When hiking or backpacking out in the wild (not in your child’s bedroom! – hopefully that does not resemble anything in the wild!)), you must never disregard the fact that you can get lost or stranded any time, despite being fully prepared. You must always have a backup plan in case you get lost in an area where help is hard to find.
Whether you’re hiking into the forest or trekking up a mountain (not at your teenager’s high school!), such remote places usually have no other human being who can help you.
Your mobile phone network may not be strong enough to work in such desolate locations. Therefore, even if you are armed with a GPS and have gone on the same route multiple times, you must consider a backup plan.
This should include a personal locator beacon in your survival kit or backpack. Places where human help is hard to find, technology must come to the rescue (no, you cannot count on Alan Harper from Two In a Half Men!). A personal locator beacon is one such device that sends out an emergency distress signal. It is usually around five watts of power and requires an open sky to be able to transmit successfully.
These devices are a lot like the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs), which are used in marine environments. Devices like PLBs and EPIRBs are extremely useful when people are stranded without help and have saved countless lives over the years.
So how does the PLB work exactly? A PLB works anywhere in the world, as long as you are outdoors. When the device is activated, a powerful signal of 406 MHz is transmitted.
This frequency is an internationally recognized distress frequency that is monitored by three organizations in the US: NOAA the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) and United States Coast Guard.
The transmitted distress signal is sent to a network of American, Canadian, French, and Russian weather and global navigation system satellites part of the COSPAS-SARSAT (Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking) international satellite-based search and rescue system, which uses a network of satellites to locate PLB signals without any help of GPS anywhere in the world.
After receiving your signal, the satellites detect your location with the means of the frequency of arrival (FOA) and time of arrival (TOA) methods, then pass on the information to the AFRCC or the USCG. If you have a GPS-based PLB, more accurate information can be passed on to the search and rescue personnel, and in turn to local search and rescue authorities who will help you.
It must be noted that a PLB must be used only as a last resort when all other means of self-rescue have failed. Other methods to get attention include strobe lights, signal mirror, and whistles.
How to Choose a Good Personal Locator Beacon
Not everyone uses a personal locator beacon. It isn’t as common as a flashlight or a pocket knife. It is only used by those who venture into remote areas with no human civilization around. All these factors make it hard to choose a PLB. If you have never owned or used one, how do you go about choosing one? More importantly, how do you choose the right one?
An emergency tracking device is always good to have, even if you aren’t venturing into remote areas. Whether you’re traveling by car or flying over water, there are several dangers that a PLB can save you from. But your signal also depends on the kind of device you get. Choosing a good PLB is a must if you want the best service no matter where you are.
It is required by law that all PLBs be registered in the NOAA Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking database. The registration process is free and your data is secure. The information is shared with rescue personnel only when your personal locator beacon is activated.
Upon registration, the NOAA links your essential personal information to a 15-character code known as Unique Identifying Number (UIN). When your PLB is activated, your UIN is transmitted to the COSPAS-SARSAT satellites via electronic signals.
The electronic signals give your location to search-and-rescue units and the UIN provides your name, address, phone number, and other essential data. Registration of personal locator beacons can be done for free on www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov.
When it comes to signals, there are two types that are transmitted by a PLB: 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz. The former is used to send the UIN to the satellites and help the rescuers to reach within five kilometers of your location. Then the 121.5 MHz helps rescuers home in on your exact location. Because they have your UIN, the rescuers can call you out by name to help find you sooner.
A PLB is a battery-powered device. Therefore, you must get one that has strong battery life, because you need to keep the device activated until you are rescued. Most personal locator beacons come with a long-lasting lithium battery. The good news is that the battery remains dormant until the device is activated. There are a few COSPAS-SARSAT regulations regarding a PLB, such as:
- A class 1 heavy-duty battery should be able to transmit at for at least 24 hours even in freezing temperatures as low as -40°F (-40°C).
- A class 2 battery should be able to transmit for 24 hours even in temperatures as low as -20°F (-28.9°C).
Personal locator beacons meant for serious tracking purposes come with a class 1 battery, while the ones meant for recreational use come with class 2 battery. The colder the temperatures, the shorter the lifespan of the battery. But when in warm conditions, the battery will perform several times more. Above 70°F, the battery will transmit for as long as five days.
