By Dan Kidder
For those who go deep into the wilderness, far from any cell towers or busy roads, having a personal locator beacon (PLB) is a necessary piece of kit in an emergency.
They are expensive, with some requiring a subscription and they each have different strengths and weaknesses, but if you are injured, trapped, lost or just need rescue, these little electronic gadgets are a must-have.
Before 2003, when the FCC approved PLBs for land use, you would give a friend or family member your itinerary, an idea of the path you were planning to take and if you were overdue, they would notify search and rescue of where you might be. For those who spent days or weeks in the wilderness, this meant that the odds of being found before it was too late if you got in trouble were pretty slim.
With the advent of satellite technology, GPS enabled PLBs can now provide immediate notification and location in an emergency.
While far from being inexpensive, for what they provide, these devices are a priceless companion.
When it comes to selecting a PLB, we want to look at both the strengths and weaknesses of each of the three major players; ACR, SPOT and Delorme inReach.
ACR utilizes a government satellite system to provide location over most of the globe. Their transmission system is by far the strongest of all of the PLBs, however, this stronger signal power is needed because the satellites used by ACR are in a far higher orbit than those used by SPOT and inReach. In addition to the 406 MHz transmission used by the ACR, it also sends a 121.5MHz homing signal to help rescuers pinpoint your location on the ground. The network of satellites and ground stations are run by the governments of Russia, the US, France and Canada. This can result in a delay in response time, as well as the way the satellites move. It can also delay how long it takes for help to be dispatched. On the upside, these devices are very rugged, can be used in most locations that have a clear view of the sky and come with an immense network of support. On the downside, they have an internal battery that must be maintained, battery life is limited, it must be replaced by a technician and it requires frequent testing as well as registration with the nation in which it will be used.
The SPOT Messenger not only acts like a PLB, but gives you the additional feature of being able to send pre-set text messages and also share your location and track on social networking sites, like Facebook. The SPOT Messenger utilizes the Globalstar satellite network, consisting of 48 geosynchronous satellites in low orbit and a series of 24 ground stations. By using low orbit satellites, the transmitter doesn’t need to be as strong and it also helps conserve battery life and reduce size and weight of the unit. The SPOT Messenger runs on three AAA Lithium batteries that are user replaceable. The upside to the SPOT Messenger is that it is easy to use and only has six buttons. Four of the buttons are for standard pre-set messages and tracking broadcasting and two covered buttons for calling for help or rescue. One of the protected buttons messages a predefined contact for assistance and the second broadcasts an SOS to activate search and rescue personnel to come get you, along with your coordinates so they can quickly find you. Another plus is the price. The SPOT Messenger retails for about $119 and plans are inexpensive and flexible to meet your needs. The downside is the Globalstar network only provides full-time coverage over about 66 percent of the globe and uses third party ground stations to prioritize incoming distress messages before contacting GEOS.
This can create a delay in getting help moving to your location. For the rest of the globe, Globalstar will pick up your signal within 20 minutes as satellites move into position. This delay is especially noticeable nearer the poles and in parts of Africa and reception is non-existent in certain locations. In a life or death emergency, when every second counts, this can be a costly delay. Another negative is that the messenger only offers one-way communication, so you have no confirmation that your message has been received and help is on the way. SPOT does offer satellite phones with very reasonable plans, as well as a Bluetooth device that allows texting via your smart phone, but these features are not included in the SPOT Messenger.
DeLorme inReach SE and inReach Explorer
For true two way communication, the inReach products from DeLorme offer the ability to confirm that your message has been received and help is on the way. Continual communication with rescuers allows you to provide them feedback as to the extent of your injuries, conditions in the area and landmarks to help them get to you.
The inReach SE and the inReach Explorer both have an on-screen keyboard or can be paired with a smart phone via Bluetooth to utilize the two-way communication features. The Explorer offers the additional feature of navigation, by utilizing the GPS as a navigator. They also feature a digital compass, barometric altimeter and accelerometer and also includes an odometer and displays useful trip statistics while in the field, such as trip time, max speed, moving average and trip distance. By pairing it with your smartphone, you can also download detailed NOAA maps and weather data. The DeLorme inReach devices use the Iridium network of 66 satellites providing truly 100 percent global coverage all of the time. Additionally, the Iridium network is directly monitored by GEOS insuring faster response time in an emergency. This 100 percent coverage and faster response is why the DeLorme inReach is the Sportsman’s News teams’ pick for a PLB. Coupled with the flexible monthly, annual and seasonal subscription plans and the amazing Earthmate App for your smart phone, the inReach is a powerhouse PLB and so much more. The downside is that the screen on the SE and Explorer is a bit small and is not touch enabled, so you have to navigate between features via a small series of buttons that can slow down your texting and using of the features. The maps on the Explorer do not have any detail, but you can use it with detailed maps on your smartphone – they just aren’t all contained in a single unit. The batteries on the inReach devices are internal rechargeables, so you can’t swap them out if they die, but you can recharge the units via a solar panel. The battery has 100 hours of runtime on a full charge though, so it will last you for the long haul.
Whichever PLB you select, make sure you know the features you will need, learn how to properly use all of the features of the unit, pre-plan your route and itinerary as much as possible in advance and also use the unit’s online features and make sure they are pre-set and active before you head out.
If you are hunting in the deep backcountry where cell service is non-existent and something happens, having the piece of mind that help is only a button push away, will help you enjoy yourself even more. The ability of the inReach devices to check in and also receive text messages means that not only can you seek help if needed, but the folks back home can get word to you if a crisis develops and they need you to come home. Our publisher, Mike Deming was able to use his inReach Explorer to learn that his daughter won a soccer tournament while he was in the mountains of British Columbia last fall, so he could celebrate with her from far away in the remote wilderness.
Having a plan, having the training and having the right tools are three keys to staying safe in the rugged wilderness that so many of us enjoy. These tools are a great way to stay safe and let others know if we run into trouble, as well as how to find us. Look into getting a PLB is you are planning a trip into the wild. All of the products mentioned in this article are available for purchase at your local Sportsman’s Warehouse gift bar or online at www.sportsmanswarehouse.com.