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August 18, 2008

Outdoor Retailer Summer 2008 #4

Filed in Gear , News

My report on Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008 continues (click here for the previous installment):

Wine to Go…or to Hold

PlatyPreserveNobody at Cascade Designs was telling whether the genesis of the idea was to make it easier to take along some wine on the trail while preserving its flavor, or to find a way to preserve leftover wine, but the good news for wine-lovers is that the new PlatyPreserve does both.

The PlatyPreserve is a based on the Platy bottle we are all familiar with. Mind you, it’s not like many haven’t decanted a bottle into a Platy before. Many a fine vino, and not so fine, truth be told, has been transported into the wilds that way. However, the standard clear Platy Bottle isn’t an ideal wine container. Light is an enemy of wine, particularly reds. The concept has been modified slightly by altering the laminated plastic material to make it impervious to damaging light. Wine’s other enemy is oxygen, which is easily dealt with by simply squeezing the flexible bottle until all the air is out before capping the PlatyPreserve.

No light and no oxygen mean the wine should be good for up to six months, according to the designers. We sampled some wine that we were told had been in the PlatyPreserve for over a month and compared it to the same wine poured straight from a fresh bottle. There was very little noticeable difference in taste; the month-old wine was perfectly drinkable. I’ve seen wine go far worse over a long evening. We took home a sample, we’ve done the deed, and I guess I’ll report back in a few months. But, the concept seems sound and I’ve really no reason to believe it won’t work as promised. I can’t see a company like Cascade Designs having invested all that’s involved to develop and launch this product if it didn’t work. It’s not like they could hide a problem for long, the proof will be readily apparent in the drinking.

Each PlatyPreserve holds 800 ML, a standard wine bottle’s worth. It will be available in September for $12.95 individually or in a four-pack for $44.95 (MSRP).

MSR Expands Emergency Shelter Offerings

MSR E-HouseMSR was showing off a number of new tents, two of which are expressly designed to compliment their E-Wing emergency tarp shelter introduced last year. The E-House and E-Bivy are both ultra-lightweight shelters that are compressed into a very small stuff sack about the size of a soda can and as hard as a rock. Both feature yellow Sil Nylon fabric and taped seams and come with a larger stuff stack because there’s not a chance you’ll ever get them back into the original one. .

The E-House can be set up with a pair of trekking poles, some sticks or a line stretched between trees. They claim it will provide “complete coverage for two and emergency shelter for four.” The floor area is given at 19 sq. ft. (1.76 sq. m) and the peak height is 45 inches (114 cm). “Cozy” comes to mind as an apt description for two and it will definitely be an emergency to get four to huddle inside. But those four will be most thankful for the shelter.

A single zippered door is found in one end and there’s also a vent in one side. No floor, but it does have a skirted base to help keep the weather outside. Weight is 20 oz (0.56 Kg). MSRP is $129.95

MSR E-BivyThe E-Bivy is a typical minimalist bivy sack. It will help keep the bag and you dry and add warmth and that’s a pretty good bet for only 9 oz (225g). MSRP is $79.95.

Both are expected to be available in the first quarter of 2009.

See more gear in the next installment

August 16, 2008

Outdoor Retailer Summer 2008 #3

Filed in Gear , News

My report on Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008 continues (click here for the previous installment):

Spotlight on the Spotlight

Spolight Rechargeable LED FlashlightThe “Spotlight,” distributed in the U.S. by Essential Gear, is a rechargeable LED flashlight with a unique charging mode. It is designed to recharge by slipping into the 12-volt power outlet/cigarette lighter receptacle in your vehicle. The trick is that internal regulation ensures that the nickel-metal hydride battery doesn’t overcharge from being left in the power source. That’s death for Ni-MH batteries and a potential Achilles heel for any such concept. Building the regulation circuitry into the flashlight was the key innovation.

Having a fully-charged flashlight always available and conveniently at hand in the vehicle addresses the flashlight-as-storage-for-dead-batteries syndrome that’s common for the typical flashlight in the glove box.

Inserted into the outlet, only the head is visible. It glows dimly red while charging. You can simply leave it there until needed. The anodized 6061 aluminum body, available in 10 colors, is 2 inches long by 0.875 inch diameter at the head, 0.81 inch body diameter. Weight is 1.6 oz.

The switch is a rotary head switch with a very noticeable detent for Off and On. The 0.5-watt 5mm LED produces a tightly focus beam claimed to shine 90 feet and is protected by a toughened glass lens and the light is submersible to IPX7 standards, 1 meter for 30 minutes. Run time is given as 120 minutes with charging time from a totally drained batter of 7 hours. MSRP is $19.95

Various accessories will be available including a neck lanyard, “Super Socket” adapter to allow continued access to the power outlet while charging the Spotlight, a “Fender Friend” with a flexible neck and magnetic base for roadside repairs and a 120V wall-outlet adapter

Leatherman’s Getting Serious About Lights

Leatherman had previously dipped it’s proverbial toe into the LED flashlight waters with combo packs of some of their tools and a pretty generic key-chain light and then a branded 3 x AAA-cell LED light exclusively for Costco (the Monarch 500), but at OR they debuted their new Serac line of pocket-sized LED flashlights, a far more serious and much better effort.

Leatherman Serac FlashlightsWhile these are again made overseas, they represent Leatherman originated design and engineering concepts and a higher build quality of the sort that we expect from a Leatherman product. Their stated aim was to provide a higher value for the consumer in each size and illumination power.

Common to all three lights are Type III hard anodized 6061 T6 aluminum bodies, tail-switches, gold-plated contacts, single battery regulated power and a 10-year limited warranty. The switches require a noticeable amount of pressure to get them to “click” and there is no momentary ON, reducing the potential for inadvertent activation and battery depletion. Flats are machined around the bodies for a better grip. All the lights are rated as waterproof to 3.28 ft (1 m), though the literature did not give a time period.

