We’ve all read the horror stories of people stuck in the desert, injured, with no way of calling for help. Heck, we’ve watched 127 hours, and figured “that won’t happen to me”. I’d never go hiking, backpacking, on a boat or on safari without a personal locator beacon/satellite messenger device.
At a Glance: Recommendations for Best Personal Locator Beacons (for hikers & backpackers)
- ACR ResQLink+PLB-375
- Garmin inReach Explorer +
- Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1
- Garmin InReach Mini
- SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger
- McMurdo FastFind 220 PLB
Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon
A personal locator beacon can be used for various wilderness communications: from SOS signaling to alert search & rescue to an emergency, to tracking your route and sending two-way messages to keep in touch with loved ones.
We should all be concerned with safety when hiking – the goal is to get home alive and uninjured, carrying a satellite messenger or locator beacon should not be a license to take unnecessary risks.
What You'll Learn
- How to Choose the Best Personal Locator Beacon: Reviews
- What is a Personal Locator Beacon?
- What is the difference between PLB and EPIRB?
- How does a PLB work?
How to Choose the Best Personal Locator Beacon: Reviews
- Easy to use PLB for SOS signalling
- Strobe light
- Testing function to be sure it’s working
- 5-year warranty
- Antennae clip is pretty flimsy
This powerful little unit will not take up much space in your bag. It’s light at 5.4 ounces but capable with a 66-channel GPS unit which can direct help to within 100 meters of your location.
It works on the 406MHz and 121.5MHz frequencies, so it’s free to use, with no subscription.
Handy features on the ResQLink+ include a strobe light and a function which lets you run two tests to ensure it’s working correctly. Being buoyant, water won’t be a concern, and it’s rated for around 30 hours of usage fully charged. As far as SOS devices go, it’s solid and reliable when you need it the most.
If disaster does strike, the company will issue you a new beacon and add yours to their Wall of Fame. Gimmicky, but fun.
- Preloaded DeLorme TOPO maps
- Track and Share
- Two-way messaging
- Mobile compatibility (via app)
- Not waterproof
- Subscription based
The inReach is a personal locator in the satellite messenger class, but with more features than you’ll find on other devices. The color display provides everything from detailed maps to the weather. You will also get two-way global text messaging as long as you’re within the satellite’s reach. Considering it’s the Iridium network, you won’t have to worry about coverage.
Another perk of this unit is it comes with preloaded DeLorme TOPO maps. Between the map system and the barometric altimeter and digital compass, you’re going to have a hard time getting lost. Help is only a push-button away in the form of an interactive SOS signal. It’s not waterproof, but water-resistant and comes with 2GB of onboard memory.
Battery life of this one is top of the line, at 100 hours with 10-minute tracking, or 75 hours at 10-minutes and 1-second logging. We also like the fact you can communicate with family and friends or share your journey through MapShare.
The Garmin inReach Explorer + should be towards the top of your list if you are wandering in the wilds, and there’s a “Lite” version in the SE+. Both are available as standalone units or with a powered mount.
- Outstanding battery life
- Waterproof up to 15 meters
- Free to use
- Won’t float without help
The rescueME PLB1 is a bit of an oddball. It works with the usual rescue signals, and as it’s not a messaging device, there are no subscription fees. This a bonus if you need a locator beacon to keep on standby, not one you plan to use frequently.
As you’d expect, it is preset for the United States so you’ll want to contact the company if you need a different configuration.
You can use this beacon on land too, but it’s a little heavier than others in this class. At 116 grams, it’s not massive by any means, and the size is partly due the design and the spring-loaded safety flap. It’s still a one-handed device, which falls into the Class 2 category in the EPIRB world.
The highlight of this PLB would be the battery life. The company claims you’ll get 7-years which is 2-years better than the ResQLink. It’s also affordable compared to similar options, and while it won’t float on its own, it can handle 15 meters of water.
- 500 waypoints & 20 routes
- Great battery life
- Maps through the Earthmate app
- No memory history
Despite the InReach Mini’s size, it still has a tiny monochrome display that’s legible in full sunlight. It also has a virtual keypad and allows you to send and receive SMS and email messages.
Want to keep your family updated on your whereabouts? You can do this through MapShare, and you’re able to message and share your location with other InReach users.
