As tremendously rewarding as adventures into the backcountry or the sea are, they are not without risks. The inshore wilderness and offshore environment can be treacherous and unpredictable. Before venturing off the beaten path, it is important to prepare and pack safety gear so you can enjoy all the thrills and benefits while mitigating the risks. A personal locator beacon (PLB) is one of the most essential pieces of safety gear to bring along on an ambitious expedition.
Whether you love hunting, sailing, fishing, or hiking, having an emergency locator beacon or satellite messenger with you will give you the freedom and sense of security to go where cell phone signals can’t reach without leaving your loved ones worried. You will find that by having a PLB, you will be able to enjoy your adventures more. And in the event of a dire emergency, it can be a lifesaver.
Below, we have reviewed some of the best personal locator beacons on the market. They include satellite messengers that enable you to communicate with your family and friends even in places without cell phone coverage.
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How To Choose The Best Personal Locator Beacon – Buying Guide
Although you buy an emergency beacon for peace of mind and hope you will never have to use it, you still want to be sure that you can rely on it to relay a distress signal quickly and accurately if you ever need it. If what you’re interested in is a satellite messenger, you want one that will work in the environment you will be using it in. This requires an understanding of the capabilities a device offers. Below are factors to consider to determine which PLB to choose:
First of all, you will have to decide on what type of device to get. There are two types of personal locator beacons:
Personal Emergency Beacons
If you just want a device you can use to get immediate help in the event of a life-threatening emergency, a personal locator beacon is it. It is a high-powered emergency beacon able to reliably transmit a distress signal from almost anywhere. You have to register the device with the relevant government agency in your country but there are no recurring subscription payments required.
If you want a device that will enable you to stay in touch with your loved ones, share your location and journey progress with them, and also gives you a way to send an SOS signal in the event of a dire emergency, a satellite messenger is the best option. Most satellite messengers support two-way communication so you will be able to send and receive text messages even where there is no cell phone service. However, the distress signal they emit isn’t as strong as that of personal locator beacons. Because these devices rely on commercial satellite networks such as Iridium and Globalstar, you will have to purchase a satellite service subscription.
Personal locator devices are battery powered and the battery is an important consideration when purchasing a PLB. You will want to check the shelf life of the battery and how long the battery lasts while transmitting.
Most personal locator beacons are equipped with a lithium battery that stays dormant until the device is activated. The typical shelf life is 5 years. When the battery is nearing the end of its shelf life or after the device is activated in an emergency, you must return it to the manufacturer for battery replacement.
The second aspect of the battery life to consider is how long it will power the PLB beacon transmission after you trigger a distress call. A PLB will keep emitting a signal as long as the battery is operational. PLBs are legally required to transmit the call for help for at least 24 hours before the battery dies. The longer the beacon transmission time, the better.
Temperatures in the wilderness and offshore can get extreme and you want a device that can operate in a wide range of temperatures. That way, you can rely on it even if you find yourself stranded in a location with extreme temperatures.
Most personal locator devices meant for recreational purposes are equipped with class two batteries and can transmit for 24 hours at -20°F. Class one PLBs are equipped with heavy-duty batteries that can transmit for 24 hours at -40°F.
After triggering a distress signal, it is important to do everything you can to make yourself highly visible to the rescuers. You can make use of visual and/or audible signals such as a signal mirror, whistle, or a CD you can flash to capture their attention. A PLB with a built-in LED strobe light helps rescuers find you easily when they get to your vicinity.
Water-resistance And Floatation
If you plan to use your emergency locator beacon in the water, it should be able to keep operating when immersed and have the ability to float so it is easy to retrieve. You can also opt for an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) designed specifically for use at sea. A PLB meant for land activities can be used at sea with the addition of a floatation case.
Even for a personal locator beacon strictly for use on land such as a hiking beacon, it is inevitable that it will come into contact with water, and water resistance is an essential feature. The level of water resistance is usually expressed in the IPX rating. An IPX1 rating means the device is only resistant to vertical drops. An IPX7 rating means the device can handle immersion in up to three feet of water. IPX8 is the highest water resistance rating and a device with rated IPX8 will stay waterproof in more than three feet of water.
Q: How Does A Personal Locator Beacon Work?
To trigger a distress call, personal locator beacons require manual deployment by extending the antenna and pressing the emergency button. An open view of the sky is required for successful transmission.