The Serac S1 and S2 are both single AAA-cell lights with a common body and non-recessed tail switch. The S1 has a Nichia 5mm GS-K1 LED recessed into a conical aluminum bezel “reflector” opening and providing 6 lumens output. Battery life is listed at 11 hours with the provided alkaline battery.

Leatherman Serac FlashlightsThe S2 features a 3-watt Cree XR-E LED with two illumination levels, 4 and 35 lumens. It is seated into a stippled reflector inside a stainless bezel. A toughened and double anti-reflective coated lens protects the LED. Once switched ON, the S2 alternates between the low and high settings by tapping the tailcap switch lightly. When initially turned on, it will provide the alternative illumination level to what was last used. So, if you were using low, it turns on next at the high level, which I found disconcerting. I’d prefer to see it always turn on at the low level since it’s so quick and easy to switch to high. You often don’t need the high level of illumination and there are many times when it can be counterproductive, even if on just briefly. It’s not a terribly serious issue, but I did find it annoying.

Battery life is rated at 10.5 hours on low and 45 minutes on high. The latter isn’t too surprising given the minimal capacity of the alkaline AAA-cell. They don’t provide any specs for a lithium AAA-cell. That would provide more power density and better cold-weather performance, as well as saving 3.9 grams (0.14 oz).

The S1 and S2 are 3.23 inches (8.2 cm) and 3.48 inches (8.84 cm) long, respectively, and 0.56 (1.42 cm) in diameter. They weigh in at 1 and 1.1 oz. (28.3 and 31.2 g), respectively. A stainless, reversible split arrow clip and a removable split ring (for keychain carry) provide lots of carry options. MSRP is $25 and $50, respectively.

Leatherman Serac S3 ClipThe S3 is powered by a 123A 3-volt lithium cell. The 3-watt Cree XR-E LED provides three illumination levels, 7, 43 and 100 lumens, which are accessed the same as in the S2, by tapping the tailcap switch in sequence. Like the S2, the S3 turns ON at the next level of brightness in the sequence. If you were at low, you get medium, at medium you get high and at high you get low. The recessed tailcap switch, which I prefer, adds to the protection against inadvertent activation. Not quite as good as a lock-out tail cap, but a big improvement.

I liked the reversible wire clip which is held securely in a groove machined into the body, one at each end. As with the S2, the S3 has a stainless steel bezel, stippled reflector and toughened and double anti-reflective coated lens.

Length of the S3 is 3.2 inches (8.13 cm) with a diameter of 0.9 inch (2.29 cm). Weight is 2.6 oz. (73.7 g). Battery life is rated at 36 hours (low), 4 hours (medium) and 1 hour (high). MSRP is $70.

All in all, an impressive first effort by Leatherman as they make a serious push into the LED flashlight market.

Cord Lock Light

Cord Lock LightA new company, Black Crater, introduced their unique Cord Lock Light. That’s pretty much as accurate a description as you could come up with. They have integrated a white 3mm LED into a cord lock. Their tag line, “where you need it, when you need it,” succinctly makes their point. Cord locks are pretty much ubiquitous on all sorts of outdoor gear and outerwear. Power is provided by a pair of CR1220 lithium coin cells.

A rubberized switch is recessed into the side of the plastic body. Two levels of illumination are provided, plus a flashing mode. It is claimed to be “water-resistant.” All in all, a nice enough package. Though they necessarily have to add in some bulk compared to a simple cord lock, it’s still small enough and light enough that this doesn’t appear like it will be a problem in most cases.

With a $10 MSRP, the Cord Lock Light will likely be a big hit, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see it installed in a number of OEM applications on packs and sleeping bags and the like. However, the more I thought about it, I have to admit, the less generally useful I found the concept, even if it was a great concept.

Cord Lock LightNot that having a light always handy on your equipment is ever a bad thing; that’s why many of us have compact keychain-sized lights clipped all over our gear, on zipper pulls and the like. However, generally you need to be able to take the flashlight and move it to where you need light. That’s going to be hard to do when it’s tied to the cords of wherever you have installed it. You can’t so easily unclip it, as you can with typical a small flashlight.

It may be all well and good to have it installed on a sleeping bag hood, as an example they illustrate, and it may allow you to light up the shelter a bit to find and grab something or other inside, but it can’t easily and quickly go out with you to water the forest like a dedicated flashlight or headlamp can. One of their illustrations shows it being used to read a map, but tellingly, it’s not connected to any cords.

So, my conclusion is that it’s still a great idea and appears to be a good implementation for a start, but I don’t think in its current iteration that it’ll replace anyone’s flashlights.

See more gear in the next installment

August 14, 2008

Outdoor Retailer Summer 2008 #2

Filed in Gear , News

My report on Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008 continues (click here for the previous installment):

A New Saint of Light

Surefire Saint prototypeSurefire’s long-awaited and much anticipated headlamp has arrived. Surefire showed off prototypes of the new “Saint” model that are very close to the final specification, particularly with regards to the critical elements. Some of the machined parts in the prototypes will be done in high-tech engineered reinforced plastic for production, but the light housing itself will be aluminum in the same manner as traditional Surefire flashlights with Type III mil-spec hard anodizing.

Like some other recently introduced headlamps, Surefire has gone the tubular light housing route. However, the similarity ends there. The housing itself rotates completely around, using a knob on the left side (as worn), so that the lens can be protected when not in use if required. There is a rotary switch on the right end (as worn). The switch has a slight detent at 10 lumens, but the power adjusts smoothly from zero to 100 lumens. The switch and the housing rotation knobs look like they would be easy enough to operate with typical operator’s gloves, part of the design brief. A Cree 3-watt XRE LED is used.

Surefire Saint PrototypeThe lens itself is aspheric in shape with apparently some manner of Fresnel type rings evident looking into it. Surefire calls it a “refractive optic.” The end result appears to be an extremely smooth flood of light that ramps up smoothly. I did not see any evidence of hot spots, rings or noticeable graduations in the beam.

