be able to set the camp to withstand the changing winds during the night.

I also used the device for communication via mail, albeit sparingly. It was not only the question of battery time and data volumes – during a sailing for instance, I’d have a possibility to constantly recharge the satellite messaging unit, and oftentimes have a package with unlimited amounts of simple text mails. No, this time it was also because of time management. Usually, I would ski during the whole day, only making a very brief stop for lunch. But for every mail to be sent, I had to stop skiing, remove any warm gloves, and spend a few minutes typing. That meant lost time - and lost heat, risking starting to freeze. The device has an awkward keyboard – it’s QWERTY, but you have to move the cursor with arrows and manually choose every letter, then confirm it. Naturally, each mail takes a long time. This is easily remedied by connecting your smartphone to the Inreach device, and just writing the mail through the phone’s keyboard. However, that would cost batteries, so I chose to sacrifice the comfort of plentiful communication to the safety of well-charged devices. And of course, I tried not to send too many messages because they cost me time.

The interface is easy to understand. Here, my movemebts are tracked on the topographic map. It also shows where the position update was sent (yellow dots) and where I sent a message (blue icons).

On the point of batteries: apart from fully charged devices, I brought a battery bank, and a set of solar panels that double as an extra battery bank which is both chargeable through USB and solar power. I could, however, not rely on the solar panels alone, as the weather deteriorated after a few days, and the sun had a hard time to shine through the dense fog and heavy snowfall. The power banks were used to top up the Inreach unit, and also my smartphone and the GoPro. If the satellite messaging unit was used conservatively, the battery would probably have lasted between 4-7 days. I was happy that I topped up the charging when I had to send the SOS signal, because it drains the batteries a bit faster. However, while charging from any power bank, I needed to warm up both the device and the source of power – often by my body heat, stuffed into my sleeping bag to charge for a while before going to sleep (to avoid a fire hazard at night). Stuffing them into your clothing during the days won’t do, because you sweat as you move, and do not want the humidity to harm the electronics. Also, it restraints the moving ability. There’s so much you want to keep warm during an expedition in a cold environment – like the phone, the camera, extra batteries, any power bars, maybe a camelback, some pieces of clothing that need to be dried and so forth… so at the end you almost build an extra clothing layer made of gear and food, which does not improve neither the insulation, nor the ventilation. There are better ways to manage all of that, like only bringing power bars that stay soft in cold temperatures.

The expedition pulk - in sunny weather, I always attached the solar cell power bank on top of it.

So how does the Inreach Explorer work when you need to send a SOS signal? There is a big button on the side, where it says “SOS”. Pressing it won’t help though – it’s a protective cover! You need to open it, and push the smaller button inside. Then, if I remember correctly, you’ll need to confirm that you will switch to SOS mode.

SOS-button on the side

Open the cover and push the button

As soon as you do that, two things happen. One is that the Garmin Emergency Response Coordination (GEOS) is contacted. The other one is that an on-call person from Fjällcom receives the SOS signal and immediately starts a return communication, checking what the emergency is – and what needs to be done. Then they organize further action, which can be anything from practical questions to coming in touch with the rescue services of the correct nature and geographical proximity. This is a service that is included in renting the device. It's great - normally, you'd contact someone at home but you cannot expect them to be on-call 24/7, and check mails for an emergency message every minute.

As I called for help, the GEOS were not able to do much. However, the Fjällcom contacts were quick to reply, and very helpful in contacting the correct services so an evacuation could be started. I was notified that several units were on the way. The units themselves received a link to communicate to me directly – however they did not attempt communication. So during the SOS call, the Fjällcom staff was my primary contact and source of information. The tone was calm, competent and helpful, which helps a lot when there is a crisis. The replies came from different senders, which was a bit unclear, but the important part was to get the communication through, which worked perfectly.

The medical training kicked in, I stabilized the leg using any accessable gear, kept the damaged limb in a raised position, and took care not to get too cold.

I also sent a SOS message to my husband, who also contacted the rescue coordination center. However, they could not give him hardly any information at all, so he could not confirm whether help was already on the way, or whether I should seek shelter, dig a hole in the snow, or try to crawl down to the valley. Trying to move with an injured leg was very painful, and I was afraid I would not be able to balance properly, risking more falls, and more injuries – not only worsening the damage to the leg, but potentially damaging other limbs, or the spine or skull. I chose not to risk it, and got a confirmation to stay where I was – the SOS signal sends an exact position. Yet I needed to do something, and picking the right strategy was tricky without information. It could be counterproductive to start off with something that is based on rescue coming within some hours, when the rescue is coming within a few days. Or the opposite.