Once activated, the device transmits a powerful 406 MHz signal to COSPAS-SARSAT, a network of military satellites operated by the United States, Canada, France, and Russia. Once the satellites receive the signal, they immediately send it to a ground-based communications center. This center forwards the distress call, your location, and the personal details you provided when you registered your device to the appropriate Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) in the US or a foreign SAR center. The RCC initiates rescue by contacting the local Search and Rescue (SAR) team that will come to your rescue.
The 406 MHz signals will get rescuers within 5 kilometers of your position. They will then pick up the 121.5 MHz homing PLB beacon, which will allow them to home in on your precise location. Emergency GPS locators deliver your location coordinates accurate to within 500 meters or less.
A personal locator beacon allows you to transmit a one-way distress signal directly to the authorities. If you used a satellite messenger to trigger the distress call, your emergency call with your GPS coordinates will be sent to a satellite network and immediately routed to a search and rescue center such as GEOS. The center will then contact local SAR to initiate the rescue mission. You might also be able to text back and forth with GEOS.
Q: Can A PLB Be Used Anywhere In The World?
Yes. A PLB that sends a 406 MHz signal can be used anywhere in the world. Personal locator devices have facilitated rescues in some of the world’s most remote locations and treacherous conditions.
Q: Do I Need To Register My Beacon?
Yes. You need to register your beacon with the relevant authority in your country. In the US, all PLBs must be registered in the NOAA SARSAT database. Registration is free and you can rest assured the data you provide is secure. It will only be shared with rescuers if and when you activate your PLB.
When you register, NOAA assigns your device and personal information a Unique Identifying Number (UIN). When activated, the PLB transmits your UIN to the COSPAS-SARSAT satellites. The UIN provides rescuers with your name, contacts, and other details so they have an idea of what type of emergency you could be in.
If your PLB is a satellite messenger, you must register it with a service provider to activate it. It also requires purchasing a service subscription that incurs recurring payments. However, there is no law requiring the registration of a satellite messenger in a government database.
Q: Can A PLB Battery Be Charged Or Replaced?
PLBs have the battery sealed into the unit. You can’t replace the battery yourself. You have to send the device back to the manufacturer for battery replacement when the battery is nearing its five years or more shelf life or after activating the device in an emergency.
Q: How Do I Know If The PLB Is Working?
By performing a self-test. Your device will have a test mode that will interact with the satellites without sending an actual alert. You will be able to test your PLB’s GPS performance, battery power, and 406 MHz transmission signal. However, you can only perform this test a few times as it consumes significant battery power. Frequent tests would drain the battery. The steps needed to test whether your PLB is working will be in the instruction manual.
Q: What If I Accidentally Set Off A False Alert?
You should turn off the false alert immediately by pressing and holding the emergency button for five seconds. You should then call the Rescue Coordination Center and inform them that it was an accidental activation so they can cancel the alert.
If you deliberately set off a PLB beacon or fail to notify the proper authority after an accidental activation, you will be charged a severe penalty. This is because misuse of emergency beacons disrupts search and rescue operations and endangers the lives of those in need of help. It is, therefore, important to keep these devices away from kids.
Q: How Long Will The Signal Will Be Transmitted?
This will depend on the emergency locator beacon you are using. COSPAS-SARSAT has set the minimum transmission duration at 24 hours. A class 2 battery such as the ones found in personal locator devices must be able to transmit at -20°F for 24 hours. Class 1 batteries are stronger and must be able to transmit at -40°F for 24 hours. A PLB will continue to emit a signal until the battery dies. Since cold temperatures shorten a battery’s operating time, these batteries will transmit for twice as long in warmer conditions such as at a temperature of 70°F.
Globo Surf Overview
While emergency beacons have been used in the military and commercially for decades, they only became available to individuals in 2003. Now that this technology is accessible, you have the freedom to explore the backcountry and go where there is no cell phone coverage without having your family and friends worried. All you have to do is acquire and pack the best personal locator beacon when boating, mountain climbing, hiking solo, or venturing into the wilderness or ocean.
A personal emergency beacon is like a nice insurance policy that makes risk-taking more comfortable. In situations of grave and imminent danger to your life, a personal emergency beacon may just save your life. However, having an emergency locator beacon doesn’t eliminate the need for proper planning and preparation. You also have to register your device and ensure the battery is strong before you venture out.
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Which of the personal locator beacons on our list is your top choice? We would love to read your thoughts or experience with the emergency beacons we’ve reviewed! Feel free to share in the comment box below!