Personal Locator Beacons: your wilderness lifeline


If you are one of those people who watches the evening news on a regular basis, then you have undoubtedly seen one of the many stories about people who have ventured into the wilderness for a day and yet, due to a lack of navigational skill, they have wandered off the designated trail and become lost or, due to a lack of diligence, they have injured themselves in some way and become immobile. However, if you have never been in such a situation yourself, then it is difficult to imagine just how disconcerting suddenly finding yourself stranded in the wilderness can be! Unfortunately, the very large majority of people today have become so reliant on their cell phones that they tend to automatically assume that if they ever do find themselves in such a situation, then they will simply use their cell phones to dial 911 and call for help. But, the fact is that cell phone companies are commercial enterprises and thus, they find no profit in placing cell towers in remote regions which leaves those who choose to enter the wilderness without a means of calling for help in the event of an emergency at a severe disadvantage. Fortunately, by combining both radio technology and Global Positioning Satellite system technology, electronics engineers have been able to create a small device approximately the same size as a smart phone that can call for help from almost any place on the face of the Earth! So, for about the same cost as one of the more expensive smart phones on the market, you can purchase one of these units which are called Personal Locator Beacons as an inexpensive, wilderness emergency, insurance policy which guarantees your rescue in the event that you ever become lost and/or stranded in the wilderness. In fact, it’s kind of like On Star for outdoor enthusiasts!

How they work

For those of you who are not familiar with Personal Locator Beacons, they are simple devices that are available in two different varieties from several different manufactures such as Garmin, ACR, and McMurdo. However, when considering the purchase of any given model, it is important to note that the distinguishing difference between the two different types of PLB’s is that one type only transmits a distress signal whereas, the other type transmits both a distress signal and your exact longitude and latitude via an integrated GPS receiver combined with the radio transmitter. Then, once your distress call is received by the system, your distress call, along with your longitude and latitude, are forwarded to the nearest rescue agency and a rescue team is commonly dispatched to your location within one hour.

However, it is important to be aware that although both types of PLB’s use a 406 MHz (Mega Hertz) radio frequency to broadcast a distress call to a worldwide, non-geostationary, COSPASS-SARSAT International Satellite Rescue system as well as to any military or commercial aircraft flying in the near vicinity which are all required to monitor emergency frequencies whenever they are airborne, all PLB’s also transmit a 121.5 MHz homing signal that helps rescuers to more precisely locate a person once they are on the scene. But, while this feature is certainly far better than a cell phone that has no reception at all, it still only provides rescue personnel with a general idea of your position and thus, even though they do cost a bit more, it’s always a wise idea to spend a bit more to purchase a Personal Locator beacon that does have an integral GPS receiver so that, if you ever do find yourself in a wilderness emergency situation, then rescue personnel will know exactly where to find you.

Accidental Transmissions

However, because all Personal Locator Beacons only require the user to simply push two buttons located side by side on the face of the unit in order to activate it, the fact is that hundreds of false distress calls are accidently transmitted by PLB’s each year. Consequently, changes were made to the internal circuitry of all PLB’s so that all of these devices transmitting on the 406 MHz frequency now include a 15, 22, or 30 character serial number called a “Hex Code” which each owner is required to register with the U.S. Coast Guard if they are located in the U.S. and, said registration must be updated each year. Also, in addition to registering each PLB via its hex code, each owner is required to include information such as their name, a phone number where the rescuing agency can reach someone at to verify that there actually is an emergency rather than a false alarm, a physical description of the owner, and any other information that may useful to the rescuing agency so that they can identify the owner once they locate them. But, it should be noted that due to the difficulty of locating a person in heavy cover, it is also a wise idea to carry a coach’s whistle with you in case you are lost or injured in a location with limited visibility because, even with a GPS transmitter installed in your PLB, it is only capable of transmitting your exact location to within about 50 meters. Therefore, having a coach’s whistle will enable you to repeatedly blow long and loud with a pause in between each toot to help rescuers to home in on your exact position once they are near. Last, it should also be noted three blasts in a row on a whistle, three gun shots, three flashes from a flashlight, or any other succession of three signals is universally recognized as a distress call and thus, by carrying an additional signaling device, you may be able to get help from people in your vicinity rather than being forced to activate your PLB and then wait for rescue personnel to arrive.

Consequently, if all of the people who chose to enter the wilderness each year for a bit of recreation would simply choose to purchase and carry a PLB instead of their cell phone (which is unreliable at best in most remote locations), then the inordinate number of stories we see on the news about of people who have gone missing in the wilderness would quickly become nonexistent and much needless loss of life could easily be prevented. Also, because Personal Locator Beacons are relatively small and lightweight, they are convenient to carry and require little more room in your pocket, day pack, or back pack than carrying a smart phone does. But, most importantly, if you are ever one of those unfortunate people who suddenly finds themselves in need of an emergency rescue, then you will thank yourself a thousand times over that you had to foresight to purchase this small, electronic, insurance policy because, simply by having a PLB with you when you enter the wilderness, your chances of surviving an emergency situation will be drastically increased!

Featured Image by Florida Fish and Wildlife, CC

Leave a Comment