Because I was told that units were on their way, I switched to the mindset of getting rescued before nightfall. It’s a risky mindset, meaning I did not make any preparations to spend the night and ride out the worsening weather. However, in a situation where pain is a major factor, it’s a very comfortable thing to fall into. An after a while, I actually got the confirmation and ETA for a rescue unit, from the contact person at Fjällcom! Now it was clearer, and I was very happy for that information.

I made myself as visible as possible, with criss-crossed skis above. I unwrapped and spread out the signal-colored cover from the pulk, which I chose for this reason exactly. I wrapped myself in as much warm clothing as possible, created an isolation layer between me and the snow, and protected myself with a wind sack, hiding from the wind on the lee side of the pulk. The wind was getting stronger, so both the sack and the pulk cover were flapping violently. I tried to distance myself from the worrying by pulling out all sweet snacks I had close by, and taking out my camera to look at the photos from the start of the expedition. The photos helped to distract myself from the ongoing situation, and the desperate waiting did not feel as prolonged as it otherwise would.

Signal-colored textile is essential

Crossed skis are easy to spot, too

At last, one of the units came within reach. What a relief! The rest of them never showed up though. I was asked to leave my pulk (including all the gear) behind, because we needed to leave as soon as possible due to the weather. I thought that other rescue units would take care of it, but that was incorrect. It would be left in the nature, where snowmobiles are not allowed to drive. I could not retrieve it myself – impossible to get out to another 10-14 day expedition with an injured leg. Luckily, with some help of Laponia Adventures, and a helpful local who had the possibility to rescue it, the pulk was retrieved. It is still not in my possession, and sending it from a cargo terminal in the Arctic can be a little tricky, but I will be happy to retrieve as much of the expedition gear as possible. And after all, leaving gear in the wilderness is definitely not a good idea. But I do understand that at the moment of rescue, the priority is the human life and health – not the physical things.

Here's what the weather was like just the day before, during midday. There was so much snow and fog that it was almost dark, and the visibility was close to nil - the textures you can see were very close to the camera. There was a risk it would get just as bad that day.

During the evac, I turned the satellite unit off. Then, I realized it would be wise to keep it on in case any part of the rescue organization wanted to come into touch. So I turned it on as I was entering the ambulance car, which would drive me to Gällivare emergency care. I got the best professional care possible. All the stuff were amazing. The leg is actually already much better at the time of writing, some three weeks later. I've been doing the training ordinated by a physiotherapeut, and manage to walk and function more or less properly - although still limping. And I’ve already been to a local rescue assignment myself, very happy to be able to pay it forward.

The only thing that I could have done differently was that I could have left more information about the SOS function to my near and dear. I actually thought that the signal was only available to the rescue team. What I did not know was that that was also visible on the tracker map. I never made the link to the map public, it was only for close family. However, as they saw the SOS, they became worried. That’s the last thing I wanted to happen. My lesson from this is that if I share the link with anyone, I also will need to share information about what SOS signal means and what kinds of initiatives could be constructive. Here are a few points off the top of my mind:

  • The SOS does not mean that someone is dead or soon will be.
  • The SOS call is not necessarily issued for the primary user of the sat unit. Could be anyone in distress along the way.
  • The fact that the SOS signal is sent during several hours does not mean that nobody saw it, or that help is not on the way.
  • If you have not received action points for a SOS call, you do not need to take any initiative. Try to stay calm and be patient. Be informed that professionals are already handling the issue, see above.

A group of winter hikers setting camp in Sarek. Even in a group, it's essential to have a sat device - calling for help from an emergency phone may require hiking for hours or days, which can be dangerous in rough weather. People around you is not a guarantee for rescue.

To sum up: in a situation of distress, where mobile coverage is not reliable or non-existing, using a satellite communication device is imperative for your safety. My situation was that during a winter solo skiing trip to the most inaccessible areas of the country, I badly injured my leg and could not continue, alone in the wilderness with the weather starting to deteriorate. The possibility to call for help allowed me to be evacuated by a professional team, and to get a timely medical attention to treat injuries at an early stage. The Inreach Explorer unit that I rented from Fjällcom was what made the difference between a scary and uncomfortable situation ending happily – and a tragic accident that may have ended with much more serious injuries, such as further damage to the limbs and spine, pain shock, frostbite and hypothermia – just to give a few examples.

The Fjällcom team have been communicative and helpful, and I will definitely rent satellite units from them again, whether I’m on a solo adventure or am leading a group. The presence of other people at an emergency site is not a guarantee of containing the situation! But the possibility to contact professionals and coordinate an evacuation definitely is.