The battery box, which will be engineered plastic in production, is attached at the rear and holds three 123A 3-volt lithium cells as the primary power source. The Saint will run on one or two 123A’s if desired, and in a pinch, two AA-cells, alkaline or lithium, can be used, but with reportedly much reduced output and life, especially if alkalines are selected. Surefire calls this “Dual-Fuel capable,” but it seems to me to be mostly designed as a means to allow for redundancy and back-up under less than ideal field conditions, not for regular use. In any case, having options is a good thing.

Surefire Saint prototypeInstead of the typical closed-cell neoprene pad on the battery box and headlamp, Surefire has used “Breath-O-Prene” pads that are designed to wick away moisture. That could certainly add to the comfort in many situations. There is also a recess in the battery pack, behind the pad, to accommodate the occipital protuberance that moist of us have at the base of the skull. The pads are washable and are installed with Velcro and easily removed and replaced. Replacement pad sets will be available.

The robust elastic headband is adjustable, as one would expect, but also offers a few advanced features. On the left side (as worn), the power cable has a loop that is retained in a fabric three-snap closure. The extra cable provides for adjustment and strain relief as well as allowing sufficient length to allow the Saint to be easily mounted on a helmet. The top strap is removable, snapping easily in or out as needed.

Click here for higher resolution and more detailed images of the Saint prototype.

Colored filters will be available to snap into place over the lens. MSRP will be $185 with first deliveries expected later this Fall. The Saint is expected to be just the first of a range of headlamps from Surefire, so stay tuned

Floating Glass Signal Mirror?

Coghlan's Sight-Grid Signal MirrorA floating glass signal mirror seems like something of an oxymoron, but Coghlan’s new “Sight-Grid Signal Mirror” does just that. This signal mirror is an attempt to provide some of the desirable attributes of some plastic signal mirrors with the generally higher reflectivity you get from a glass mirror. How well they succeeded remains to be seen.

Nominally a 2 x 3 inch mirror, the actual reflective portion measured 1.78 x 2.81 inches on my scale, with one corner removed for the lanyard hole. Total reflective area is probably more or less the same as their traditional laminated glass mirror which is 2 x 3 inches, but has four radiused corners, plus a riveted lanyard hole. The glass mirror is surrounded on four sides and the back by an acrylic plastic enclosure, very reminiscent of the original plastic Star Flash mirror from Ultimate Survival Technologies.

Coghlan's Sight-Grid Signal MirrorInstead of two laminated pieces of glass, the Sight-Grid mirror has a single piece of glass along with a piece of foam backing and the instructions on the back, encased in the acrylic surround. It ends up about 0.03 inch thicker than their laminated mirror. Weight is 1 oz versus 1.8 ounces for the laminated mirror. I can confirm that it floats.

It has the same excellent retro-reflective sighting grid as their laminated mirror, except there’s no cut-out in the center, as is traditionally provided. I don’t expect that to be a problem; it’s easy enough to see through the grid, which you have to do anyway to merge the aiming “hot spot” and the target. For that matter, it surely simplifies production if they don’t have to try and get that hole centered in the aimer, an eternal problem with signal mirror production. Like its laminated sibling, this mirror is made in Japan.

Coghlan's Sight-Grid Signal Mirror (left) and laminated mirror (right) (Image right: Coghlan’s Sight-Grid Signal Mirror (left) and laminated mirror (right))

The instructions on the back are clear and easy to read, white text on a black background, especially easy compared to the barely readable low-contrast red text on black background found on their laminated mirror (copied from traditional subdued mil-spec glass mirror designs).

As far as robustness, it’s unlikely to be shatter proof; it is glass after all. How much the acrylic surround helps and how it compares to a traditional laminated glass mirror remains to be seen. When we have a bunch of samples we’ll start dropping them.

In a quick and dirty check reflecting a spot on a wall 50 feet away at noon, our sample didn’t seem to have quite as powerful a reflective spot as their laminated glass mirror which is right up there with the best in terms of reflectivity. It did provide a concentric and bright spot, a good start. However, we’ll wait to test a number of production samples in the new signal mirror test rig we are building before we make a final judgment as to its comparative performance. For the moment, we’d not rush out to buy one until we can conduct a full evaluation, but it holds a good deal of promise as a compromise between a heavy laminated glass mirror and the best plastic mirrors.

The Sight-Grid Signal Mirror should be in stores shortly with an MSRP of $12.99.

(DISCLOSURE: I helped develop the Adventure Medical Kits “Rescue Flash” plastic laminated signal mirror which is included in the AMK Pocket Survival Pak, sales of which provide royalties to myself and the ETS Foundation. The Rescue Flash is also sold separately.)

Check Back Soon for More New Gear

In an effort to speed up the process, I’m going to publish this review of new products from Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008 in stages over the next few days. Check back for more new gear, hopefully tomorrow.

A Different Kind of Survival Strategy – Lesson Learned

I tend to focus on the gear and technological aspects of survival, but occasionally we touch on the all-important mental considerations. I was reminded this week that sometimes survival planning also involves making sure you’ve adequately prepared for even the most unsatisfactory circumstances, not surviving.

My wife’s step-dad was in the hospital again last week and Sue had gone down to help her mom while I was away testing life rafts and attending Outdoor Retailer. Monday evening as I was flying home the decision was made to disconnect life support on Tuesday and I drove down to Tucson early on Tuesday to be with her and my mother-in-law to provide whatever support I could. He passed away early in the afternoon. The point of all this is not to elicit sympathy, but to make a point that will hopefully ease your own pain and trials if such a situation arises. This wasn’t the first time we’ve been in such a situation, but it was much easier for having been properly prepared.

Frank had a living will and he had provided both his wife and his daughter with medical power of attorney. There were very clear instructions as to what to do under such circumstances as he was in. He had discussed it at length with everyone involved. I cannot possibly over-emphasize how much this helped. For those most closely involved, it took a huge weight off their shoulders for what can often be an extremely difficult and trying decision. All those most closely involved were at peace with the situation and decision, knowing it was what Frank wanted.