Durability-wise, the Garmin inReach Mini is only average. It has the IPX7 tag, which means it can handle rain and splashing water, but it will not do well in water over a meter. Extended dunks will do this one in although the housing is rugged. It’s among the easier satellite communicators to use which makes it ideal for beginners.
The inReach Mini has great battery life, at 50 hours with 10-minute tracking and 2-minute logging, or 30 hours when you kick the tracking up to a second. The rechargeable tracker also has a power saving mode which gives you 20 days in 30-minute intervals which increases your chances in dire situations. On the downside, like the inReach Explorer+, you’ll need a subscription to use this device.
- Can replace and recharge the batteries
- Messaging feature
- Tiny footprint
- Easy to use
- 1-year subscription required
- Spotty coverage (Globalstar)
This satellite messenger uses GPS to track your position. You can set the tracks to 5, 10, 30, or 60-minutes, and there are three modes with Basic, Unlimited or Extreme. It can follow you every 2-minutes, although it will take a toll on the battery life. Design-wise there aren’t many buttons to deal with, and we dig the fact everything is clearly labeled as well.
SPOT designed their messenger with ease of use in mind, and it’s definitely one of the simplest models. The USB port is convenient, and you can use four AAA’s to power up the SPOT – a huge advantage over models with fixed batteries.
- Free reprogramming if you are outside the US
- Doesn’t float
- Pretty basic
As with all personal locators of this nature, the Fast Find 220 uses the 406 MHz and 121.5MHz frequencies. There is no subscription, so your distress call is routed straight to the center which relays your location to search and rescue.
If you’re not in the US, the company will reprogram the device free of charge to the country code of your choice. Other features include a flashing strobe light and a lithium battery rated to last around 6-years. The unit itself emits a signal for a minimum of 24 hours.
This one is a little “basic” compared to other models on our list, but it will get the job done if your life is on the line. It’s not complicated to use: you only need to raise the antenna, pop a safety seal, and press the button.
What is a Personal Locator Beacon?
Despite their high-tech nature, using a PLB or Satellite Messenger is fairly simple. Whichever device you choose allows you to communicate in the backcountry without a cell signal. Choosing the best personal locator beacon can be confusing, as today’s technology (and regulations) changes at a rapid pace.
Note that these devices are not satellite phones, they are for use in emergencies or for basic tracking and text-based communications in the wilderness.
What is the difference between PLB and EPIRB?
Transmitters. While tech advances quickly, most transmitters have a similar set of features. They all allow you to call for help when things go sideways. We’re going to look at three types of personal locators: PLBs, EPIRBs, and Satellite Messengers.
PLB stands for personal locator beacon. As the name suggests, it’s a transmitter capable of sending out a signal if things get out of hand in open waters or on the trail. These transmitters tend to have smaller batteries and are geared towards individuals, not boats. While some are relatively basic, others come with a full array of features.
Compared to other types of location devices, PLBs are often more affordable but not ideal for every situation. Someone who hikes or travels globally may want a floating PLB, while others can get by with more basic models.
Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons or EPIRB’s work in a similar fashion to PLBs with a few key differences. These beacons are usually made for the sea, and come in two classes with Cat 1 and Cat 2 EPIRBs. Both styles are seaworthy – one is just a bit smarter than the other.
Category 1 – EPIRBs in this class are mounted on a boat and built to detect water pressure. When disaster strikes, it breaks free from its housing and begins to transmit as it floats to the surface. It’s an automatic device capable of alerting the proper channels if your boat goes down although it won’t be of much use if someone goes over the rail.
Category 2 – Devices in this class are “personal” which means you’ll need to activate them manually. It can be as simple as flipping a switch or pressing a button, but with one serious drawback. The signal won’t get out if something knocks you or a passenger out of action and you’re unable to respond.
If you want to be on the safe side when you’re on the water, pick up one of each. Having both types of locators increases the chances help will arrive quickly. Every second counts when it’s a life or death situation.
Bringing up the rear are satellite messengers, a hybrid of sorts that bridges the gap between your smartphone and a PLB. Like the other options, it’s capable of alerting rescuers if you get yourself into a sticky situation. It also allows you to communicate with friends and family members to update them on your status along the way.
The main difference between a PLB and a messenger is the way they work. Satellite Messengers work with commercial satellites, which means a subscription is required 99% of the time. They aren’t as powerful which is why they’re better suited for weekend warriors than globetrotters.
