December 17, 2016

Best Personal Locator Beacons and Satellite Messengers

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Find the top personal locator beacon and satellite messenger for your next adventure. Don't get lost without one.

Best Personal Locator Beacon
Best Personal Locator Beacon © CreditDonkey

Why You Need a Personal Locator Beacon

While extreme activities like mountain climbing can satisfy your quest for thrill and adventure, they also come with risk and danger. There is the potential to get lost, stranded, or critically injured. Fortunately for today’s adventure seekers, current technology allows you to mitigate your risk and provide a degree of comfort for loved ones back home. If you are an avid backpacker, hiker, or hunter, it would be wise to invest in a personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger to aide rescue personnel in the event of a life-threatening situation.

If you opt to purchase a PLB, the first thing you must do is register the device with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Product registration is critical as it gives personal information to rescuers in case of an incident.

PLBs work by sending a distress signal to Search and Rescue (SAR) satellites on a 406 MHz frequency. This distress signal contains a code with the information you provided to the NOAA. Ultimately, this information, along with your approximate location, is passed to an SAR activity center, such as the United States Air Force or Coast Guard.

The marketplace for PLBs and satellite messengers is not large. There are maybe half a dozen options for you to choose from, and CreditDonkey will help you identify the best options for a variety of different scenarios, including: mountaineering, hunting/hiking, watchband, and iPhone.

What to Consider when Shopping for a Personal Locator Beacon

When it comes to purchasing a PLB or satellite messenger, you will be less likely to prioritize fancy design features. Technical characteristics are of the utmost importance, as GPS or prolonged beacon transmission time may save your life.

Below are the 4 factors that will help you determine which PLB or satellite messenger is the best for the particular activity you are engaging in:

  • GPS: Inclusion of GPS in a PLB narrows the search location from 2-3 miles down to 100 meters or less!
  • Beacon Transmission Time: How long will the beacon operate before the battery dies?
  • Water Immersion: How many feet under water will the product be able to operate?
  • Distress Signal: Audio or visual signal that helps rescue personnel find you.

While some products do not have a beacon transmission time or distress signal, it is important that you comprehend the capability that each item possesses. If a product is lacking in these areas, users must understand that they will have diminished ability to reach rescue personnel. Water immersion is important in the case of an accident or injury occurring near a waterfall or other body of water. A product that can operate underwater may save your life.

Read on to learn about the best PLBs, satellite messengers, and software apps to help you navigate difficult terrain.

Best PLB for Mountaineering

ACR Electronics Aqualink View 406 Personal Locator Beacon

  • GPS: communicates on the same frequency as military SAR satellites; your location can be narrowed to within 100 feet due to the 66-channel GPS
  • Beacon Transmission Time: up to 35 hours, depending on temperature
  • Water Immersion: 16 feet submerged up to an hour and 33 feet up to ten minutes
  • Distress Signal: LED strobe light

Because mountaineering has the most potential for danger, in my opinion the ACR Aqualink is clearly the best option. The technical characteristics of the Aqualink are superior to other PLBs. For instance, the Aqualink beacon transmits for 5 to 11 hours more than other PLBs.

The Aqualink weighs slightly more than 9 ounces and has a lanyard with a clip on the end loop so you can attach it to a jacket or equipment for hands-free transmission. This PLB is also capable of non-emergency messaging to help put family members at ease. The display window allows you to monitor battery life, check GPS coordinates, and ensure successful beacon operation.

There aren’t many downsides to the Aqualink. While this PLB may cost more than standard PLBs, the added capability could save your life. In addition to the upfront cost, it is also expensive to replace the battery. Tech-savvy hikers may also opine that the Aqualink does not have much software capability. Nevertheless, this PLB can transmit a distress signal under 16 feet of water for up to an hour, which is approximately 15 minutes more than it will take for a successful SAR mission.

Best PLBs for Hiking/Hunting

ACR Electronics ResQLink+

  • GPS: communicates on the same frequency as military SAR satellites; your location can be narrowed to within 100 feet due to the 66-channel GPS
  • Beacon Transmission Time: up to 30 hours, depending on temperature
  • Water Immersion: 16 feet submerged up to an hour and 33 feet up to ten minutes
  • Distress Signal: LED strobe light

The ACR ResQLink+ has many of the same technical characteristics as the Aqualink, so it is the perfect option for hiking and hunting. As far as capability, the ResQLink+ provides users with GPS capability and the same water immersion specifications as the Aqualink.

