What if there was one simple thing you could do to make a remote camping, hiking, fishing, or skiing trip far more safer?
Well, the truth is that there is … taking a Personal Locator Beacon, or PLB, with you.
The fact is these beacons have saved tens of thousands of lives in remote countries.
But tragically, not enough people who enjoy the great outdoors know about them, or how to use them.
Every year, people die unnecessarily doing what they love when a small investment in obtaining a PLB would have saved them.
So to help those who love the outdoors, and our tireless search and rescue authorities, we wrote this guide to Personal Locator Beacons.
At Tackle Village, we use PLBs whenever we are fishing in a remote environment for safety and for peace of mind. That could be while in the kayaks, hiking in the mountains with just a water bottle or backpack, or just on foot a long way from the car up a remote valley trout fishing when phone reception is limited.
Why Should I Carry a PLB?
First of all, because it can save your life. If you are injured and immobile – whether that’s from a fall, capsize (if on water), snakebite, or onset of illness – your PLB is your lifeline to safety. As discussed below, activating it will trigger a search and allow rescuers to hone in precisely on your location.
PLBs can be bought from camping/hiking/adventure retailers or also rented from specialist outlets. Remember, these beacons are small and light, no bigger than a sunglasses case, and fit easily in your backpack.
Can’t I Just Use a Mobile Phone?
In many parts of the world where people enjoy adventure sports, there is little to no cell phone coverage. Mobile phones, especially in areas where coverage is poor, chew through a lot of battery life maintaining a signal, and are apt to go dead right when you need them. We’ve had hikes where the phone’s battery has drained in half a day without making a call.
Phones are inoperable if wet and lose battery life quickly in the cold. Plus if you are lost, even if you get through on the phone to authorities you will be unable to pinpoint exactly where you are. They’ll know the general area of course, but not with as much accuracy as they would if you had carried and activated a PLB.
How Do PLBs Work?
A PLB – when it is activated – connects to specialized search and rescue satellites, which in turn pass that message on to emergency authorities in the country where the PLB is activated.
The best PLBs (the ones we recommend) have the ability for authorities to easily trace where the signal is coming from and provide rescuers with a precise location using the GPS (Global Position System) in combination with the satellite signal.
Which Satellites Do These Beacons Use?
PLBs rely on the Cospas-Sarsat satellite network – an international group of satellites that is dedicated to search and rescue purposes. These satellites also conduct monitoring of distress signals from planes, paragliders, and other aircraft. PLBs send their signals to these satellites on the 406 Mhz frequency reserved purely for this purpose.
How Do You Use a PLB?
The first thing to do when you buy, rent, or borrow a PLB is to register it with the search and rescue authorities in your country so that if it is activated, they know who they are looking for.
The registration info allows search and rescue authorities to be able to see where you intended to go (if updated) and which relatives or friends they can contact. (In many countries, you have the ability to update your details with the key search and rescue agency prior to a trip to record where you are going and when.)
The beacon’s signal and the GPS will also reveal/confirm the location of course, but maintaining an up-to-date registration helps with liaising with family and confirming it is not an accidental activation.
What Beacon Do You Use?
The beacon we use – a KTI – operates like the majority of models on the market. It comes in a small case and is about the size of a small compact camera.
Before every trip, we test the beacon according to the instructions by unclipping the antenna, raising it, and then pressing the test button. You can see from the combination of flashing lights that the beacon is working.
The KTI has a battery life of 10 years and can transmit for 24 hours once activated. It is both waterproof and self-buoyant.
We bring it with us on all remote trips into the mountains and remote regions and keep it close to our body so we have it close to hand if – for example – we fall and break a limb or we are tipped out of our Hobie kayak or injure ourselves in any other way.
Just like the fish finder we use on the kayak, the PLB is a vital electronic aid to a good day on the water and gives a great deal of peace of mind while we are doing what can be a dangerous activity.
In our region, the weather is notoriously variable and the wind can swing 180 degrees and gather strength in moments. One minute you are fishing in calm conditions, and the next minute you are dealing with significant swell!
How Do You Activate a PLB?
