Backpacking

Personal Locator Beacon

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Alerts search and rescue services to quickly locate you

With more and more people heading into the outdoors, there’s been a corresponding uptick in the number of search and rescue (SAR) missions to retrieve lost or injured hikers. Tragically some of these people didn’t make it, while others were eventually rescued after several days or even weeks. The cruel irony is that in this era of smartphones, action cams, and drones, even experienced outdoor enthusiasts are oblivious to a simple piece of technology that could have prevented or mitigated these ordeals, and that’s a personal locator beacon (PLB).

As a quick primer, an activated PLB sends a one-way SOS message to a dedicated SAR satellite network, which then relays your location to the nearest SAR center so a search can be initiated. There’s no subscription fee and satellite coverage is worldwide. According to the NOAA, which administers the program in the United States, 77 people in the US were successfully rescued via PLB in 2019 alone. A PLB should not be confused with a satellite communicator with SOS function (e.g. InReach, SPOT), which piggyback off commercial satellite networks and thus require a subscription plan. REI has an easy to understand comparison here, and you can read about the technical details of PLBs and Cospas-Sarsat here.

Almost all PLBs are made by two parent companies (ACR Artex and Orolia), who in turn operate various brands targeted to different markets. I personally own the McMurdo FastFind 210, which has since been supplanted by the FastFind 220 (adding Galileo and MEOSAR support to the original model). Although I can’t rate its performance per se as it’s never been activated, it hasn’t given me any grief either. The original battery actually lasted longer than the intended 5 years, and it’s small and light enough I don’t hesitate to pack it for any hike or road trip. All PLBs meet a minimal operational standard so you should be well-served by any model you choose. Over the last seven years, the peace of mind my PLB provides has allowed me to explore some truly remote and beautiful locations around the world, and I strongly encourage my fellow hikers to make the same investment in their personal safety.

-- Nabhan Islam 10/30/20