Programmed for U.S. registration but can be used around the globe. Uses GPS to fix your location and access worldwide rescue forces when needed. Battery comes with a 10-year life. Easy to install and test. Ships quickly.
This product is not as lightweight as some others on the market.
Includes two beacons. Small and easy to wear. Automatically activated. Uses Bluetooth technology. Will work out of cell range. Alarm sound for smart phone. One device can monitor up to five crew members.
These beacons will only work in a line of site in the 300-ft. range.
Alerts emergency personnel. Can be registered with NOAA. One-time cost. Does not require a subscription. Made to float. Includes a built-in strobe light for night rescues. Activates easily. Compact size.
The unit is pre-programmed to the U.S. country code, which may make it impractical for some locations.
Rechargeable handheld model with a vivid, easy-to-read screen. Provides access to NOAA charts. Syncs with your smart device. Satellite network means you'll have reliable tracking even when out of cell service range. Monitoring by search and rescue available.
Can be difficult to program. Requires a subscription for satellite service.
Works with 4G LTE and Google Maps for precise tracking. Subscription is required, but comes without a contract. Compact yet durable build. Rechargeable, and battery life can last as long as two weeks. Inexpensive.
Comes with a learning curve, and some owners didn't receive instructions with their units. Has fewer bells and whistles than other choices.
We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
Whether you’re into boating, hunting, fishing, hiking, or camping, spending time outdoors in nature can be an ideal way to recharge your batteries. In many cases, though, you have to travel to some pretty remote locations to get real peace and quiet — and if the worst happens while you’re out there and you need to call for help, chances are your smartphone won’t have a connection. To make sure that you can send a distress signal if necessary, investing in a personal locator beacon (PLB) is a must.
A PLB is a small electronic transmitter that uses the Cospas-Sarsat Search and Rescue Satellite System to send your location to the nearest search and rescue agency. When you press the distress button, rescue workers are able to pinpoint your location using the satellite system. A PLB a wise purchase for anyone who enjoys spending time in remote locations or, in the case of aviators and mariners, travelling through them.PLBs don’t require a monthly subscription or activation fee, but most of the popular models do to use all the features.
Our handy shopping guide can help you make sense of your PLB options and choose the ideal model for your next outdoor adventure. If you’re still having trouble deciding on a PLB, we’ve included specific product recommendations to make shopping even easier.
Personal emergency beacons versus satellite messengers
It’s easy to confuse PLBs with satellite messengers, but it’s important to understand the difference between the two devices and what you can expect a PLB to do.
A PLB is synched to satellites so it can send distress signals to search and rescue agencies in most remote areas across the globe. That’s because it usually offers a stronger signal than a satellite messenger. You aren’t able to use a PLB to send messages home to your family, though — it’s only meant for SOS signals.
A satellite messenger can also be used to send a distress signal, but it allows you to send non-distress signals to your family as well. It can also work worldwide, but the specific coverage varies based on the brand. A satellite messenger also requires an unobstructed view of the sky to achieve a signal, though it may offer other GPS navigation options, too. A satellite messenger requires a subscription, so you have to pay a monthly fee to utilize the services. A PLB has no additional fees after you purchase it.
If you’ll be spending time in snow areas with a risk of avalanches, you should consider an avalanche beacon.
A PLB doesn’t use rechargeable batteries, so its battery life is key. When a PLB battery dies, you either have to replace the entire unit or send it back to the manufacturer for replacement — you usually can’t replace the battery on your own.
That’s why you want to choose a PLB with as long a battery life as possible. Consider both the shelf life of the battery, as well as the battery life while the PLB is transmitting a signal so you can be sure that it lasts long enough for a search and rescue agency to pick it up.
Some PLBs have a battery shelf life of ten years or more, while others only offer two to three years of battery life. Models with longer battery lives typically cost more.
When transmitting a signal, a PLB should offer at least 24 hours of battery life in extremely cold temperatures. In milder temperature, it should be able to transmit for approximately 30 hours before the battery dies.
You must update your PLB’s registration information every two years to make sure that it’s still accurate.