I want to encourage you to discuss this sort of thing with your loved ones. While Frank had a history of medical issues, the fact is that it can happen to anyone in the blink of an eye. Failing to prepare for this eventuality can leave loved ones in dire straights and a difficult situation and in mental anguish both during and afterwards. What to do is up to you, but whatever you decide is right for you, it’s so easy to take care of ahead of time, and can be so damn difficult if you do not. Make sure all involved also have authorized copies and they should be part of any collection of important documents in any preparedness kit. A word to the wise…

August 13, 2008

Cool New Gear at Outdoor Retailer Summer 2008

Filed in Gear , News

Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008Outdoor Retailer Summer Market was held in Salt Lake City this past weekend and it was a pretty good show in most respects. Unfortunately for some exhibitors, OR has outgrown Salt Lake City’s Salt Palace and a bunch of new exhibitors were exiled to the Energy Solutions Arena (the old Delta Center) where the majority of attendees never ventured. It’s bad enough when you have to search nooks and crannies of the Salt Palace to find stuff, but having to walk a block or two out of the back of the building and then down and back up a steep and long flight of stairs to get to the show floor is just asking too much for most. Having gotten that off my chest, so to speak, let’s start on the gear that attracted my attention.

I’ll start off with my favorite find. It was in one of those nooks and crannies, a second floor meeting room, where I found what in my opinion was the coolest new product in the show. There’s no high tech involved, no novel and unique technology, nor a sharp edge to be found. As is often the case, it’s an elegant and deceptively simple solution to an age old problem that captured my attention.

Unexciting Name, Coolest New Product

I imagine most of those reading this have had the inopportune experience of blowing out or damaging a zipper or the zipper slider, or having it get permanently stuck. Usually it happens when Murphy is already working overtime on your case. Sometimes it is just mildly inconvenient, most times it’s very inconvenient and there are times when it can be life threatening. The available field repair solutions are at best inadequate and often simply don’t work, especially with a damaged zipper. Duct tape is often the only solution and often not a very good one. Beyond that, it can also be expensive and time-consuming to get fixed properly.

Flip-N-Zip PrototypesInventor Chris Felix, along with co-inventor Jim Williams, came up with the concept and has patented an ingenious fix for blown and broken zippers and sliders, the new “Flip-N-Zip.” Yes, I know, the name is less than exciting, but the product is unbelievably cool.

Felix showed up at OR thinking he might talk zipper manufacturers into using his more easily replaced zipper slider as an OEM component, saving them money on warranty and such. He quickly learned that the OEM zipper manufacturers simply don’t care about this aspect, it’s the manufacturer of the end product’s problem, not theirs. On the other hand, for every consumer who’s been there and done that, who surely number in the millions, a zipper field repair component that’s easy, reliable and affordable would be a godsend. Given the right marketing and distribution, the Flip-N-Zip is a sure winner, in my opinion.

Here’s how it works. The zipper slider is in two pieces with a spring loaded screw joining them. You spread the slider top and bottom apart and slip the zipper teeth into the slots, then tighten up the screw to clamp the two halves together, that’s it! (see the video here) The zipper works. Have some damaged teeth? Zip up one section, move past the damage, install the Flip-N-Zip and finish zipping it up. The two sizes of prototypes that Felix had cover zippers from size 5 through 10. That covers the vast majority of zippers used in outdoor gear and clothing, luggage and handbags. I watched Felix and his associate work their magic on every sort of zipper imaginable; metal, plastic, self healing, coil, you name it. They had a whole pile of equipment and clothing in the booth to demo the Flip-N-Zip.

They are now working to get the Flip-N-Zip manufactured. His selected manufacturer is refining the design to make it a bit less bulky and improve manufacturability. I sure hope they get it right, get it done soon, and are successful in getting the marketing and distribution they need to be successful. I pray this isn’t one of those great products that fails for lack of marketing and sales acumen (coming up with a better name might be a place to start). Regardless, without a doubt, the Flip-N-Zip is the coolest new product I saw at OR this summer. I really, really want to be able to carry a set of these in my bags when I travel or go into the field.

Visit the CTF Ent. web site (which includes their more detailed video) at www.flipanzip.com

Ultimate Survival Downsizes Firestarter

Ultimate Survival technologies Sparkie prototypeI like one-hand operable firestarters and for a long time there have been just two commercially available, the Spark-Lite and the BlastMatch. The Spark-Lite is compact and lightweight (and comes in a package with its own excellent tinder). The BlastMatch makes lots more and hotter sparks, but it’s big and heavy and many chose not to carry it for those reasons. It’s just too bulky and especially too heavy for comfortable pocket carry or to fit in a truly compact personal survival kit (read our One-Handed Fire Starter Face-off, one of the earliest comparative reviews to appear on ETS way back in the dark ages of the Internet). What a lot of folks wished for was a BlastMatch that was smaller and a whole lot lighter, but which still generated all those sparks.

Ultimate Survival Technologies finally gave life to those wishes with the introduction of their new “Sparkie.” They had a handful of prototypes at OR to demo, making sure we understood that these were the first working pre-production prototypes and they were looking for input as they moved towards production. So, what is described here may see some detail changes before you can actually buy one, but by and large they seem to have struck a workable compromise between performance, size and weight.

Ultimate Survival technologies Sparkie prototype (right) BlastMatch (left)Closed, it is 2.3 inches (5.73 cm) long by 1.2 inches (2.95 cm) wide and 0.7 inch (1.74 cm) thick. Releasing the spring-loaded sparking bar by pressing the thumb button, it extends 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) out of the handle. Weight is only 0.85 oz (24 g). This compares to 4 inches (10.2 cm) and 2.7 oz (76.6g) for the BlastMatch. Retraction is as easy as sliding the bar back into the handle and allowing the thumb button to retain it in place.

The video below provides a good indication of how well it works; creating lots of hot sparks for fire starting. The rectangular-ish cross-section sparking bar is held in a carrier for support against the pressure of the internal striker tab in use. Otherwise the bar would break. Recall that these artificial ferrocerium flints create sparks when the striker peels off the material from the bar, friction thereby causing those peeled-off bits to get red hot, creating the “sparks.”