If you are injured or lost and need to activate your PLB, you unclip and raise the antenna, slide off the protective cover, and push the red button until the green lights on the unit start flashing.
This immediately sends a signal to the satellite network with our position (via GPS). The satellite network can also triangulate the position of the beacon.
The beacon will continue to send this information in short bursts to conserve the battery life. Our model will transmit for at least 24 hours.
What Happens Next?
Search and rescue authorities will assess the location of the beacon at the time of activation before deciding on the appropriate action. For example, if they can see the signal is coming from your home address, or in an urban environment they will likely assume initially it was activated by mistake and confirm that with you or your nominated contacts by phone. However, if it is coming from somewhere more remote, they will contact the relevant emergency services and get them to commence a rescue operation.
Is There Any Risk My PLB Won’t Work?
As we are dealing with satellites, the beacon must have line of sight to the sky. So if it is activated, for example, in a cave or in a car, the signal may have trouble getting through, or not get through at all.
What Are the Limitations of PLBs?
PLBs are designed for one sole purpose – providing that signal and location to rescue authorities. So it’s worth noting that they can’t send text messages, and you can’t use them to place calls. They are purely emergency beacons.
Have PLBs Saved Many People?
Yes, PLBs are extremely effective and have saved numerous people’s lives including people stuck in the desert with only a drink bottle. A quick search on the internet shows up a range of recent rescues including a hiker in Norway, a yachtsman who’d fallen overboard during an ocean race, and paddleboarders on Scotland’s Loch Ness! He fell off in a gale – there was no involvement from the fabled Loch Ness monster.
The website of beacon manufacturer ACR includes a host of survival stories from all over the world incorporating the use and deployment of a personal locator beacon by hikers, fishermen and women, hunters, and other lovers of the outdoors: https://www.acrartex.com/stories. These are often told in the person rescued’s own words and offer a really compelling look at how things can go wrong and how having the beacon can be truly a lifesaver.
According to the Cospas-Sarsat website since its inception in 1982, the system has been used for thousands of search and rescue events and has been instrumental in the rescue of over 35,000 lives worldwide.
Are More People Using PLBs?
Yes, as awareness grows of the role PLBs have played in rescues and in helping people enjoy the outdoors safely, their usage is growing. It is still surprising that some people aren’t aware of the service they can give – our sister-in-law recently attempted a four-day hike in the wilderness of Tasmania away from all creature comforts and it was only via me telling her that she took a PLB. As it happened, she didn’t need it but appreciated the comfort it gave her that she could get a rescue message out if injured. She rented a PLB, which is another option for people who hike infrequently and want to avoid the cost of buying a unit. There are many companies that will rent you a PLB and give you a return envelope to post it back in when you have finished using it.
How Much Are PLBs?
Around $300 will get you a PLB with GPS positioning. This is the kind you want to buy.
Where Do You Buy a PLB?
PLBs can be bought from both electronics stores and camping and hiking outlets, as well as specialist online retailers. Because they are so small, buying them online is a popular way to purchase a PLB. You can also borrow a PLB from a friend.
Can You Carry a PLB on an Aircraft?
While there are restrictions on lithium batteries, airlines at this point in time do not actively ban the carriage of PLBs.
How Do I Register My PLB?
Registration is via search and rescue authorities in your country. Here is a list of links for registering a PLB in a wide range of countries:
United States – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Canada – Canadian Beacon Registry
Australia – Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA)
United Kingdom – United Kingdom Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA)
Greece – Ministry of Merchant Marine
France – CNES
Italy – Stazione Satellitare Italiana – Cospas Sarsat
Netherlands – Agentschap Telecom (NL)
New Zealand – New Zealand Rescue Coordination Centre
International – Cospas-Sarsat International 406 MHz Beacon Registration Database (IBRD)
PLB vs EPIRB?
In general terms, an EPIRB is a beacon that is fitted to a ship or boat (the beacons used for aircraft are known as ELTs). These function in the same way, but must conform to higher standards and have more features than the smaller PLB.
What Does EPIRB Stand For?
Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon.
What Does PLB Stand For?
Personal locator beacon.