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Home Backpacking Who Calls for Help in the Outdoors? Here’s What SOS Data Say

Who Calls for Help in the Outdoors? Here’s What SOS Data Say

by Staff

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Only once have I had to dispatch emergency services mid-hike. I was backpacking on San Gorgonio Mountain in southern California when I encountered a group of dayhikers who had spent the past two hours looking for their friend who wandered off without water, food, backpack, or phone. Facing a setting sun and an 8-mile hike back to the car, the group was starting to imagine the worst. 

I pulled out my Garmin inReach and offered to hit the SOS button and dispatch emergency services. I thought a search and rescue helicopter could look for him much faster in the air than we could on foot.

Minutes later, we heard propellers. Turns out, so did their missing friend, who had spent the past couple hours hiking down the mountain 2 miles until finding a stream he remembered passing, following it back to the trail, and hiking back up to the peak. After hearing the helicopter, he knew it had to be for him, and he picked up the pace so he could settle the situation. The helicopter zipped away after he reunited with his friends and communicated that everything was alright. It all happened so fast, largely because of the inReach’s emergency response capabilities. 

Since 2011, the Garmin inReach satellite technology has helped people communicate with loved ones outside of phone service, navigate routes, and, in emergencies, trigger an interactive SOS message to the Garmin Response coordination center. Garmin inReach users can set off an SOS response all around the world, thanks to the 100 percent global Iridium satellite network coverage and a team of emergency responders in more than 200 countries and territories. 

Today, Garmin released its 2023 SOS Year in Review, and the results reveal a lot about hiker behavior and safety. 

Why do adventurers hit the SOS button?

The most common reason to trigger an SOS dispatch was injury. According to Garmin, this includes broken bones, deep cuts, and blunt force trauma from a fall. Injured ankles are the most common backcountry mishaps. Some more common SOS calls were because of medical issues such as altitude sickness, heart problems, and gastrointestinal distress.

You might not have thought of pressing the SOS button in the middle of an interstate highway, but there were also incidents off-trail that triggered an SOS response. Last year showed the biggest increase in vehicle-caused mishaps. That could be because of worse road conditions, more people traveling to their adventures by car, or greater knowledge of inReach capabilities. The inReach can call emergency services in areas without phone service—so people use their inReach after getting into an accident, encountering adverse weather, or experiencing mechanical issues outside of phone service zones. Garmin says it’s important to keep the inReach in your car for these types of “just in case” scenarios.

Some other common reasons for pressing the SOS button included getting stranded or stuck on the trail, reporting a missing or lost hiker, and reporting a wildfire.

What adventurers were doing when they triggered an SOS in 2023. (Photo: Rehan Nana / Garmin)

Who is most likely to hit the SOS button?

Roughly one-third of SOS calls came from hikers and backpackers. (According to Garmin, most people triggered an SOS response for themselves—which shows the importance of having one on your person—but over 50 percent of SOS calls were for someone else in their group or a third-party adventurer in distress.) 

Behind hikers and backpackers, the majority of SOS calls came from drivers, then motorcyclists, then boaters, then climbers/mountaineers, then campers. 

How does the inReach help in an emergency?

Garmin has emergency response teams worldwide that can communicate in more than 200 languages. According to the 2023 report, inReach users could self-rescue nearly 10 percent of the time with the guidance of the professionally trained response staff. That’s because, during emergencies, an interactive SOS message goes to the response team, where the staff tracks devices and either coaches someone through self-rescue or coordinates with emergency services to get help.  

“This should give inReach users peace of mind that, in an emergency, help is just a press of a button away,” says Garmin’s Director of Global Corporate Communications Krista Klaus.

In 2023, helicopters, ambulances, and search and rescue teams were dispatched most frequently.

Real Examples Of Survival From an inReach SOS

Backpacker’s podcast “Out Alive” is a treasure trove of survival stories. All the stories are different, but for many, there’s one common piece of gear that came in handy in each scenario: the Garmin inReach. Listen how each person survived, inReach in hand, in these episodes:

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