UST claims that it will be good for at least 100 sparkings. This is well below the number you might get from the full-sized BlastMatch, but certainly adequate in an emergency and a reasonable compromise for normal use given the size and weight savings.

It operates on the same principle as the BlastMatch; press down on the striker tab and either push the handle down the rod against a hard surface or use a finger to pull the rod into the handle. The compact size makes it easier than the BlastMatch to use it in the air with a finger. We offered a few critiques and suggestions, which I won’t share here as these were just prototypes, and I am looking forward to testing production versions.

The rubberized handle will come in tan and orange with an MSRP of $14.95 and should be available later this Fall.

Compared to the Spark-Lite, it’s still quite a bit bigger, but has the advantage of more and hotter sparks which will generally work better with natural tinder sources. Assuming they get it right as they move into production, this could be a good compromise in size and especially weight for those seeking an alternative to the larger BlastMatch.

(In an effort to speed up the process, I’m going to publish this review of new products from Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008 in stages over the next few days.)

Click here for More New Gear from Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008

June 14, 2008


Filed in Gear

PLB vs SPOTCompetition sometimes results in companies using questionable tactics to protect their turf or gain market share. It’s the nature of the beast. The line is often fine between a great marketing concept and one that wasn’t such a good idea. Sometimes it’s just how it’s done that raises a red flag. Oftentimes it is one of those “sounded like a good idea at the time” sort of thing. Moreover, whoever said all is fair and love and war, should have also added in commercial competition. When dollars are involved, the gloves come off.

By now you’re starting to wonder what the heck is Doug going on about? I’m getting there, stay with me. In the media community it is referred to as sowing FUD, which stands for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. What this involves is taking some facts which may only be tangentially related to a particular issue and presenting them in a way that directly or indirectly serves to convince the consumer that some product they are considering buying has some sort of flaw, thereby convincing them not to do so. It is a time-honored marketing tactic, even if I don’t think there’s much honor to it. (Outright lying about your product or a competitors is another issue entirely and not time honored at all, though it happens often enough, sorry to say)

Which, finally, brings me to the point. Last week ACR Electronics, who make 406 MHz EPIRBs and PLBs, went the FUD route in their ongoing competition with SPOT, which operates outside the traditional COSPAS-SARSAT distress alerting system. To make matters worse, this piece of FUD was issued shortly after I offered up on this blog my own “shot across the bow” to SPOT and other commercial distress alerting service in the works. Some folks, especially some who only read the introduction and viewed the PowerPoint presentation and didn’t listen to the audio of the presentation, have added 1+1 and come up with 3, somehow concluding that I’m saying the same thing ACR was (and the fact that I used this image (above right) to illustrate the traditional SAR vs. commercial distress alerting relationship probably didn’t help).

As such, instead of getting caught up on the multi-page list of stuff I need to do this weekend, here I sit typing on this damn computer trying to set the record straight and clear up the FUD.

First, to view ACR’s FUD media release, click here. Just remember when you read it, that it is just that, FUD. While you might get the initial impression that it was issued by the Coast Guard, it is, in fact, just another press release from ACR, which is clearly indicated by the quotations included from ACR officers and the statement at the bottom. In my opinion, it would have been far better to make this clear from the outset, but then, I’m not a fan of FUD to begin with.

Technically and factually, the ACR release is correct. The conclusions that someone not familiar with either SPOT or how the Coast Guard works may come to from reading it may well not be correct at all.

For a look at what SPOT is and how it works, please click here.

It was written to imply that if someone were to send a distress alert from their SPOT device, somehow the Coast Guard is going to not take it as seriously as a distress alert from a PLB or EPIRB. “Not exactly!” as the popular advertising goes. If GEOS, SPOT’s contracted emergency call center, calls a Coast Guard RCC (Rescue Coordination Center) and delivers a distress alert, which will typically include a GPS derived location, the Coast Guard is going to act just as if it were a PLB or EPIRB distress alert. This SPOT distress alert clearly falls into the “Distress Phase” category, as outlined in the procedures mentioned in the release.

In a case where a SPOT alert is provided without a location, it is still going to be taken seriously, but necessarily there becomes the question of where to search. In some such cases there might be a trail of bread crumbs, so to speak, from SPOT’s tracking capability. This may not be as good as a Doppler location from a 406 MHz beacon, but it will be enough to allow the Coast Guard to launch a search.

Lumping SPOT with TracMe is another misleading part of the presentation. TracMe isn’t a distress alerting device. It is simply a homing beacon. The odds the Coast Guard would ever get an alert from someone from a TracMe beacon is down in the infinitesimally small range. In the unlikely case they did, they would be wise to be a little skeptical about it until they had more information to determine an appropriate response. SPOT is a distress alerting device using a commercial satellite system for alerting and a private commercial call center for notification. Two very different devices, deserving of different responses.

I never met a watch stander for the Coast Guard who would ignore such an obvious and clearly presented distress alert as one coming from SPOT/GEOS, or even one from Uncle Joe who just knows Bob, who is cruising on his sailboat, didn’t check in as usual this morning. The fact that the Coast Guard has procedures in place to define how they treat calls shouldn’t be news to anyone; it’s how large organizations deal with things. They put in place generic procedures so that all involved operate the same and things, hopefully, don’t slip between the cracks.

Bottom line, I’m not impressed with ACR’s issuance of this media release. I think it’s a classic case of FUD and I don’t think they need to resort to these sorts of questionable marketing ploys to sell a, from my point of view, clearly superior distress alerting product. If you are looking for a distress alerting device, in my opinion, you need a 406 MHz PLB, EPIRB or ELT. SPOT has some nice features, but isn’t as robust a distress alerting device at this point in its evolution. But, having said all that, it isn’t because the Coast Guard is not going to respond if they get a SPOT distress alert.

