by Diane Spicer
Personal locator beacons do pretty much what they promise:
The best PLBs are small, portable, reliable and weather proof hiker emergency beacons.
But there's one thing you need to know right away:
There is no two-way communication available with beacons, only the transmission of an SOS message.
If you're interested in two-way communication devices, read about satellite messengers instead.
So why would you want to carry a seemingly limited personal locator beacon (PLB) on your hikes?
A PLB is designed for one thing: to send an emergency message.
If you're a solo hiker and you suffer an injury or are lost, one push of a button will summon help.
Or you and a trail buddy get turned around, night falls, and you're unprepared for it.
If self rescue is impossible, don't hesitate to use this electronic device!
But here's the kicker: you should be in a dire emergency situation to consider activating your emergency beacon.
It's important to understand the distinction between a non-emergency and a "quick, hit the button" situation, because once you hit the "HELP" button, your message goes via satellites to some pretty high powered folks:
They won't be pleased to rescue someone with a broken trekking pole, if you take my meaning.
And the cost of your rescue gets billed to YOU.
So if you plan on carrying a personal locator beacon, be very sure you need to deploy it before sending that emergency message.
babies work, and work very well, to send an SOS message that will get you
rescued ASAP (having fun with the acronyms yet?).
To make your learning curve short and simple for how to use a PLB properly for an emergency rescue:
Only you can answer this question, by calculating your personal risk/benefit ratio.
There are types of hiking which skew this ratio toward probably wanting to carry the best personal locator beacon available.
Let's take a look so you can identify your needs.
This is one of the very best reasons for carrying a PLB: solo hiking.
When you hike alone frequently (your canine companion doesn't count in this discussion due to lack of opposable thumbs), or venture off established trails into the backcountry, consider the merits of these lightweight portable personal locator beacons.
While you are probably very committed to safety and advance planning of routes, you can't control sudden weather events or trail closures.
You can't predict wildlife encounters.
And you have no control over accidents or injuries that can happen to any of us on a trail, especially when you're way off the beaten path.
For these reasons, I'd recommend a PLB in your backpack.
And don't forget, you have to activate the device when you need it.
If you risk going into the backcountry on a regular basis, perhaps it's time to take a look at purchasing one of these devices.
Even in a group hiking situation, things can go south on you and you'll need to be rescued.
Let's define backcountry first:
I've been on multiple backcountry Alaska and Canada trips where I had great peace of mind, knowing we had a PLB with us.
Some folks I've hiked with grouse about paying for something you never use.
But that's exactly the point: buy it, activate it, carry it, maintain it, and be very thankful you never use it!
Calculate for yourself the worth of what you are purchasing:
Here's what REI Co-op has to say about choosing between a personal locator beacon and a satellite messenger.
Because you might not be familiar with a personal locator beacon and the ramifications it may have on your life, here are a few pointers for distinct types of hiking.
If you can purchase trip insurance for your hiking trip, do so.
If you hike on your own in remote locations, insurance won't be an option.
All costs of a rescue operation will come out of your pocket. But in an emergency, don't let that stop you from hitting the go button!
If you're a casual day hiker and you stick to well marked, established trails, you probably don't need a device of this technological sophistication.
However, if you're hiking with kids who love to venture off trail, leap off rocks, jump into streams and run ahead of you on the trail, maybe a PLB is a good idea for your peace of mind.
Do a quick calculation on the probability of needing one, using these questions:
If you're within a few miles of a trailhead, and pass a lot of folks on your way up and back down the trail, you can rely upon the good graces of other hikers to help you in an emergency.
And if your luck is running high, maybe one of them will have a PLB in an emergency situation.
If you activate your PLB, do everything you can to make yourself highly visible to the rescuers.
Some PLBs have LED strobe lights to assist with this very smart move.
If you carry a reflective space blanket, a whistle, an old CD or DVD you can flash, use them to attract attention once you hear the helicopter or see rescuers approaching your area.
And here's the clincher:
Get out from under trees, ravines or rocky overhangs, into as much open space with a view of the sky as possible, before you activate your PLB.
Alright, time to do some thinking about the best way to transmit a one-way SOS message for immediate rescue.
This PLB weighs less than 5 ounces, has a small compact footprint in your pack, and provides a GPS enabled rescue beacon.
If a PLB doesn't sound right for you, maybe you need a SEND device (Satellite Emergency Notification Device) instead.
Personal Locator Beacons
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She's been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for 5+ decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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