How does a PLB work?
Types of Coverage
Losing signal on your smartphone can be a real pain, but losing signal on your locator can be the difference between life and death. Signal quality is critical regardless of the beacon you choose.
PLBs are capable of sending out not one, but two signals when things go bad. All use the 406MHz signal which is monitored globally by a series of satellites dubbed the COSPAS-SARSAT network.
Once the signal is out, the information is passed on to the proper authorities or rescue teams wherever you are in the world. The second signal is on the 121.5MHz frequency which allows rescue teams to better key in on your position.
On the sea, things are a little trickier although the COSPAS-SARSAT network is still in play. You have to consider areas of the sea along with the satellite coverage and familiarize yourself with terms like VHF CH 70 and MRCC.
As we spend most of our time in the mountains or on the trails, these folks break down positioning through EPIRBs far better than we ever could.
Satellite Messengers buck the trend by using Iridium or the Globalstar networks instead of the satellites used by both PLBs and EPIRBs. Gadgets from the SPOT lineup will use Globalstar, which in turn uses a series of over 40 satellites and 20+ gateways on the ground to track your position.
You’re good to go in most regions unless it’s sub-Saharan Africa or the polar caps.
On the flipside, the Iridium network has fewer gateways, but more satellites, and provides coverage to the entire planet. Either way, neither choice is as powerful as PLB, which is why satellite messengers aren’t ideal for hikers who take serious treks through the wilderness. They also require a subscription plan, which is not ideal for everyone.
Depending on the model you choose, the features can range from an LCD display to strobe light or personal messaging. GPS-enhanced EPIRBs and PLBs are common these days, but not every locator has this type of functionality baked in.
For backpackers, GPS can be a real lifesaver. Those strobe lights are far more common on EPIRBs due to their seafaring origins, but can still be found on PLBs and several satellite messengers too.
Two-way messaging is a great way to stay in touch with loved ones while you travel. Sometimes cell phone service is patchy, where PLBs and sat messengers won’t let you down. Water resistance is critical, so pay close attention to the IPX rating and look for a “waterproof” device, not “water-resistant” when the weather is a concern. A good locating beacon should float as well or at least come with a floatation device.
Other things to consider would be weather alerts and navigational tools like digital compasses or NOAA charts. Units with full GPS functionality may also give you access to maps on the fly while others require you to load them up beforehand.
Ease of Use & Battery Life
Are you looking for something simple and idiot-proof or do you prefer high-tech toys with all the bells & whistles? The wild world of locator beacons has something for everyone but often simple is better when Mother Nature is in a bad mood. Unlike police scanners or other devices that work with frequencies, most are easy to use.
Even so, you still need to pay close attention to the buttons and antennae. Many of the best GPS locators will have a safety latch or something to prevent errant SOS signals from going out. Safety latch or not, make sure the button is easy to access. You’ll also want to check the antennas on any floating tracker. Positioning is always essential, but even more so in the water.
With EPIRBs, the batteries can last 5-7 years but often can’t be replaced at home. You may have to ship it off for a replacement. Some PLBs and satellite messengers have fixed or removable batteries.
While lithium-ion based solutions seem like a great idea, any system with a rechargeable battery can cause problems. Battery life is shorter with PLBs and messengers as well, so choosing one which allows you to swap out the batteries is preferable. You will also want to look for devices with a battery life gauge, something you may find missing unless the locator has a built-in display.
Registration is something to take seriously. While some consumers may prefer to stay off-grid, if the device is coded for the states, U.S. law requires you to register your PLB. Once linked, you’re issued a unique number tied to data including your name, address and any ailments you suffer from.
This allows first responders to provide the care you need quickly, but it’s something you have to keep up to date. Registration is only good for 2-years, something to remember if you ever sell your beacon or loan it out. If you want to learn more about the NOAA and their registration process, their official site has everything you need to know.
On that note, many of the PLBs and EPIRBs you find online are preset with the U.S. country code unless stated otherwise. The devices will still work as advertised, but won’t do you much good if you are in Sri Lanka and the rescue call goes out to a team in the United States. Some manufacturers will change the configuration of the device for you, so look before you leap if you plan to travel outside the U.S. or live overseas.
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