Some PLBs may also come with additional features, like sending text messages. Although using a PLB is free, you have to pay certain fees for using these additional services.
When you are stranded somewhere and your phone doesn’t work, you can use the messaging facility to inform your loved ones that you’re alright. A personal locator beacon is designed to be waterproof, but if you know there are chances of the device coming into contact with water, you should get one meant for marine use (if you are Aquaman in that hilarious and pitiful Justice League movie, you would need one for marine use!).
Top 7 Personal Locator Beacons
The ACR ResQLink+ is touted as the world’s smallest PLB, at only 4.5 inches and 5.4 ounces. This GPS-enabled rescue beacon is completely waterproof and even floats. It comes with three levels of integrated signal technology -GPS, 406 MHz signal, and 121.5 MHz homing capability – no, it does not come with a box of pop tarts so don’t worry about that!
There’s also a built-in strobe light to visibility. No matter how extreme the condition or location, the ResQLink activates easily by deploying the antenna and pressing the ON button. Rescuers within 100 meters of your location are alerted, while in the US, rescue personnel is alerted within five minutes.
The device comes with two built-in tests so you routinely verify that the PLB is functioning properly. The ResQLink+ has a non-hazmat battery certified for six years with a lifespan of 11 years. The ResQLink+ is manually deployed and has a five-year warranty.
This small and capable device is a must-have for those who prefer a simple and basic PLB that does the job well. At around $250, this device can save your life no matter what kind of situation you may be trapped in outdoors. The package consists of the ResQLink+, registration forms, and owner’s manual.
Conclusion on the ACR ResQlink+: One of the simplest and smallest PLBs out there, the ResQlink+ is a powerful device. Whenever you need the rescuers to be alerted quickly, it does the job well.
|(+) Small and compact (unlike an F250 pickup truck!)||(-)Battery not rechargeable|
|(+) Lightweight||(-) Unit meant for one-time use|
|(+) 406 and 121.5 MHz transmitters|
SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger
Unlike a traditional PLB, the Spot Generation 3 GPS Messenger uses commercial satellites (and not the COSPAS-SARSAT network) to locate your position. But unlike traditional PLBs, this unit can send text messages to let your loved ones know that you’re alright.
It comes with customized tracking features and has three level of tracking: Basic, Unlimited and Extreme. There’s a vibration sensor that tells the device to send track updates when you are moving and to stop when you are stationary.
This also saves battery. With the Unlimited Tracking level, you have to set your tracking speed only once. You can change your track rate to five, ten, 30, or 60 minutes. Tracking will continue as long as you are moving. With the Extreme Tracking level, you get all the features of Unlimited Tracking along with the option of setting tracking rate to 2 minutes. Jack Bauer would be impressed!
Some of the most important benefits of the Spot 3 is the rechargeable battery with a USB power input, motion activated GPS tracking using Satellite, and a longer battery life of up to 48 hours.
However, you need to purchase a yearly subscription of $150 to be able to use the device. The subscription is often renewed automatically, even when you don’t ask for it.
Conclusion on the SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger: If you seek text messaging facility in your PLB, then this is a good choice. However, the yearly subscription may seem expensive even in the age of those amazing tax cuts.
|(+) Text message facility||(-) Yearly subscription has to be purchased separately|
|(+) Longer battery life|
|(+) Three levels of tracking|
ACR GlobalFix Pro
This is an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB) meant for use in marine conditions. A top of the line product, it comes with an internal GPS that quickly and accurately relays your position to a worldwide network of Search and Rescue satellites.
Upon coming into contact with water, the device gets activated and broadcasts a UIN to let rescuers know who you are and where you are. The distress call is relayed using powerful 406 MHz signal while the 121.5 MHz homing signal and LED strobe light helps determine your actual location. This model comes with built-in GPS acquisition test mode that lets you test the internal GPS receiver to make sure it works.
The GlobalFix™ PRO is small, lightweight, but built for rough use. Over 53 years of technological innovation has gone into making this product.
You can perform a full functional self-test of the internal circuitry, battery voltage and power to have the peace of mind that the device will save you if ever needed. The 406 MHz of transmission lets the satellites track you no matter where in the world you are. This is the most advanced marine radio beacon.
