Backpacking PLBss

Well there is nothing quite like having reliable electronics (that are light!) on a backpacking trip. After 10 miles with a full pack, grams count! Here is a review of some things that might make sense but a personal locator beacon at 4-8 ounces makes lots of sense if you are really out of cell phone range.
ff you don’t have a lhama to carry your stuff but you do want to be safe, these are great devices for telling folks that you are Ok and signaling for help. There are two competing technologyies, Spot or the traditional Based on the EPIRB (marine) and PLB (land) techology. It is a complicated topic, but a good summary is that Spot uses a commercial satellite network and requires a subscription. DeLorme also makes a device that competes with it. The new Spot Connecct ($169 plus $100 per year) pairs with an iPhone and let’s you send 41 character messages (assumes your phone is working!) and has an SOS button as well. A;lso with Globalstar (see below), it doesn’t cover some important areas like the Pacific Ocean or southern Africa. The DeLorme InReach ($249 plus $10/month for 10 messages) uses Iridium (truly global), it also has a built-in “I’m OK button) and let’s you use your phone to send messages and it is bulky and heavy.

There seem to be a lot of comments on here that are incorrect, and I wanted to provide more information on the inner workings of personal satellite tracking devices vs PLBs. I spent 4 years as lead software engineer for the Satellite tracking service Spidertracks (www.spidertracks.com). These points are what I’ve learned in that time. Note that this is not an endorsement for Spidertracks, they are designed for aircraft, not personal use.
1) Spot uses the Globalstar satellite network. This network is NOT globally supported despite the name. You can view their coverage map here (http://www.globalstar.com/en/index.php?cid=106&sidenav=232). Messages are queued in the satellites, until it can transmit to a ground station, this can take several minutes.
If you are choosing a satellite based tracking and rescue system that is NOT a PLB, you should choose the Iridium network. Your device’s monthly fees will cost more, however the network is the best available. All the satellite communications are peer to peer. In the event the satellite your device communicates with a satellite that cannot see the ground station, it will transmit your message to it’s neighbor for relay. This results in your message reaching the ground station and your provider in about 2 to 5 seconds in my testing.
2) Spot uses low power devices. As a result, places like canyons and other areas with poor visibility of the sky can cause message degradation, and you may not be able to transmit a signal properly.
3) Spot (as with all other satellite devices) require you to set up a list of trusted contacts. These contacts must act as your rescue coordination center dispatcher. This means they must understand that they need to contact a search and rescue office when they receive notification of an emergency.
4) PLBs are not perfect, but they are an internationally accepted standard. They also suffer from the same signal issues as Spot. In a deep canyon, you may have issues transmitting.
5) ALWAYS get a GPS enabled PLB. After working personally with both US SAR and New Zealand SAR, they generally wait for 2 satellite passes before they consider the GPS location accurate. If you do not have a GPS based unit, they rely on signal triangulation from the satellite, which can take considerably longer, up to 2 hours.
6) When you set off your PLB, the country’s rescue coordination center you registered your PLB with will be notified immediately. If you are traveling abroad and have registered your PLB in the US, the US RCC operations center handling the emergency will relay your information to the country you are in. When traveling abroad, this can lead to a delay of notification of the emergency services, please keep this in mind. Your emergency will be handled by trained professional instead of a contact of your choosing. This will generally lead to a more organized and thorough response than an untrained personal friend. Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs): How to Choose.

So what does that mean, well it means some choices from a quick Popular Mechanics article:

  • ACR Electronics SARLink View 406 PLB ($500). It is expensive and heavy (8.9 ounces, 252 grams) but has a 6.3 watt signal and does personal messaging for $40/year. The Aqualink View is the same but gloats and is a little heavier (9.2 ounces, 261 grams).

Looking at Amazon and what people like shows

  • ACR PLB-375 ResQ Link Personal Locating Beacon. The top rated PLB. It has a 66 channel GPS and weighs just 4.6 oz. Main points the reviewers have is that compared with a Spot, which is more in the category of GPS communicator, this device is for emergencies (rather than for tracking). With 406link.com, you can use the test function to send OK messages. The big issue is the battery is not rechargeable nor field serviceable (?!!). It costs $100 to replace it. You can also buy a floating pouch if you use it offshore.

At REI, there are many fewer reviews, but they are valuable in the Emergencey Electronices section:

  • DeLorme InReach SE. This uses Iridium and needs a $10/month subscription (so the ACR model is nicer at $40/year).
  • People don’t seem to like the Spot Gen3 GPS Messenger much
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