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Best Personal Locator Beacons
For Hikers

Personal locator beacons (PLBs) send an SOS message for hikers who have an emergency. Find out if you need to carry one with these Hiking For Her tips. #hiking #trailsafety #backpacking #emergency

Personal locator beacons do pretty much what they promise:

locate your person,

and then report your position to someone who will perform a "search and rescue" to find you.

The best personal locator beacons for hikers are small, portable, reliable and weather proof.

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.

  • SOS is the the International Morse code distress signal

So why would you want to carry one on your hikes?

Personal locator beacons (PBLs):
let's begin with a caveat

A PLB is designed for one thing: to send an emergency message.

You have to be in a dire emergency situation to consider activating it.

  • A broken trekking pole doesn't count.
  • Spotting a bear two ridges over doesn't count.
  • Medical emergency, now you're talking about when to send an SOS message.

Careful use is really important

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:

  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: NOAA (US)
  • U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center: AFRCC
  • Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking, an international cooperation of military satellites: COSPAS-SARSAT

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.

Because these babies work, and work very well, to send an SOS that will get you rescued ASAP (having fun with the acronyms yet?).

Personal locator beacons:
a few more caveats

To make your learning curve short and simple for how to use a PLB properly for an emergency rescue:

  • You must register your PLB device with NOAA, using a unique identifying number which will be used when locating you. Registration is free, but if you forget to do it, your device is useless in an emergency situation.
  • These devices use satellites, so you must be in a position where the device and the satellites "see" each other. Deep canyons, thick forests, sometimes even dense clouds (or blocking the signal with your pack or clothing) will obscure the signalling.
  • If your signal is transmitted at night, you will have to wait for daylight for a helicopter or land based rescue team to arrive.
  • The accuracy of your locator signal depends on which type of PBL you buy. If your device uses GPS, you'll be assured of rescuers pinpointing you to within 100 meters in 5 minutes or less.
  • Without a GPS interface, accuracy drops to 2 miles before switching to a different frequency to pinpoint you more exactly. Why does this matter? Time. If you're bleeding or losing consciousness, time is of the essence.
  • This is a battery-dependent device, so it's only as reliable as your commitment to doing regular battery checks/replacement. Also, cold temperatures will eat into the battery life.
  • You must flip the "on" switch to activate the signal transmission.

Do you need a
personal locator beacon?

female hiker enjoying solitude on the Canning River, ANWR AlaskaANWR solitude in Alaska, USA

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.

Solo hikers

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), 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.

  • Don't bury it in your backpack where it may be inaccessible if you're injured.
  • Be extra diligent about battery life, if this is your only way to summon help.

Backcountry hikers

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.

Let's define backcountry first:

  • isolated, rarely traveled regions
  • rugged terrain with dicey footing, water crossings, high probability of predator encounters
  • extreme and/or unpredictable weather conditions

Personal example:

I've been on backcountry Alaska trips where I had great peace of mind, knowing we had a PLB with us.

  • It's just an extra little edge for making risk-taking more comfortable.

Calculate for yourself the worth of what you are purchasing:

  • Lightweight peace of mind
  • Free registration
  • Assurance of rescue whereever you wander (although there are constraints such as daylight, weather conditions, and mileage - those darn laws of physics)

But keep in mind:

  • You bear the full cost of the rescue (helicopters aren't cheap!).
  • A PLB is not a trivial piece of hiking gear to purchase; average cost hovers around $300.
  • Battery maintenance is your responsibility.
  • Emergencies only: you must define EMERGENCY as life threatening issues only.
  • If you need advice or non-emergency assistance, use your satellite messenger instead.
  • There is no two-way transmission; only a "HELP" message will be sent (and may not be sent and/or received, depending on where you are).
  • Once the message is sent, the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak. You can't take it back!

Tip for backcountry adventures:

If you can purchase trip insurance for your hiking adventure, do so.

  • If you are being guided by a registered guide or company, you can get insurance.
  • Buy a policy that covers the cost of helicopter evacuation, medical treatment, and other out of pocket expenses if you hit the SOS button and are rescued.
  • Usually the policy runs ~10% of the total cost of the trip, and must be purchased within a few weeks of booking the trip.

If you hike on your own, 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!

Day hikers

If you're a casual dayhiker and you stick to well marked, established trails, you probably don't need a device of this technological sophistication.

  • It's an added expense in your hiking budget.
  • And added weight in your backpack.

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.

A quick calculation on the probability of needing one, using these questions:

  • How far is your typical day hike?
  • How busy are the trails you use?
  • Do you have the strength to carry a child to safety?

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.

Tips for using the
best personal locator beacons

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 those 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.

  • Give the signal the best chance of finding its target satellites.

Recommended PLBs

Alright, time to do some thinking about the best way to transmit a one-way SOS message for immediate rescue.

Here's one that gets good reviews:

ACR Electronics RESQLink + GPS personal locator beacon.

This may sound like harping, but please! Once you buy a PLB, register it immediately and add "battery checks" to your hiking calendar.

If a PLB doesn't sound right for you, maybe you need a SEND device (Satellite Emergency Notification Device) instead.

  • Read about them here.

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Personal Locator Beacons

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