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Personal Locator Beacons
For Hikers

Personal locator beacons do pretty much what they promise: locate your person, and report your position to someone who will perform a "search and rescue" for you.

There is no two-way communication available with beacons, only the transmission of an SOS.

So why would you want one?

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 an SOS message.

It's important to understand the distinctions, because once you hit the "HELP" button, your message goes via satellites to some pretty high powered folks:

  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: NOAA
  • 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.

Personal locator beacons:
a few more caveats

To make it short and simple:

  • 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 it 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?

ANWR solitude in Alaska, USA

Only you can answer this question, by calculating your personal risk/benefit ratio.

If you don't take risks, you probably don't need one.

If you risk going into the backcountry, especially in extreme weather conditions, isolated regions, or rugged terrain (dicey footing, river crossings, predator encounters), and you do so regularly, perhaps it's time to take a look at these devices.

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 where ever you wander

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: define EMERGENCY as life threatening issues.
  • 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!

If you're a casual dayhiker on established trails, you probably don't need a device of this technological sophistication.

But if you hike alone frequently (your canine companion doesn't count), or venture off established trails into the backcountry, you should consider the merits of these lightweight portable personal locator beacons for hikers.

Tip: 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.

One more tip: 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.
  • If you carry a reflective space blanket, a whistle, an old CD or DVD, use those to attract attention once you hear the helicopter or see rescuers approaching.
  • Get out from under trees, 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 PLB

Alright, time to do some thinking about whether or not you need a 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. Recall that the GPS feature makes the rescue process go faster.

Read a review here.

If you do 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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