On a foggy day last winter at Idaho's Soldier Mountain resort (pictured above), a skier got separated from her party and wound up lost in an out-of-bounds area where neither chairlifts nor resort buildings were visible.
"When that fog sets in like that it disorients you,” explained Dale Eldredge, Soldier Mountain's patrol director, in a statement. "[The lost skier] got separated from her family in the fog when they all made a left-hand turn and she went straight and ended up in the backcountry.”
A situation that could have ended badly was quickly resolved, thanks to the skier's having downloaded an emergency alert app called AirFlare, according to a press release from the company.
Via the mobile app on her smartphone, the Idaho skier, who has chosen to remain anonymous, was quickly pinpointed by rescuers and reached after nearly 2 hours of hacking through at least 2 feet of fresh, wet snow.
"It was not a fun day," Soldier Mountain general manager Paul Alden said in the statement. "It was snowing to beat the band. There’s no question AirFlare saved her life.”
What the app essentially does is turn your phone into a rescue locator in the event an outdoor adventure goes sideways.
Download the app from Apple's App Store or Google Play and fill out a short profile, and you're pretty much set—once downloaded and registered, AirFlare does not need to be open in order for rescue teams to find your location, provided Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are enabled. A previously authorized emergency contact can use the system to find you, too.
Because the tech creates a unique rescue beacon on your phone, search teams can speedily home in on the coordinates of an AirFlare user who's been reported missing or who has used the app to report an emergency.
If a missing skier, turned-around hiker, or woebegone picnicker with AirFlare has even spotty cell service, the app can be used to dial or text 911 from a list of emergency services displayed right in the interface.
If the user is deep in the wilderness with no cell service, AirFlare has its own tracking equipment that can instruct a registered device to push its GPS coordinates to the search team.
The app even has a way to activate your phone's camera flash so that it becomes an SOS strobe to get the attention of aircraft passing overhead. (The app also has instructions for maximizing your phone's battery life while employing all these power-sapping distress signals.)
To get AirFlare's most useful features, you'll need to pay for an annual subscription costing $4.99 or opt for a lifetime subscription priced at $14.99. Family plans, which cover up to 10 additional people, are $8.99 annually or $48 for a lifetime subscription.
Additionally, several ski areas in the Western U.S. and New England offer AirFlare for free to season passholders. Consult the company's website for a list of partners.
Though the app may not be quite as reliable as carrying around your own personal locator beacon or avalanche transceiver—bulkier, considerably more expensive devices that can transmit a distress signal and location info by way of satellite or radio waves—AirFlare does include a handy set of tools that harness the power of something you probably keep on you at all times anyway.
“Research shows more than 90% of people bring their phone on outdoor activities," points out AirFlare inventor and CEO Eliot Gillum in the company's news release. "Leveraging the relentless innovation and unlimited potential of smartphones makes AirFlare uniquely affordable to many times more people versus traditional rescue systems and—critically—[it] is equally more likely to be present when needed.”
For more information or to download the app, go to AirFlare.com.
And for more advice on staying safe in the backcountry, see our instructions for sending an emergency SOS via satellite with your iPhone and the four things you should always do if you're planning a solo hike.