I do a lot of solo backpacking in some out of the way places and my wife, understandably, worries about my safety. This year she asked me to bring along a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) on my more remote trips where a serious injury, like a broken femur or a bad fall could be fatal. I agreed immediately: she gives me the freedom to go on my wilderness jaunts and her concerns are justified. This doesn’t mean that I’ll bring a PLB on all of my trips: just the ones that are way off-the-grid and I’m unlikely to meet anyone for days at a time.
As a long distance backpacker, the most important purchase criteria for me was international portability with minimal hassle. I have a 170 mile trek coming up next spring across remote mountainous parts of Scotland and I want a little extra safety insurance on that trip. Additionally, I wanted a unit that was as lightweight as possible without a loss of functionality, idiot proof to use, and NOT prone to accidental activation or false alerts.
This last item is a serious issue with some devices. Accidental activations put Search and Rescue personnel and resources at risk and waste valuable resources that someone else might need in an emergency. Personal Locator Beacons are serious rescue devices and should only be used as distress signaling device of last resort for use when all other means of self-rescue have been exhausted; where the situation is grave and imminent, and the loss of life, limb, eyesight or valuable property will occur without assistance.
During my product evaluation process, I did a lot of research about personal locator beacons and how they plug into an international satellite network that mobilizes local Search and Rescue units. It’s fascinating and something you should understand before you make a purchase decision about a PLB.
We’ve all heard about the SPOT Satellite Messenger. If you’re thinking about buying one, I suggest you read the rest of this post first. It might help you reassess your purchase criteria.
When a personal locator beacon is activated in an emergency situation, it broadcasts a distress signal over the 406 MHz frequency to the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system which triangulates its location and alerts local Search and Rescue authorities. COSPAS-SARSAT is an international satellite-based search and rescue system that has helped save over 24,000 lives worldwide since its inception in 1982. Sponsored by Canada, France, Russia, and the United States, the system locates transmissions from emergency beacons carried by ships, aircraft, and individuals.
Use of the COSPAS-SARSAT system is free to the beacon operator. Yes, that’s right: free. COSPAS-SARSAT publishes a approved list of personal, marine and aircraft beacons which are certified for use using the 406 MHz frequency. The SPOT Messagener is not listed here because SPOT uses a private commercial satellite network, not the one used by SAR agencies worldwide.
After purchase, every personal locator beacon unit must be registered with a National Authority. In the US, this is NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In Canada, the National Authority is the NSS or National Search and Rescue Secretariat. Other countries have their own National Authorities. When you register your PLB, you provide personal and emergency contact information in case it is needed by search and rescue agencies. You also have the ability to enter details about your latest expedition and itinerary which is helpful for SAR units.
In the US, the registration process is online and you can update your information as often as you like if you take a lot of trips or want to transfer your device to someone else. The National Authorities use the information you enter to determine if an actual emergency exists. If your beacon is not registered, SAR authorities will not know who you are or who to contact to request additional information about your situation or medical history.
After I learned about COSPAS-SARSAT, I understood that the eastiest way to achieve international PLB portability was to purchase a device that used the 406 MHz network. When I want to hike in a different country, I don’t technically have to do anything because all 406 MHz devices are already globally compatible. However, it is still advisable to update your itinerary information online with your National Authority, so it can be routed to local SAR units, if needed.
After some additional research, I purchased the ARC MicrOFix GPS Personal Locator Beacon because it has an on-board GPS in addition to being 406 MHz compatible. When activated in an emergency, the Microfix inserts a GPS packet into the 406 MHz transmission with your GPS location and then updates it every 20 minutes, which is useful if you’re adrift and mobile. The GPS fix helps to pinpoint your location to within 100 meters. Otherwise COSPAS-SARSAT has to rely on doppler shift computations which are less accurate in determining your precise location.
There are some other features that I also like about this device: it’s waterproof to 5 meters, the built in battery has a life-span of 5 years and does not have to be manually recharged, it is guaranteed to send a signal for 24 hours once activated (at -20 centigrade) but will typically run for 40 hours, it’s easy to self-test, and difficult to activate accidentally.
Hopefully, I’ll never have to use it.
Disclosure: The author owns this product and purchased it using their own funds.
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