Nobody likes to think that their backcountry adventures may end in an emergency situation, but a smart outdoors enthusiast knows that sometimes, the worst can happen. Sometimes you may find yourself in a position where you need rescuing, and if this is the case, you need a way for people to find you. You need a way to send a distress signal that doesn’t rely on cellular service, and two ways to do that are PLBs and satellite messengers. Not only could this save your life, but it could help save someone else’s.
Today, we’ll be going over the similarities and differences between these two devices, as well as explaining what to look for when you buy one and what you need to know about their best use cases.
What Is A PLB?
A PLB, or personal locator beacon is a small, handheld device used to alert search and rescue services in the event of a life-threatening emergency. PLBs are not radio beacons; they use satellite technology to transmit a distress signal to rescue authorities.
PLBs are a highly limited communication device. When you send a distress signal, there is no other communication or message that goes out with the signal. All these devices do is provide your location and a unique identifier so that search and rescue can quickly locate and rescue you.
How PLBs Work
PLBs work by transmitting a signal on a designated distress frequency, 406 MHz. These signals are picked up by satellites that are part of the international search and rescue system. This signal is then relayed to a network of response agencies and rescue authorities, who ultimately get your information to a local search and rescue organization.
PLBs are designed to work in any location on the planet, no matter how remote. However, some countries prohibit their use; for example, Japan only allows the use of PLBs on the ocean.
Using Your PLB
If you want to use a PLB, the first thing you must do after buying it is register it. You need to re-register your PLB every two years, and if you ever sell the device, the new owner needs to switch over the registration. This is because every PLB has its own ID. In the US, NOAA monitors PLB distress signals, and you need to register your PLB with their National Beacon Registration Database.
If you plan on using your PLB in another country or on international waters, you will need to contact foreign authorities to ensure they have your information.
While every PLB is slightly different in its configuration, here are the general steps to use one.
- Before your trip, make sure your PLB is registered with the appropriate authorities and that your emergency contact information is up to date. If your trip is overseas, make sure you are allowed to use your PLB at all.
- In the event of an emergency, remove the PLB from its protective case and extend the antenna.
- Press the distress button to activate the PLB. Hold the button down for at least five seconds to ensure that the signal is transmitted.
- Wait for rescue personnel to arrive. Stay in your location and do not move unless it is necessary for your safety.
Why Choose A PLB? Pros and Cons
Here are some of the biggest advantages and disadvantages of PLBs.
|Pros of PLBs||Cons of PLBs|
|Reliable, proven technology||No messaging or communication features for non-emergency updates|
|Sends a strong, clear signal||Signal cannot be canceled or deactivated, so once you push that button, SAR is on its way|
|No subscription fees or ongoing costs||Requires registration|
|Longer battery life than most satellite messengers||Bulkier and heavier than satellite messengers|
|Can be used in any location||More expensive than most satellite messengers|
What Is A Satellite Messenger?
Satellite messengers are similar to PLBs in that they are both handheld devices that use satellite technology to send emergency signals. However, satellite messengers have more functions than PLBs and use a different satellite network.
Satellite messengers have more functions than PLBs, including the ability to send pre-set messages to designated contacts, tracking, location sharing, and even GPS navigation. Manufacturers continuously develop and add new features, so you have lots of options when choosing a satellite messenger.
Unlike PLBs, satellite messengers use civilian satellite networks to transmit information, meaning there are fewer regulations about what can and cannot be transmitted.
In the US, satellite messengers are routed through the privately run GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center, which will coordinate your information with local search and rescue organizations and may provide some communication with you while help is on the way. Different satellite messengers have the ability to work with other satellite systems. Be sure to research what your device is capable of connecting with as this affects where in the world the device can work, and how accurate it is in specific regions.
How Satellite Messengers Work
Satellite messengers use a network of satellites that allows them to have more communication options. Using this network of satellites, these devices can send and receive written communications, and GPS locations to email addresses or to phone numbers. In addition, these devices can send messages to teams that are able to route those messages to the proper authorities in case of emergency. You therefore can communicate with friends and family, or with emergency services in an emergency situation.
Satellite messengers are typically monitored by a third-party service provider who will receive and relay your messages and emergency signals to the appropriate authorities. This service is occasionally included with the purchase of the device, but the majority of models require a separate subscription paid monthly or annually. The major manufacturers offer a variety of plans to meet varying needs.
Using Your Satellite Messenger
Once you’ve set up a subscription and activated your device, to use a satellite messenger, you will typically need to activate the device and connect it to a compatible mobile app or web-based platform. This will allow you to customize message templates and set up your contacts. Some devices have keypads and such to also allow for easily using the device to send custom messages or templated messages.
In case of emergency, here’s what to do with your satellite messenger.
- Remove the satellite messenger from its case and point it at a clear sky; branches will block the signal and your message will send more slowly.
- Activate the SOS feature. This will send a distress signal to rescue authorities and provide them with your location. This varies by device.
- Wait for confirmation that your distress signal has been received. Rescue authorities may attempt to contact you using the satellite messenger’s built-in features and messaging.
- Wait for rescue personnel to arrive. Stay in your location and do not move unless it is necessary for your safety. With satellite messengers, you can communicate with rescue operations to get information, status updates, and send the rescuers further information.
