December 13, 2006 4:00 AM PST

Tech tips for wilderness survival

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REI sells a beacon with GPS for $700. One of our readers suggested that companies purchase a few of them and permit employees to sign them out for vacations as needed.

In addition, our colleague Rafe Needleman over at Webware.com has been discussing how to use Web 2.0 technologies, combined with cell phone tracking and automatic alerts, to track loved ones and raise the alarm when one doesn't check in as scheduled.

Tracking: GPS devices may not help you get rescued if you need it. But they'll help to prevent you from getting lost in the first place. You'll need one with a built-in road map, and they fall into two main categories: handheld or laptop-based.

In the handheld category, CNET Reviews gave an Editor's Choice award to the Lowrance iWay 500c, which can be bought online for $500 to $600. The other option is to bring your laptop, plug in a GPS receiver through a USB port, and use something like the DeLorme Street Atlas USA software for Windows.

One reader, Wen Yu, reported that: "A simple GPS receiver together with electronic maps such as Microsoft Streets and Trips, or Delorme Street Atlas USA, (only about $100) works very well in any laptop. We were able to pinpoint the exact locations, regain our orientations several times in the New Mexico and Nevada deserts during our cross-country driving venture."

Another reader who's an outdoors enthusiast said with a handheld GPS device, hiking is simple: "I can just turn it on and walk off in any direction I choose. When I get tired or hungry, I can have the device show me which way to go and how far it is to get there, or simply follow my own track back to the campsite... This summer it has been important for boating in the San Fran Bay Delta which is filled with multiple channels and dead ends. Without the device, I'd never have found my way back to the boat launch."

Electricity: A personal locator beacon has a lithium battery that should last for between 5 and 10 years. But most of the other electronic gadgetry we've listed is going to need a source of power.

Your wilderness options include the IST SideWinder charger, which relies on muscle power to generate DC current. Charge 2 Go is a similar option that runs mobile devices off of AA batteries.

Global Solar sells foldable panels in 6.5-, 12- and 25-watt sizes. The company claims that, on average, a cell phone takes about two to three hours to charge. Solar panels, of course, work far better in direct sunlight than under thick cloud cover.

For home preparedness, the no-electricity-needed Freeplay Plus Alternative Power Radio is available from Amazon.com for $100. It's a windup AM, FM and shortwave radio that also features a solar panel for charging and a tethered LED flashlight.

Tools and medicine: A decent first aid kit is always a good idea at home and on the road. More advanced kits might include the QuikClot, a battle-proven substance--the manufacturer calls it a "hemostatic nanotechnology"--that can quickly stop bleeding when poured on a wound.

One of our readers mentioned a ".22 survival rifle that breaks down to small sections" that can fit in a backpack. Kel-Tec's folding SU-16C rifle fires heavier 5.56mm rounds, which would be more useful in self-defense or for hunting. (Until recently, Alaska law mandated that private pilots carry firearms for wilderness survival.)

Equipped.org's Ritter and other survival experts also recommend a sturdy knife, which has countless purposes in the backwoods. One reader, Carl Yee, said he is a forester and recommends that everyone have "at least a knife or better, a small ax in your car or emergency kit."

We spoke with Martin Colwell of SAR Technology, which has written a nifty Windows application called Incident Commander. It's designed to help search and rescue teams coordinate their efforts, and has been used successfully in rescuing backcountry skiers from the alpine wilderness between Canada's Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

It features "44 categories of missing persons. It'll give you the median distance of travel" for each type, Colwell said.

CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report

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