Now, having hopefully gotten the FUD part of this discussion out of the way, let me make it clear that though I do have questions and concerns about with how SPOT/GEOS interfaces with the traditional SAR alerting network, and other issues with SPOT from a distress beacon and marketing standpoint, I never said nor implied that the Coast Guard wouldn’t take a SPOT distress notification seriously. I’m quite convinced, particularly after visiting GEOS last week (more on that at a later date), that they are quite capable of getting the message across in a professional manner, regardless of which SAR dispatching organization they deal with. Getting the distress alert to the right SAR dispatching organization at the onset (and I don’t believe that is an issue with the U.S. Coast Guard at this point) or even issuing one at all if a subscription lapses, may be an issue, and those are some of the many issues I was raising in my presentation.

On a related, note, while my promised report on my actual experience in testing SPOT has been delayed by lack of time and other priorities, the folks over at BackpackingLight.com have done their own pretty thorough testing and evaluation of the SPOT and its performance and found it wanting in some respects. Their experience is somewhat similar to my own in this regard and their conclusions with regards its shortcomings also follow closely on my own.

Unfortunately, the full report is only available with a subscription or purchase. My pleas to them to make their report publicly available have fallen on deaf ears, so this important safety information will not receive the wider reception it deserves. If you are considering purchasing a SPOT for use as a distress beacon, I suggest investing the $4.99 to gain access to the full report.

My bottom line is simple. If you want to carry a SPOT because of the added features it offers, that’s great. It has a lot of nifty features. I believe that any distress alert from a SPOT will be taken seriously, though I question the robustness of that alerting capability and have other issues with the service and the device. At this point I am not willing to bet my life, or that of anyone I care about, on SPOT as a distress beacon of last resort. I’ll stick with my recommendation of 406 MHz beacons for that.

And, now, I need to get back to that list, lest a certian person I am wedded to takes issue with me….

June 5, 2008

What Price Your Life? Distress Alerting as a Commercial Service

PLB vs SPOTThe RTCM (Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services) Annual Meeting and Conference was held the week of May 5, 2008. I was asked to make a presentation as part of a panel discussing “Innovative Satellite Technologies.” Invitations to be included on the panel were sent to a number of organizations currently marketing distress alerting and distress communications services, or planning to do so (SPOT, the only service currently being marketed to consumers, was invited according to RTCM, but did not attend). My topic wasn’t about any particular service, per se, but rather was addressed to those attending or considering such service. The provocative title was, “What Price Your Life? Distress Alerting as a Commercial Service.”

While RTCM is ostensibly about maritime service, by the vagaries of such things, they have also become the standard setting body in the United States for PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons). The RTCM SC110 sub-committee develops standards for PLBs, as well as EPIRBs. I have been involved for some time now as the sole “consumer advocate” on a committee made up of industry, manufacturer, government and search and rescue representatives. A revised RTCM standard for PLBs was approved just prior to the annual meeting (click for more about this revised standard). A revised RTCM standard for EPIRBs is next on the agenda.

With this as background, RTCM is mindful of other technology that either competes or compliments the 406 MHz distress alerting technology and system, all of which impact the end user and SAR providers that RTCM serves. Thus, the impetus for this program at the annual conference.

My PowerPoint presentation can be downloaded here as an Adobe PDF file (287KB). The audio of the presentation can be downloaded as a WAV file (1.9MB). I’m sure that someone with technical competence could combine the two, but as I lack such skills, I suggest you download and open both the presentation and the audio and follow along simultaneously.

In summary, commercial distress alerting has hit the mainstream with the introduction of the SPOT Satellite Messenger. Others are on the way. I am not opposed to such services, nor against the concept of making a profit providing such services. They can offer a lot of advantages to consumers. However, there can be, and are in the case of at least SPOT, key differences between traditional distress alerting and commercial distress alerting. Traditional distress alerting measures its Return on Investment (ROI) in “lives saved,” not dollars earned. Adding profit incentive can potentially adversely affect outcomes if those involved don’t share this philosophy. It would appear that at least some involved may not have such vision. Otherwise, their policies with regards to subscriptions issues and lapses and the services provided, or not as is the case of SPOT, would be different.

Both individuals and society have expectations of what a distress alerting service should deliver. If you don’t deliver on these expectations, you can find yourself in big trouble. In other areas of Emergency Services, fire and emergency medical for example, commercial operations have found ways to put the emphasis where it belongs, saving lives. So, it’s certainly possible to do so and make a profit. You just have to have the vision and the right attitude.

In this regard, meeting societal expectations, SPOT has already stumbled in their implementation, but so far without any known fatalities. They and their chosen interface with SAR, GEOS, are learning and hopefully will do so quick enough to prevent problems. But, that is far from certain. Moreover, if every new commercial distress alerting service has to go through such a learning curve, sooner or later tragedy will strike. In addition, the lack of standards for this equipment and service has a huge potential for abuse and ruinous liability, aside from any tragedy. My message to SPOT and the other upcoming commercial distress alerting services is simple; get ahead of the problem or government will do it for you.

Again, this is just a brief summary of the short 12 minute presentation. Please download my PowerPoint presentation and the audio of the presentation for the full story.

NOTE: These comments are NOT at all related to a recent media release by ACR Electronics that  seems to imply, incorrectly, that the Coast Guard won’t respond to a SPOT distress alert the same as a 406 MHz beacon alert. Please read about ACR FUD here.

June 3, 2008

A Better PLB Standard Approved

Filed in Gear , News

RTCM logoEver since the first ETS Foundation 406 MHz GPS Beacon Evaluation revealed significant shortcomings in some of the beacons I have been working to encourage improvement of the standards to which PLBs are approved and manufactured. The first stage involved tightening up the COPSAS-SARSAT standards, T.001 and T.007 that cover all 406 MHz distress beacons. Some pretty significant changes were made to ensure that the beacons are now tested in less than ideal conditions to better assure they will work satisfactorily in real world use. You can read more about that here.

