If you enjoy hiking or backpacking into the backcountry, you know how important it is to make sure that you stay safe. While most of your adventures should unfold without incident, you never know when you could find yourself in an emergency where you need somebody else to come out and find you. In these situations, a personal locator beacon (PLB) can mean the difference between life and death.
Shopping for a personal locator beacon? Below you can view a comparison table which makes it easy to view features and prices for top-selling models.
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Still not sure what to buy? Read on to learn everything you need to know to purchase the perfect personal locator beacon for your needs.
What is a Personal Locator Beacon?
Personal locator beacons have been in existence since 2003. Their primary purpose is to send out a personalized distress signal in case of an emergency. While they are high-powered (usually operating on 5 watts), they do need an unobstructed view of the sky to work.
You can compare a personal locator beacon to an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). EPIRB technology has been in use for far longer, but only at sea.
How Does a Personal Locator Beacon Work?
A personal locator beacon allows you to transmit your distress signal directly to the authorities. This is done through a network of military satellites provided by the United States, Canada, France, and Russia. Collectively, these satellites are called COSPAS-SARSAT, which stands for “Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking.”
Your beacon is transmitted at 406 MHz, which is a frequency used internationally for distress signals. Both NOAA and the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) monitor this frequency on an ongoing basis. Once the satellites transmit your distress call, they will check your position and AFRCC will immediately launch a rescue effort.
Do you need a PLB or an EPIRB?
Both devices broadcast on the same frequency and alert the nearest Rescue Coordination Center (RCC). The main difference between them is that an EPIRB is designed specifically for use at sea, whereas a PLB can be used at sea, but is more appropriate for a land-based environment. A PLB must be held in an upright position, but an EPIRB will float upright on its own. More EPIRBs include strobe lights, and they also may include a feature where they signal for help automatically when a vessel sinks.
Where geographically will you be using the device?
Some PLBs only allow you to make use of certain features in particular geographic regions. So for example, if you are going to be hiking in the Swiss Alps, you would not want to buy a device that will only offer you GPS in the US.
Will you use it in the water?
While you can use a PLB in the water, you may want to consider an EPIRB instead. Then again, it depends on your plans. An EPIRB would be a better choice for regular fishing or diving expeditions at sea, but if you are a hiker who simply goes on the occasional boating excursion, a PLB might still be the better all-around buy. Regardless, if you know you will use the device in a watery location (lake, river, sea, even a spot that gets a lot of rainfall), make sure you look for waterproofing.
Recommended Features For Personal Locator Beacon
If you think you might ever need help in a hurry, GPS compatibility is an excellent safety feature. With it, you can transmit your exact GPS coordinates to rescue workers. This saves them (and you) from having to wait for the satellites to extrapolate your position.
This is a capability included with some newer models of personal locator beacons. With it, you can test whether the GPS receiver is properly operating and pinpointing your location. You can only perform the GPS Satellite Acquisition Self-Test a few times over the life of the gadget since it is a real drain on the battery (more on this below).
There are two important aspects to consider:
1-Shelf life of the battery when the PLB is not transmitting
2-Life of the battery while transmitting
You want both to be as long as possible. The first is important because a PLB is a one-use item in the sense that you either need to buy a new one after the battery expires or you have to send in for a replacement battery from the manufacturer (thus why you can only run the self-test so many times). The second is important because your life depends on it.
The wider the range here, the better. You might find yourself needing rescue from a location with extreme temperatures.
This is a feature which is more commonly included with an EPIRB, but nowadays you may also find a strobe light on a PLB.
Water-resistance and floatation
If you will be in a watery environment, floatation and water-resistance are both excellent features which can save your life. Here are the ratings which you can look for in the product specifications:
- IPX0: No water resistance
- IPX1: Protection from vertical drops
- IPX2: Protection from vertical drops and drops at an angle 15 degrees
- IPX3: Protection from spray up to 60 degrees
- IPX4: Protection from splashes in any direction
- IPX5: Protection from water jets from any direction
- IPX6: Protection from powerful jets
- IPX7: ACTUAL WATERPROOFING in up to three feet of water
- IPX8: ACTUAL WATERPROOFING in more than three feet of water
You now know all the features which are important to look for in a personal locator beacon (PLB). Scroll back up to the top of the page to view our comparison table. There you can find prices and features for all the top models!
1. ACR ResQLink+ 406: Get a New One For Free If You Ever Have to Use It
The ACR ResQLink Plus 406 could very well be one of the best all-around locator beacons on the market today. The fact that it floats makes it a good choice for both rookie and amateur seafarers.
- Just flip it up and turn it on. The ACR ResQLink Plus 406 literally couldn’t be any easier to use.