Conclusion on the ACR GlobalFix Pro: One of the most reliable marine radio beacons of today, the GlobalFix Pro is best not used. But if you ever need to use it, your $500 will be worth it.
Chuck Noland would have loved to have the ACR in the movie Castaway but this is another topic.
|(+) Highly visible LED strobe light Internal 66 channel GPS||(-) Not only reusable|
|(+) Ergonomic, compact design||(-) Needs to be serviced after use|
|(+) Smallest EPIRB in the market|
|(+) Energy efficient|
DeLorme inReach SE Satellite Tracker
This is another satellite tracker that uses the Iridium network – the world’s largest satellite constellation – instead of COSPAS-SARSAT. With this device, you can send and receive 160-character text messages with GPS coordinates.
The message confirmation features lets you know if the message has been received. You can send and receive messages directly from the device or paired with Android or iOS device.
You can trigger an SOS in an emergency and have a two-way text conversation with search and rescue monitoring center. The adjustable tracking intervals allow you to track your trip and share your location, GPS coordinates, elevation, and speed. Your loved ones can also request your location when the device is activated.
Conclusion on the DeLorme inReach SE Satellite Tracker: This is not a navigation tool, so there’s no map unless you connect to a smartphone. But as a satellite tracker, it is worth the $250.
Gandolf the White may not need one but oh well, this is not the Middle Earth.
|(+) Uses Iridium network||(-) No onboard map display|
|(+) Send and receive text messages||(-) Monthly subscription fee|
|(+) Pair with Android and iOS devices|
|(+) Share location and GPS coordinates|
Ocean Signal rescueME
If you’re looking for a PLB that comes without a subscription fee and also floats, check out the Ocean Signal rescueME. This is one of the lightest PLBs around, weighing only four ounces. It is small enough for single-handed operation, and a spring-loaded flap covers the activation button to prevent accidental use.
Since the device works with COSPAS SARSAT and is funded by the government, there is no service charge. This handy device sends out SOS signals when activated, usually in contact with water. You can also test the operation from beforehand to make sure it works.
Conclusion on the Ocean Signal rescueME: This ultra small and lightweight device is perfect for marine conditions. It has a long battery life and comes without any service fee.
|(+) Light and small||(-) Tends to slip out of its case|
|(+) Free service|
|(+) Covered activation button|
|(+) Battery life of up to 7 years|
McMurdo Fast Find 220 PLB
This is a small, handheld waterproof PLB that is meant for land-based use (it doesn’t float). The device has a lithium battery that offers a minimum 24 hours continuous operation and a 6-year battery life. You can also perform a full functional self-test to know it works well.
The PLB also has a flashing SOS light. While heavier than many other PLBs at 8 ounces, it is a handy and small device that can be easily carried in a bag or attached to a vest.
Conclusion on the McMurdo Fast Find 220 PLB: Even though you’ll wish you never have to use it, this small and capable device will get the job done if ever needed.
The 220 PLB is something Blade would love to have in his toolkit when out hunting vampires. If it is good enough for Blade it should be good enough for you.
|(+) Small and compact||(-) One time use|
|(+) 406 and 121.5 MHz|
|(+) SOS distress signal and flashing light|
|(+) No service fee|
Bushnell Bear Grylls Edition BackTrack
For under $10, this a small, compact, lightweight hand crank flashlight. One minute of winding gives about eight minutes of light, and 10 hours in direct sunlight gives an hour of light.
The device also comes with a convenient carabineer that can attach on to a backpack or belt, making the flashlight a part of your travel gear. This small flashlight works as a backup and also as an emergency light around the house and car.
Conclusion on the PrimalCamp Solar Powered Hand Crank Flashlight: This is a great little flashlight to have as a backup, but it does have its flaws. But it’s only $10, and can be bought in multiples. Your friends want to see too right!?
No, your dog does not want one – he will take that bone though!
|(+) Easy to use digital compass||(-) No other feature or function|
|(+) Up to three saved locations|
|(+) High sensitivity|
Although a very useful tool to own, a personal locator beacon is best not used. Remember that an emergency tracking device must always be registered, and used only when there’s no other help available.