The next step was to address the RTCM standard for PLBs that covers other aspects of the device, many of which touch on the human interface and usability of the PLB. The RTCM standard serves as the basis for FCC approval of the beacons for sale in the U.S. Because the U.S. is such a large market, it also becomes something of a de facto standard for the world, to some varying degrees. A special subcommittee of the SC110 committee was tasked with that job and we have been meeting for a couple years to hammer out a better standard. In April, the revised RTCM 11010.2 standard was approved. While this doesn’t address all the issues, some work still remains, it goes a long way towards implementing tougher and more stringent standards for PLBs.

The main changes that have been included in the latest version of the RTCM PLB standard are:

  • References have been updated to reflect latest updated and improved COSPAS-SARSAT standards as noted above.
  • Added Internal Navigation Device Timing requirements that front load the GPS Receiver operation (on PLBs equipped with GPS). The GPS position is allowed to be updated no more often than every 20 minutes after an initial location is transmitted in accordance with the COSPAS-SARSAT standard, so the GPS receiver in a PLB does not operate all the time. The receiver chip consumes considerable power, so it is only turned on at intervals for brief periods as necessary, considerably reducing power requirements and the size of the battery (and thus weight and size of the PLB). In the past, various manufacturers have used their own GPS timing schemes, in part because they had different views of the priority of this information and in part to maximize battery conservation.

    Search and Rescue representatives on the committee, in consultation with their respective organizations, have advised that the most critical time to get a GPS location is in the first hour. After that, a Doppler location has likely been obtained anyway and the more time passes, the less critical it is. Given a limited “power budget,” and with industry knowledge of the peculiarities of the way these GPS receivers work best, it was determined to maximize the potential for gaining a location in this critical time period.

    To summarize the new timing scheme, in the first 60 minutes the GPS will make at least 3 attempts to obtain an initial location and will be turned on for a cumulative total of no less than 30 minutes. If the GPS fails to obtain an initial location within the first 60 minutes then it will continue to make at least one attempt every 15 minutes for the next hour of operation (2 hours total time). Each attempt at obtaining an initial location will require the GPS to be powered up for a period of at least 5 minutes each time.

    Once an initial valid location (fix) has been encoded into the beacon message, or after 2 hours, the navigation device will attempt location updates following a regime set out in the standard, which starts out with at least one fix / location update every 30 minutes for the first 6 hours thereafter.

    This change ensures that the GPS is given the best opportunity to obtain a location in this critical time period when it will do the most good, plus now all beacon manufacturers will incorporate this front loaded timing scheme into their PLBs.

    Annex G in the standard has been reserved for future addition of Internal Navigation Device (GPS) Test Methods and Test Procedures. This turned out to be a tougher nut to crack than expected. While good progress has been made in developing simulator testing schemes to ensure the GPS meets a minimum standard, it’s complicated and time consuming to establish and verify the test scenarios, procedures and test scripts and adjust them as necessary to ensure an appropriate level of GPS location performance. If we waited until that was entirely sorted out, it might have delayed the standard by a year, perhaps more. Since everything else would stand on its own and the improvements are significant, the new standard was approved, with a place reserved to insert the GPS testing once it is ready. The GPS testing requirements will follow in good time, but meanwhile everyone can start building a better PLB to the new standard.

    It should be noted that no organization has ever previously set minimum requirements for GPS locating performance into a standard such as we are doing here, one reason it is taking a longer time to accomplish. We cannot simply reference some other standard or modify an existing standard. RTCM is leading the way.

  • Somewhat related to this, additionally, PLBs with GPS are now allowed and encouraged to provide for the transmission of a self-test encoded GPS derived location as part of a unique and separate GPS self-test option. In the past, it was prohibited to do so. This will allow beacon testers to record the actual location being transmitted to test the integrity of the GPS location capability.
  • Improved PLB Labeling requirements were added (location of GPS antenna and warning not to obstruct it, whether PLB floats or not, readability and intelligibility testing requirement to help ensure that any instructions are easily understood and definition of operational configuration so users understand how to best orient and deploy the PLB, and in the case of a PLB with GPS, how to maximize the opportunity to get a location).
  • Improved PLB documentation requirements (User Manual) requirements added (instructions on safe (hazardous cargos) transportation, details on connecting external GPS Receivers to the PLB and many other improvements).
  • Packaging Labeling requirements added. This standard breaks new ground in this area, for the first time requiring specific information be provided to the potential purchaser on the PLB’s consumer packaging. The buyer will now be presented with enough information, prior to purchase or opening the box, to determine if the PLB is designed and built for their particular uses. This includes plain English information on class and category and suitability for various environments as well as notes that PLB does not meet regulatory carriage requirements for an ELT or EPIRB.
  • 121.5 MHz homing beacon Off Ground Plane Radiated Power Test added. This corresponds to the new testing added in the COSPAS-SARSAT standard for the primary 406 MHz distress transmission. It helps ensure that the PLB 121.5 MHz homer will actually work under less than ideal real world conditions. The Morse Code P in the 121.5 MHz transmission for U.S. PLBs is now fully integrated into the standard, not just an addendum.
  • In addition, many other minor changes have been incorporated including tighter environmental testing requirements and others. It is a much more robust standard which will result in better PLBs. It significantly raises the bar to help provide confidence these PLBs will save your life when called upon to do so.

    The revised PLB standard will be published shortly. Once published, RTCM will formally petition the FCC to adopt the standard into the FCC Part 95 rules. The FCC will officially review it (they already participated on the committee), probably issue a pro forma NPRM, and then is expected to formally incorporate it into the U.S. regulations by reference. All this will take some time, even if done on an expedited basis. Because there are some new tests involved, it is expected that the FCC will allow manufacturers a year to meet the new rules, based on past experience, but that is entirely up to the FCC. However, it should be noted that some manufacturers are already incorporating many of these changes from the standard in new PLBs, even prior to the standard being approved or written into the regulations. The revised standard should be adopted by industry quite quickly.

