Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are that one thing all hikers should carry, but very few do. Not sure what a PLB even is? We’ve got the comprehensive guide to PLBs and Satellite Messengers; how they work, and why you need one on your next adventure.
When Shit Hits the Fan
In 2017 I took on Victoria’s 100km Great Ocean Walk. I did the first section with friends, but then continued on solo for the next four days. I had a phone but knew reception would be patchy. I’d told my Mum not to expect to hear from me the whole trip. And as it turned out, I ran out of credit and couldn’t reply even when I did have reception.
She texted a few times, hoping I could just send an ‘ok’, even once. I spent most of the hike worried about my Mum being worried, and ended up pulling a double-day just so I could get to a payphone (yeah, they still had them) sooner. I literally had to beg someone for loose change so I could get a 30-second call to Mum and let her know I was fine.
The Great Ocean Walk has snakes (I saw several), unreliable water sources, and tide-dependent sections where you can get stranded if the tide catches you out.
I was one of the only hikers on the trail that week. If something had happened to me on that first solo day, no one would’ve raised the alarm for another four days.
In hindsight, this solo, multi-day trip with patchy reception was 100% a scenario where I should’ve carried a PLB. If I’d had a satellite messenger, I could have even texted Mum to let her know I was fine.
What is a PLB?
A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is a device you carry with you and can activate in case of a life-threatening emergency. PLBs don’t require cellular reception to work.
Once activated, they connect with emergency services who are deployed to your location. PLBs are registered to an individual person and differ from EPIRBs which are registered to a vessel, like a boat.
Why do I need a PLB?
The awkward truth is that most hikers aren’t carrying PLBs when they should be. I started hiking five years ago but PLBs hadn’t been on my radar (ba dum tss?) until about two years ago.
You don’t need a PLB until you do – and then it’s too late to get one! Long story short: phones are not reliable.
Danni Bull, Local Controller of the Search and Rescue Unit in Scenic Rim (QLD) had this to say.
‘Most people head out on adventures thinking they’re prepared and that ‘it won’t happen to me’ [injury/illness and/or geographical embarrassment], where unfortunately every year these things do happen to many people, experienced or not.
We spent a lot of time out in the mountains searching for and rescuing lost or injured hikers and climbers.
One of the first questions we ask is, where are they? Do we have a location?’
When should I carry a PLB?
In summary, always carry a PLB if you’re undertaking an adventure in which any one of the following applies:
- There’ll be no reception
- The activity is high risk (snow, heat, cliffs and drops, solo trips)
- The potential outcomes are likely to be critical and time-sensitive
- It’s an extended trip and people may not raise the alarm for many days or weeks
- Self-rescue would be impossible, or no-one is likely to bump into you or send for help if needed.
In Danni’s words: ‘I’d encourage anyone venturing out into the great outdoors to look into PLBs. It could save your life.’
How do PLBs work?
Before Your Trip
After you buy a PLB, you need to register emergency contacts to the device online. You can also add specific trip information to the registration. Doing this increases the chance of an effective rescue.
During Your Trip
Make sure to carry your PLB on your person, so there’s no chance it’s in a bag you can’t access if shit hits the fan.
Let’s say you went out for a trip and you:
- Fell off a cliff
- Broke a leg
- Had a medical event that requires attention, like a seizure
- Got bitten by a snake
- Got badly lost and are running out of food or water
- Got heat stroke
- Got hypothermia
- (Insert life-threatening emergency here)
(Definitely not because you’re tired and want to go home, or because you twisted your ankle – unless that caused you to walk so slow you ran out of food!)
Take out your PLB and activate it in a clear open area, otherwise satellites won’t pick it up right away.
When the PLB is activated, emergency services are notified and will reach out to the registered emergency contacts for further information on your trip. That’s why it’s essential you leave details on your trip intentions, medical conditions, and provisions with your emergency contacts.
