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Investing in safety and reassurance (and Social Hiking tracking)

I peeked out of the tent door – the rain was still lashing down, and the nearby tarn and the top of the mountain behind it was lost in a shroud of fog, the tendrils of which were blowing nearly vertical in the storm. After putting up the tent in the rain, I had napped for bit on my damp mat (as, it turns out, my damp dog also napped against my previously dry sleeping bag!) waiting for the rain to ease before heading back out to find some mobile signal to text my partner my exact location. No such luck.  Light was fading, so I braved the storm, retreating my steps back to the footpath and the outcrop high above the valley where I remembered having signal earlier. The signal proved elusive initially, but, after clambering up some slippery rocks, a bar finally appeared. Message sent, I tried to return to my tent, which seemed to have disappeared in the fog. I could feel the panic rising before, thankfully, a change of direction revealed it in the gloom. I collapsed on my (still damp) mat and, for the first time, started thinking a SPOT device might be a good idea.

The weather conditions worsening from the tent!

I should perhaps say that I was not quite as irresponsible as I make out. I had previously texted my partner that I intended to spend my first solo wild camp on the shore of Llyn Croesor below the summit of Moelwyn Mawr in Moelwyns. I knew the weather was going to turn later in the day, so I had arrived early to scout my escape route – the nearby Croesor Quary and its old access road that gently yet directly drops down from the mountain to civilization. I had also had a chance to find a suitable pitch before the rain started, reassured (although disappointed) by my choice with the tent peg left by a previous occupant. However, there was still avoidable risk – not least the crazy evening jaunt in the storm to tell someone my location, but also with my isolated camping spot. I was far enough away from a well-trodden route that, should something have happened during the night, I would struggle to alert someone of my whereabouts, especially if the fog persisted.

That ‘something’ is my MS – so far the few relapses I have had have gradually appeared over a few days. Starting as reduced sensation (like but not numbness), and only latterly resulting in something which could affect my ability to get off a mountain. But that is not necessarily a guarantee – it is possible (although hopefully unlikely) that a relapse, perhaps triggered by a few days of excursion, reduced sleep and poor diet, could strike quickly – in the extreme resulting in symptoms like loss of vision or mobility. In that circumstance, not being able to communicate with the outside world would be a serious welfare issue!

Croesor Quary in the morning

My partner is the type of person who feels that, as I am away spending my time doing a hobby I enjoy, the last thing I would want is for her to constantly check in on me (and I am sure she enjoys having some time without me!). She would probably start worrying if I had not checked in for a few days, but that is a long time to be stranded in a tent! She would also be the first one to admit that a grid reference means nothing to her! My mum does sometimes follow my adventures via Social Hiking and Twitter, so she can worry from afar, and I am sure she would act if there was no movement or signs of life eventually. The main issue is that, in my opinion, mobiles are not reliable as security devices – there are too many places (wild or otherwise) where signal is non-existent in the UK (and we are lucky with coverage compared to say America) and battery life can be difficult to manage on overnight camps.

I used to worry less when I mainly walked in the lowland countryside, usually with civilization within sight, with occasional well planned trips further afield. My recent focus on Dartmoor however has given rise to a new, less planned, style of hiking – planning a route and camp for each night as my mood takes me. Aiming to visit all the tors and notable rocks of Dartmoor also means I am often off the beaten track hunting down illusive tors. My nightmare scenario is slipping or falling in a remote part of the moor out of mobile signal – something that can happen to anyone, but I am more prone too (thanks to my MS) as my balance can deteriorate as I get tired.

Dartmoor the obsession (Oke Tor in this case)

Whilst Jilly Sherlock was cycling around the world on her amazing adventure, I had the pleasure of being one of her SPOT contacts – this meant I received her nightly and morning check-ins via email sent from her SPOT device. One of the unintended consequences of running Social Hiking is the level of concern I have with for welfare of users using the site, and it was extremely reassuring to wake up each morning knowing Jilly was safe and well (albeit very stressful on the morning there was no check-in after the night on ‘bear beach’ – thankfully due to running out of batteries rather than a bear-related incident!)

Jilly Sherlock – Cyclist and Adventurer (photo borrowed from her!)

For those of you that do not know, a SPOT device is a satellite messenger – it connects directly to satellites and allows you to send a variety of messages with your location to a pre-defined list of contacts. The devices also have an ‘SOS’ button which links with an international centre that despatches the nearest and appropriate emergency response to your location, as well as contacting your emergency contacts. The other feature of these devices is the tracking mode – this is where the device sends your location via satellite on a regular interval, where it can be picked up by Social Hiking to create a live map for friends and family to follow, without the need of worrying about mobile signal or battery life!

My new and shiny SPOT3

All this reassurance and hassle free tracking does not come cheap however – the latest SPOT Gen 3 GPS Satellite Messenger costs £124.99 (I bought mine from Mountain Safety) and then requires a subscription (the basic subscription plus frequent tracking is north of £100 per year). For me however the price is worth paying to allow me to keep enjoying what I do safely for as long as my body will let me and to help reduce my mum’s worry (love you mum!) – I won’t lie to you though..… I am very much looking forward to trying out the 2.5 minute interval live tracking on Social Hiking next week! I have also wired up one of the message buttons to Adventure Bot to provide a camp icon on request!

I will aim to do a more detailed review after I have used the device for a bit, but in the meantime here are Paul’s thoughts on the SPOT3: http://www.walking4charity.co.uk/2013/08/spot-gen3-non-techie-review.html

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