    I am very pleased to have had a hand in making this happen. There is no question that without the field testing that the Foundation conducted, the issues would likely never have seen the light of day until there was some sort of tragedy. Then, by getting involved in the standard setting process, I have been able the help push and shepherd the changes needed. Many of the changes enumerated above were initially proposed in the Recommendations section of our Beacon Evaluations.

    As the sole consumer advocate participating on these standard setting committees, I have tried to focus on two goals; ensuring that these lifesaving devices are likely to function reliably in real world conditions and that the end user, the potential survivor, is equipped with the information needed to make best use of the device if needed. All this must be balanced with the need to keep the device both affordable and accessible and allow future engineers and designers freedom to innovate. Those are oftentimes conflicting goals and it is credit to the industry, government and SAR representatives who have participated that we have done what I feel is a damn fine job of balancing these requirements.

    Please support Equipped To Survive with a tax-deductible donationBring this to fruition has taken years of meetings and lots of effort. The cost of travel, lodging and the like is not insignificant, no matter how frugally done. I contribute my time to the cause, but when I am working on things like this, I am not earning a living, keeping a roof over our head. As my grandfather used to remind me, money does not grow on trees. Your contributions and purchases of Doug Ritter Gear are what make this possible. There’s plenty more work to do, not just with distress beacons (revising the EPIRB standard is next for SC110), but with other safety and survival equipment with other committees I work with. Please consider helping to support this work with a contribution.

    December 23, 2007

    Start the New Year Right – Two New Disaster Preparedness Books

    Filed in Gear , News

    Two of my favorite survival instructors and authors have new books out, both dealing with the timely subject of disaster preparedness. The two books compliment each other nicely, each focuses on a different element of the preparedness solution.

    In “Surviving A Disaster – Evacuation Strategies and Emergency Kits for Staying Alive” Tony Nester (Ancient Pathways) addresses the issue of preparing to “bug out” if necessary. Tony spent a good deal of time interviewing those who have lived through recent disasters and reaped the lessons learned that are incorporated in his recommendations. His spare, concise and succinct style stuffs a lot of useful information into this compact book. It’s all meat, no fluff.

    Tony’s focus is on preparing to evacuate in case a disaster hits, or is threatened, and you must leave home. If you are prepared to leave in a hurry, you are also just about prepared to stay if it becomes a shelter in place situation, which he also touches on.

    The suggestions and gear and supply lists Tony provides are totally practical, and for the most part, not expensive or difficult. He’s essentially prepared you an easy to follow, concise road map to disaster preparedness for you and your family. Get this book, do what it says and you’ll be prepared–and way ahead of 99% of your neighbors. When disaster strikes, you’ll be out the door with your emergency supplies and belongings in 15 minutes while everyone else is in a panic.

    In “When All Hell Breaks Loose – Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes” Cody Lundin (Aboriginal Living Skills School) focuses primarily on how to prepare to survive a disaster while staying in your own home in your own community, what is technically referred to as “sheltering in place.” That isn’t necessarily clear from the title or the summary, however. Oftentimes when disaster strikes the only solution is to get the hell out of there. While Cody touches on the subject of evacuation, there’s very little on “bugging out” here (though much of the gear and supplies information is equally applicable whether you stay or leave).

    Cody once again uses occasionally irreverent language and a touch of humor to make his points. It’s generally entertaining reading, which is a good start when you’ve got 449 pages to get through.

    Cody does provide a lot of practical information on how to economically prepare you and your family to survive on their own for a period of time while the government and community come to grips with the disaster. This is not a concise preparedness manual, but Cody’s summary at the end of each chapter severs as a sort of Cliff Notes.

    As I mentioned at the start, these books compliment each other. One is not better than the other; start your new year off right and get both. You’ll be far better prepared for whatever disaster comes your way, whether it’s a matter of sheltering in place or getting the hell out of Dodge.

    November 30, 2007

    Leatherman Celebrates a Silver Anniversary

    Filed in Gear , News

    (Click on images and links for higher resolution images)

    Leatheman 25th Anniversary

    Hard to believe that come 2008 it will have been 25 years since Tim Leatherman introduced his original Personal Survival Tool (later called just the “PST”) and singlehandedly created an entirely new category, the multi-tool. The full-size pliers revolutionized the concept of what you could expect in a every day carry tool, before the term EDC even existed. I still have my original Leatherman Pocket Survival Tool, just took it out of my “antique” drawer to handle it. Bit loose in the joints, but perfectly functional.

    Leatherman 25th Anniversary WaveLeatherman is celebrating its 25th anniversary with two specials. The 25th Anniversary Wave features high polish handles with Leatherman’s 25th Anniversary logo and Tim Leatherman’s signature. There’s also a special sheath with a commemorative metal emblem.

    The Wave will be produced in a limited quantity of 50,000. When you describe that as being “limited” it gives you some idea just how many Leathermans are sold every year! MSRP will be $105 and they will be available at Leatherman retailers worldwide.

    Tradition holds that 25th anniversaries are silver and Leatherman honors this tradition with a sterling silver Charge. Based on the current Charge TTi, this beauty features sterling silver handle scales designed by seventh-generation internationally acclaimed Argentinian silversmith, Adrian Pallarols.

    :Leatherman 25th Anniversary Silver ChargePallarols has done a number of special Leatherman’s in the past (check out his Web site for examples, or stop by the Leatherman Store at the factory in Portland), but this is the first to be put into production like this.

    Only 999 tools will be produced and they will be available only through selected Leatherman retailers and direct from Leatherman via www.Leatherman.com. MSRP will be $499 and they come in a nice gift/display box (which may differ somewhat from the prototype shown).

    I don’t expect too many will find their way to actually being used, but perhaps Sue wouldn’t get on my case so bad if I was to wear one with my suit (yes, I really do own a suit, more than one actually). For some reason she seems to think that a Leatherman on my waist doesn’t fit the image, but if it were this fancy, perhaps? Of course, affording one is another story…

    Expected availability is Spring, 2008.