When Your PLB Expires
When your PLB’s come to the end of its life, make sure to dispose of it properly to prevent activation after disposal. Then update registration details to indicate the device is no longer in use.
Are all PLBs and Beacons the same?
Standard distress PLBs are a simple distress beacon. They connect to satellites and allow you to send a distress signal in an emergency. They get the job done.
Note: 121.5 MHz distress beacons are no longer detected by satellites and are no longer licensed for use.
Satellite messengers or satellite communicators are more recent. Like a standard PLB, you can send a distress signal (however this often contacts a global service that might be slower). But unlike a standard PLB, you can also text emergency services and loved ones. This allows you to give details about your emergency to rescuers so that they can bring specialised equipment.
The other benefit is that you can let friends and family know you’re safe, or that you got delayed if you’re approaching a predetermined return date.
So, satellite messengers allow you to let people know that you’re NOT in an emergency, too! However, you’ll need a satellite subscription to be able to access these services, on top of the fact that satellite messengers are more expensive than standard distress PLBs.
Specialised avalanche beacons are designed to locate a person buried under snow. It’s very important to know that avalanche beacons do not have the capability to call rescue services. They’re designed only to allow members of a team to rescue each other in the case of an avalanche.
Buy, Rent or Borrow a PLB?
PLBs are one of the most expensive parts of your kit. They’re worth the investment if you hike regularly, but if you’ve just started out, renting and borrowing a PLB are great options.
One catch is that the registered emergency contacts on shared devices will not usually be relevant to you (it might be the company or gear masters info). So, get the log-in details to the account and update the information. Alternatively, leave your details (trip info and your emergency contacts) with the registered emergency contact.
Check online for companies which rent out PLBs (approx. $10AUD+ per day), or get in touch with your local bushwalking group or university outdoor club to see if they have PLBs available to borrow. They may be free to borrow if you’re a member!
Sometimes even local police stations will have PLBs available!
Which PLB should I buy?
Ocean Signal RescueMe PLB1
The most basic model is a simple distress type beacon. The 116g Ocean Signal RescueMe PLB1 meets Australian standards, has no subscription service requirements, and a 7 year battery lifetime (and warranty). After the battery dies you can send it in for replacement and servicing.
It’s waterproof to 15m and designed for one-handed activation (while the nifty flap cover prevents accidental activation). At the time of writing, it’s suitable for carry-on or checked luggage. It’ll set you back a smidge under $400 AUD.
Garmin InReach Mini
The 100g rechargeable Garmin InReach Mini is a satellite messenger designed for size and weight, retailing at $500 AUD. The 213g rechargeable Garmin Inreach SE+ retails for $600 AUD and has a longer battery life than the Mini.
Both have a 1-year warranty. On top of the usual distress call function, they have a 2-way communication service (additional subscription required) and location tracking. The battery, while rechargeable, is not replaceable. The satellite subscription costs $25 – $99 AUD (depending on number of texts and location tracking) for a 30-day plan, or $269 – $929 AUD for an annual plan.
Both weigh 210g with 2 year warranty (3yr if you register with Mammut) and will set you back $600 and $800AUD respectively. For this device to work properly, all members of the expedition must each carry a beacon to be able to find eachother after an avalanche. Again, these beacons do not have a distress signal function.
PLBs Are Not The Answer
PLBs do not prevent accidents. They allow you to get help after an accident or problem.
A PLB requires that you’re with someone who can activate it for you, or if you’re alone, that you’re conscious enough to activate it yourself. The only exception to this is an avalanche PLB, which requires both the rescuer and the victim to carry the PLB to locate the victim.
Remember the golden rules of hiking to prevent accidents:
- Hike within your abilities and experience
- Leave trip details with a reliable contact, including trip intentions, gear carried, existing medical conditions, and expected return date
- Carry appropriate gear and wear clothes suitable for the conditions
- Carry a first aid kit
- Try not to hike alone
- Pack enough food and water
- Carry a map
Have fun and stay safe out there!
Feature photo by @_thelittleadventurer