Satellite Messengers Vs Satellite Phones
A satellite phone and a satellite messenger are not the same thing. Satellite phones allow for voice and data communication over satellite networks, just like any other cell phone. Satellite messengers are less expensive, do not require a cell plan (though they usually require a plan), and have a smaller range of communication features. They can keep you in contact with emergency services and with your family and friends, but a satellite messenger is first and foremost an emergency device, not a phone.
Most phones are not reliable emergency devices. Cellular data is not guaranteed in the backcountry or abroad, and phones have short battery lives and less durable construction than emergency signaling devices. If you’re out in the woods, you just can’t rely on cellular data to be available when you need it in an emergency.
However, the iPhone 14 has an emergency satellite access feature. This is the first time that a standard smartphone has offered any kind of satellite communication. Satellite SOS is free for two years after your phone’s activation and uses the same civilian satellite networks that satellite messengers do. To use this network, dial 911. If you don’t have cell service, the iPhone 14 will automatically initiate the satellite Emergency SOS protocol.
While this is cool, and will likely save lives, your phone really isn’t a replacement for a PLB or satellite messenger. First, this functionality is only available on a very limited number of models. Secondly, it relies on your cell phone, with its potentially limited battery life and comparatively fragile construction. PLBs and satellite messengers are designed to be tough and durable; your phone is more likely to receive damage during an emergency than either of these technologies.
Why Choose A Satellite Messenger? Pros and Cons
Here are some of the biggest advantages and disadvantages of satellite messengers.
|Pros of Satellite Messengers||Cons of Satellite Messengers|
|Provides two-way communication capabilities, allowing you to stay in touch with friends or family and request non-emergency assistance.||May be more susceptible to damage from moisture, shock, or extreme temperatures.|
|Some devices offer features like real-time tracking and weather alerts, which can enhance safety and situational awareness.||Communication and location services may be limited or unreliable in areas with poor satellite coverage or obstructed views of the sky.|
|Typically smaller and lighter than PLBs, making them easier to carry and more comfortable to wear or store.||In some cases, communication and location data may be delayed or inaccurate, leading to potential safety risks or misunderstandings.|
|Most devices have a variety of subscription plans available, so you can choose the level of service that best fits your needs and budget.||Requires ongoing subscription fees or costs for service and data plans.|
|Many satellite messengers have user-friendly mobile apps or web-based platforms that allow you to share your location and communicate with contacts easily.||The battery life of most satellite messengers is shorter than that of PLBs, requiring more frequent charging or battery replacement.|
Should I Get A PLB or Satellite Messenger?
Both satellite messengers and PLBs are reliable, useful pieces of emergency equipment. The one you should choose depends on your experiences and situations.
You may prefer a satellite messenger if:
- You want to stay in touch with friends or family while traveling in remote locations.
- You want to share your location with others for safety or logistical reasons.
- You want to receive weather alerts or other updates relevant to your adventuring.
- You want a device that can provide two-way communication capabilities in case of non-emergency situations, such as requesting assistance or reporting minor injuries.
- You are engaging in high-risk activities, such as mountaineering, backcountry skiing.
You may prefer a PLB if:
- Engaging with oceanic travel
- You are traveling to truly remote locations that may not have good gps signal.
- You plan on traveling abroad (in countries that allow PLB use, and don’t have great satellite messenger options),
- You don’t want to deal with subscription fees or ongoing setup.
- You prioritize signal strength and range over two-way communication or location tracking features.
- You want a device that has a longer track record of success in rescue operations.
PLBs have greater battery life, have greater operation in areas with poor gps, and are often kept stored for emergencies. Satellite messengers are superior for most situations, except for those where the satellite messenger may not be as reliable (there are very few locations on earth where this is the case any longer).
Popular PLBs and Satellite Messengers
Now that you know everything about PLBs and satellite messengers, you may be wondering which one to buy. Here are some of the most popular PLBs and satellite messengers trusted by outdoor enthusiasts just like you.
Best Satellite Messengers
|Model||Price||Key Features||Weight||Link to Buy|
|Garmin InReach Mini2||$400||Smartwatch integration, phone app, ability to message on the device, accurate to within 3 m, 14 day clear sky battery life||3.5 oz||REI|
|ACR BivyStick||$249-$349||Solar panel charging option, water resistant to 15 m, need to be connected to app for messaging||4 oz||REI|
|SpotX with Bluetooth||$250||240 hour battery life, 14 predefined messages, connects to smartphone with bluetooth||7 oz||REI|
|Spot Gen4||$149-$199||Can send up to 1,250 check-in messages on 4 AAA batteries (included), IPX8 waterproof rating, subscription includes roadside assistance||5 oz||REI|
|Garmin Montana 700i||$700||Full GPS capability, 18 hours of battery life in GPS mode and 7 days with GPS off, full QWERTY keyboard||14.5 oz||REI|
|Model||Price||Key Features||Weight||Links to Buy|
|ACR ResQ Link 400||$359||Water resistant to 10 m, strobe lights, battery can hold a charge for 5 years||5.28 oz||REI|
|ACR ResQ Link View||$399||Waterproof to 10 m, digital display providing live status and GPS coordinates||5.3 oz||REI|
|RescueME PLB1||$349||Water resistant to 15 m, 7 year battery shelf life, flotation pouch||4 oz||REI|
|McMurdo FastFind 220||$247||Flotation pouch, high brightness LED strobe||13 oz||Amazon|
Whether you choose a satellite messenger or a PLB, a communication device is an important part of backcountry safety. Be sure to carry one along with your ten essentials for a fun, safe outdoor experience.
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about