While PLBs use satellites to help search and rescue agencies determine your location, some models are GPS compatible on their own. That allows you to send your GPS coordinates to search and rescue teams, so they don’t have to wait for the satellites to determine your exact position. If you’re injured and in pain, cutting down on the time that it takes rescue workers to find you is likely worth the additional cost for a GPS compatible model.
Hopefully, you’ll never need to use a PLB, but you want to be sure that it will work if an emergency does occur. You don’t want to send unnecessary SOS calls to search and rescue teams to check that your transmitter is working properly, though, so it helps to choose a model with a self-testing feature.
The self-testing feature allows you to check that the PLB is properly determining your location through a GPS satellite acquisition self-test. Keep in mind that the testing feature uses a great deal of battery power, so you should only test your PLB two to three times over the life of your device.
Once you’ve sent a distress signal to search and rescue teams, you want to make it as easy as possible for them to find you. Some PLBs feature an LED strobe light that you can turn on when you’re expecting a rescue team to make yourself more visible. This feature helps rescue workers locate you more quickly.
Water resistance and flotation
If you’re using a PLB on the water for boating or fishing trips, choose a model that can still transmit a signal when submerged. It also helps to select a PLB that floats if it accidentally winds up in the water so you can retrieve it easily.
A PLB’s water resistance is usually determined by an Ingress Protection (IP) rating. A model with an IPX1 can withstand water dripping on it for approximately 10 minutes, while a PLB with an IPX7 can stand being submerged in 1 meter of water for approximately 30 minutes. Choose the best option for how you’re likely to use your PLB.
Many PLBs are designed to wear on your body so you have easy access to the device when you need help. Most models have a means of attaching the PLB to your jacket, life vest, or other clothing, which means it’s always within reach in an emergency.
A PLB battery can transmit its signal for nearly twice as long in warm weather than it can in cold weather.
Personal locator beacons vary in price based on their battery life, GPS compatibility, and other features. Most models range from $170 to $425.
The most affordable PLBs usually have a battery shelf life of two to three years, aren’t able to send out their own GPS signal, and offer few special features. They usually cost between $170 and $250.
Mid-range PLBs typically have a battery shelf life of three to seven years, aren’t able to send out their own GPS signal, and offer a few special features, such as a self-testing mode. They generally range from $250 to $315.
The most expensive PLBs usually have a battery shelf life of at least ten years, are able to send out their own GPS signal, and offer many special features, such as a self-testing mode, LED strobe light, and water resistance. They usually cost between $315 and $425.
While it’s not necessary, you’ll typically get a better signal from a PLB if you have an unobstructed view of the sky when you activate it.
There are plenty of effective personal locator beacons on the market so you should be able to find a model that suits your needs. The ACR AquaLink View 406 GPS Personal Locator Beacon is an ideal option if you’ll be traveling on the open seas or any body of water because it’s waterproof and can float. It also offers GPS compatibility that can provide search and rescue teams with the coordinates of your location within 100 meters and an LED strobe light to help rescue workers find you. We also like the Artex Personal Locator Beacon because its battery has a 7-year shelf life, it can operate for up to 24 hours once you activate it, and it’s waterproof up to 15 meters.
Q. Do I have to register my PLB?
A. You are required by law to register a PLB with the NOAA SARSAT (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Search and Rescue Aided Tracking) database after you purchase it. There is no registration fee, and you’re able to provide your personal information, including possible medical conditions and emergency contact numbers, so search and rescue teams are able to find you more quickly.
Q. Can I use a PLB outside the United States?
A. If you opt for a PLB that sends a 406 MHz signal, it can be used anywhere in the world. Satellite messengers, on the other hand, may not be functional worldwide, so if you travel both domestically and internationally, a PLB is your best bet.
Q. What do I do if I accidentally set off a PLB?
A. Immediately turn the PLB off by holding down the emergency or activation button for five seconds. Be sure to notify the Rescue Coordination Center where the signal was accidentally transmitted so they know not to send a search and rescue team. If you set off your PLB and don’t notify authorities that it was an accidental activation, you’ll likely be hit with a severe fine.
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