- Registration is free and easy. Be sure to register as soon as possible if you buy this device so that rescuers will know who you are if you ever call for help.
- No extra fees. No subscriptions, no monthly charges, no surprise costs.
- Floats on water. The fact that the ACR ResQLink Plus 406 doesn’t sink makes it ideal for sailors.
- Get a new one for free. If you use the ACR ResQLink Plus 406 to get help in a real emergency, ACR will give you a free one if you tell them your rescue story.
- You can use it in any country. Some locator beacons only work in the United States, but you can use this one anywhere in the world.
- Excellent customer service. ACR’s customer service reps are friendly, helpful and knowledgeable.
- When the battery runs out, you can’t replace it yourself. Instead, you have to take the device to an authorized store and have it replaced by a technician.
- Due to the fact that it can float, the ACR ResQLink Plus 406 is larger than most other locator beacons.
2. ACR ResQLink PLB-375: Great for Hikers
Any experienced hiker can tell you that you need to be prepared for anything when following trails in remote locations. If disaster strikes, you’ll be able to call for help if you have a PLB-375.
- Ultra portable. The PLB-375 is lighter than most smartphones.
- No yearly fees. You’ll never have to worry about hidden service fees appearing on your credit card statement if you go with ACR.
- Fits in the palm of your hand. In addition to being super light, the PLB-375 is also incredibly small.
- Comes with a case. The PLB-375’s case is tough enough to withstand almost any type of disaster.
- No accidental activations. If you keep the PLB-375 in its case, you’ll avoid accidentally calling in a rescue team.
- Waterproof. This beacon will keep on ticking even if you accidently get it wet.
- Different levels of service are available. If you upgrade to a paid subscription, you can use the PLB-375 in “I’m Okay” mode.
- This locator is expensive compared to the competition. Plus, it costs about $150 to replace the battery.
- The ACR ResQLink PLB-375 is great for hikers, but not so good for use on the water. Even though this device is waterproof, it does not float.
3. McMurdo Fast Find 220: A Personal Locator Beacon With Excellent Ease-of-Use
For those in the market for a personal locator beacon which is simple and easy to set up and use, the McMurdo Fast Find 220 is a great option. This personal locator beacon is pre-programmed for US registration. An international version is available as well.
- Setup is fast and simple. You can also test the device quickly and easily.
- Easy to use in an emergency. All you need to do to activate the device is extend the antenna, pull the anti-tamper seal, and then press the button labelled “On.”
- Flashing SOS light. If you need to help emergency teams to locate you visually, you can do so by means of an included flashing SOS light.
- No subscription. You do not need to pay for a subscription to use this personal locator beacon. Additionally, it routes calls straight to search and rescue teams, not commercial call centers. This eliminates unnecessary delays, maximizing your chances of survival.
- Rescuers can pinpoint exactly who and where you are. Since your device is registered, your signal tells rescuers both who you are and your exact location. First, the internal GPS receiver brings the team to within 62 meters of your position. Then, the 121.5Mhz homing transmitter brings them right to you.
- Long battery life. After several years, you need to order a replacement battery, but it lasts a good long time.
- Well-constructed. This is a durable, sturdy device which you should feel comfortable taking with you hiking, backpacking, climbing, etc. It also is lightweight and compact, so carrying it everywhere is comfortable and easy.
- Flotation pouch included. This device is waterproof to a depth of 10 meters, so if you drop it in a puddle or lake, you have a shot at retrieving it and getting rescued.
- Emergency use only. If you are looking for a device which allows you to send out routine “I’m OK” types of messages, this is not it. Inappropriate use of this device may cause you to incur a penalty.
4. Ocean Signal rescueME: An Impressively Compact Personal Locator Beacon
Ocean Signal rescueME, also known simply as “PLB1,” is marketed by the manufacturer as the “World’s Smallest PLB.” So if you are looking for a personal locator beacon which is conveniently compact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find other models which can compete. It also boasts plenty of other great features which make it a worthy purchase.
- Incredibly compact design. Measuring 77 mm by 51 mm by 32.5 mm and weighing a mere 116 g, you can literally hold this device in the palm of your hand or carry it in your pocket. It won’t weigh you down at all. You can even stow it in a lifejacket if necessary.
- No subscription is required. This is excellent in terms of long term savings.
- Long battery life. The battery for the PLB1 can last for 7 years before you need to change it. When in operation, the device can work for more than 24 hours.
- Strobe light. With 1 candela of intensity, the light is bright enough to be seen from a distance.
- Floats in its pouch. It does need to stay inside the pouch in order to float however.
- Easy to operate. You just need to deploy the antenna, and then you turn on the PLB.
- There may occasionally be issues with the included 406link service. It is worth testing it out before you need to use it. Thankfully these issues are rare.
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