The primary difference between the two units is that the beacon for the ResQLink+ transmits for roughly 5 hours less than the Aqualink. In addition, the ResQLink+ does not have a display allowing you to easily check operational information. However, the ResQLink+ does weigh roughly 4 ounces less than the Aqualink.

Ultimately, when deciding between the two ACR units, you must weigh the risk of the activity you are undertaking and determine whether the additional 5 hours of transmission time is worth the added cost. Some users also take issue with the cost of battery replacement, which can cost approximately $125. This is a hefty price to pay as a battery replacement costs approximately half the price of a new unit.

Best Satellite Messenger

DeLorme inReach Explorer

  • GPS: communicates with commercial satellites that possess less capability
  • Beacon Transmission Time: n/a
  • Water Immersion: 1 meter for 30 minutes
  • Distress Signal: none

The DeLorme inReach Explorer is a GPS-capable satellite messenger that provides a great option for hikers and mountain climbers who are undertaking less dangerous excursions. The GPS embedded in satellite messengers communicates with commercial satellites, rather than the military systems that receive distress calls from PLBs. Essentially, satellite messengers transmit a weaker signal than PLBs, exposing users to more risk.

What satellite messengers lack in signal strength, they make up for in software features. The DeLorme inReach Explorer has software features that are vastly superior to any PLB. For example, users can send text messages to family and friends with detailed trip information. Additionally, loved ones can follow your trip down to 10-minute intervals. The inReach Explorer allows users to link with your mobile device (both iOS and Android) or tablet to check out maps and NOAA data.

From a software perspective, what separates satellite messengers from PLBs is the detailed trip planning and execution tools. For instance, the inReach Explorer includes a digital compass, accelerometer, odometer, and barometric altimeter. In addition, it monitors trip metrics such as distance, travel speed, trip time, and moving averages. From a durability standpoint, the inReach Explorer is dustproof and drop-tested in accordance with military standards.

There are negatives to selecting a satellite messenger over a PLB. As discussed earlier, owners of satellite messengers do not have immediate access to rapid-response military SAR units. Furthermore, satellite messengers require a paid subscription, which will add recurring costs to its users. Nevertheless, the inReach Explorer is a great option for mild adventure seekers, especially those who prefer in-trip data and software capability.

Best Tracking Watch

Spot Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger

  • GPS: communicates with commercial satellites that possess less capability
  • Beacon Transmission Time: n/a
  • Water Immersion: advertised as waterproof, although details are scarce
  • Distress Signal: none

The Spot Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger is a smaller alternative that can be outfitted to a watchband or keychain. It weighs just 4 ounces and has dimensions of 3.4” x 2.5.” The Gen3 is more simplistic than other satellite messengers from a software perspective. It allows users to send custom messages to family and friends, has GPS tracking capability, and can communicate with rescue personnel via pre-programmed SOS messages. The Gen3 will certainly get the job done for low-to-moderate risk destinations.

There are some notable drawbacks to the Gen3. Like other satellite messengers, this unit does not give users immediate access to rapid-response military SAR like PLBs. This could add substantial risk for hikers and mountain climbers who elect to visit more dangerous destinations. Another negative feature is that the Gen3 is powered by 4 AAA batteries. Most serious adventure seekers do not want to carry additional batteries with their travel gear. Finally, like other satellite messengers that communicate with commercial satellites, the Gen3 requires a paid subscription for GPS tracking. The subscription actually costs more than the hardware itself.

Best iPhone Tracking App

Find My Friends

  • GPS: yes, via cellphone provider
  • Beacon Transmission Time: n/a
  • Water Immersion: iPhone 7 is rated IP67, meaning it is water submersible up to 1 meter for 30 minutes
  • Distress Signal: none

Find My Friends is a free iPhone app that allows friends and family to track your location. This could be useful for low-risk trails with adequate cell phone coverage, but it should not be mistaken as a viable alternative to PLBs or satellite messengers. Not only are users at the mercy of network signal strength and battery life, but the Find My Friends app is not designed to serve as a distress tool. It literally has zero software features that are helpful in an emergency. Find My Friends may work if you are seeking adventure in Central Park or climbing a rock mountain at the local amusement park, but certainly will not save your life in the wilderness.

Android users can check out Locate and Find My Friends.

Bottom Line

While PLBs, satellite messengers, and software apps may vary in capability, all 3 products will ensure you are better prepared for your adventure. Whether you seek the ability to alert rescue personnel in the case of an emergency, or inform family and friends that you are safe, investing in this technology will undoubtedly help you achieve this objective.

Where to Buy Personal Locator Beacons

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