The “in-town” – the most important person in your party

In Public by Anna Debattiste

by Bruce Beckmann, Alpine Rescue Team

Every year you hear backcountry search and rescue (BSAR) teams preach about carrying the “ten essentials.”  If an emergency should arise, these essentials are vital to your being able to survive the night.  These essentials are not for use during your trip, and it is a good trip if you carry them home again without having had to use them. We also recommend having a responsible adult know where you will be and when you will return.  We call this person your “in-town.”

The in-town is simply that, the adult person who remains at home and knows all about you and your companions.  This is a very responsible position and one that should not be taken lightly nor asked of anyone who cannot live up to the task.  When things go wrong, the lives of the party in the field may depend on how quickly the in-town can respond and have the necessary information to provide to the sheriff and BSAR team carrying out the rescue.  I recall one student in a class mentioning that when her roommate failed to return after a hike, she called the sheriff.  She said she was asked many questions she did not know the answers to!  She felt so ill-prepared. The party made it home ok, albeit very late and exhausted. But a valuable lesson was learned by both parties: have a knowledgeable in-town.

What does the in-town need to know and do?  

The in-town should know as much as possible about all the individuals in the party s/he is tracking, for example:

THE WHO:  The number in the party, name of each person, sex, age, any known medical conditions, a cell phone for each person, a cell phone, and the names of each person’s partner who is NOT going in the field, i.e., their own in-town.

THE WHAT:  What is the mode of travel (snowshoes, skis, snowmobile, hiking, etc.)?  What gear each person is taking; enough to spend the night, or just a day hike? Be specific.  What is the intended plan for the trip?  The “trip plan” is a detailed description including routes, expected times, etc.  What is the make, model, year, and color of the vehicle or vehicles being used and the license number of each?  This is critical as the search does not usually begin until the subject’s vehicle is located at a trailhead.  This is the BSAR team’s starting point for rescue.  “What” also applies to the color of clothing, packs, helmets, food, water, supplies etc.   Get a picture of the party and send it to the in-town the morning of the outing.

THE WHERE:  Where are they going?  Know the objective and the specific trailhead, the coordinates of such, and the route the party intends to follow. Details should be in the trip plan. Is there a secondary route, perhaps? What area and county is the adventure taking place in?  Write out the sheriff’s emergency phone number for that county so the in-town can locate it easily and without confusion.

THE WHEN:  The time the party intends to enter the field, and when the party intends to summit or turnaround i.e., the time when the party turns back even if the objective is not reached.  Again, document these in the trip plan.  Lastly, and most importantly, the time the party is to be back to the trailhead and in communication with the in-town, noting all is well and all parties are out of the field.  When this time is missed, the in-town needs to act immediately and call the sheriff of the county where the activity is happening. BSAR teams would prefer to be called out and turned around than to delay rescue, especially into the night when it is more dangerous for everyone concerned. 

There are a lot of things the in-town can and should do.  Some are dependent on the abilities of the folks in the field to communicate with the in-town, others are not.  Today, there are many devices that utilize commercial satellite networks – “satellite messengers” so folks in the field may stay in contact with folks at home, call for help (send an SOS), and message folks along the way advising of the party’s progress or anticipated delays.  We strongly encourage folks to always carry such a device in the backcountry, and you can read more about them here.

Most satellite messengers allow for on-screen computer tracking of the field party in real time (generally with ten-minute updates).  The mapping system generally utilizes a proprietary map that can be viewed on a desktop computer and is updated every ten minutes or so showing where the party has been and where they are now.  In the field, cellular connection is not required as the device utilize satellites.  The in-town can track the party’s progress and can click on any dot, or data point, on the map, to reveal the date, time, elevation, and coordinates of the party.  Text messages can be sent back and forth between the party and the in-town or other folks as well.  In-towns can, for example, warn the party of a fast-approaching storm, or other hazards they see on the computer.  Most importantly, there is an SOS button which, when activated by the field party, can alert the local sheriff of the distress call, send a Lat/Lon coordinate of the party’s location, and can speed the local BSAR team to the aid of the field party.  Once the SOS is activated, the field party should not move, but should hunker down and await rescue. Plan for a long time for rescuers to reach the party.

If a satellite messaging device is used, the party should be sure to teach the in-town on how to use it.   What is the device’s screen address?  Rescuers may request and use that address to locate/track and contact the party.  How do they sign into the account on the computer, and what do all those numbers mean (i.e., Lat/Lon), etc.?  Know how to send and receive messages through the device.  Invest the time in training this person to best support you on your trip; consider writing it down for them so they won’t forget.

There are more things the in-town can do; for example, at key agreed-to times, they can do a check-in message to verify all is well, and they can keep the other in-town contacts updated on the group’s progress.  The more information the in-town has, the better equipped in the event of an emergency.  If an emergency arises, only the one designated as the in-town should notify the sheriff.  Having multiple people contact the sheriff for the same event can cause confusion and add non-value time to the rescue response.

SOS features on cell phones.  As of the writing of this document, the iPhone 14 has a new SOS satellite feature that connects to a dispatch center via satellite (cellular connection is not needed).  There are other cell phone manufacturers that are planning to follow suit and provide SOS satellite calling features.  Motorola’s “defy satellite link” that works on any cell phone is making its debut Q2, 2023.  Do your homework and research these options carefully.  Each will have their pros and cons.  This technology explosion is definitely something to watch for in the future.

Questions on how to stay safe in the backcountry? Reach out to your local rescue teams and other official sources for help, education, and guidance.  Avoid advice from well-meaning people who have no backcountry rescue experience and suggest that you take short cuts.  After all, what is your life worth to you and your loved ones?