Best Personal Locator Beacons and Satellite Messengers

Personal Locator Beacon and Satellite Messenger Devices

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The weather was miserable when the helicopter arrived due to the Personal Locator Beacon being set off.

It has been raining all day and the wind was seriously strong. I was hiking in the backcountry of New Zealand, alone.

Cold and wet I arrived at a remote backcountry mountain hut. Before entering I observed a Personal Locator Beacon sitting outside with the antenna out and the light on. Something was wrong.

I entered the hut and found a hiker I had met multiple times sitting clutching her shoulder. It was a simple dislocation. In the middle of nowhere, a simple dislocated shoulder means you cannot carry a backpack, you cannot use trekking poles and cannot walk long distances on difficult terrain to rescue yourself.

In less than 2 hours a rescue helicopter arrived and landed outside the hut despite the challenging weather. The hiker was soon in hospital and made a quick and full recovery.

Had there not been a Personal Locator Beacon, also known as a PLB, or a Satellite Messenger then it would have been a different and difficult situation.

No serious backcountry explorer should be without some form of personal locator beacon. These small and simple items are used to send out a distress signal when you’re in need of rescuing.

Although we all may hope never to use one, they should still form a vital part of the emergency gear for any outdoor person.

To make your decision easier, I’ve rounded up some of the best personal locator beacons (PLBs) and best satellite messengers on the market. 


What are the Best Personal Locator Beacons 2021?

The Best Personal Locator Beacons are:


Ocean Signal RescueMe PLB1

If you’re after a no frills personal locator beacon then the RescueMe gets the job done. This small device is purchased for a one time price, and comes with a 7-year battery and warranty.

Should you need an emergency rescue, it can be operated with a single hand to send an alert to the dedicated search and rescue satellite network.

The RescueMe offers no two-way communication, and simply sends out a distress signal with no further information.

This device is reliable but minimal. The satellite coverage is excellent but with no other forms of communication there are definite limitations. You want simple, then this is the Personal Locating Beacon for you.

The one time purchasing price makes it cheaper than many other devices.

If you are looking for something simple, reasonably priced, easy to use and reliable then this is may be the Best PLB for Backpacking to get right now.

Pros

  • Portability – Small and lightweight, to fit into any emergency kit.
  • Ease of use – With a simple button system, it can be operated in even the most distressing situations.
  • Price – With just a one time cost, it’s cheaper than a subscription model.

Cons

  • No two-way messaging – The uses are limited, as you can only send out a signal.

KTI Safety Alert PLB SA2GN

With a ten-year warranty, KTI offers a longer battery life than many of the other PLBs on the market. It also has a few additional features that are worth considering.

The high-intensity photo flash LED is a bonus, as it assists rescues in the event of low visibility. It’s self buoyant, so there’s no need for extra flotation devices. It even comes with a lanyard and carry pouch for increased wearability.

There isn’t anything particularly novel or exciting about the KTI, but it is a good device. If you want a PLB with a long life that’s linked to the COSPAS-SARSAT rescue system, then KTI has it covered.

Pros

  • Easy to use – The functions are intuitive.
  • Size – A palm sized device with additional carry features.
  • Strobe light – For assisting in rescues where visibility is low.

Cons

  • No two-way messaging – A basic SOS signal can be sent, but nothing can be received.

ACR ResQLink PLB

The ResQLink View is another basic device, designed to send out a signal in the most distressing of circumstances. 

There are three levels of signal technology integrated into the ResQLink View – GPS Positioning, a 406MHz signal, and 121.5HMz Homing Capabilities.

Once your signal has been sent out, this powerful technology will quickly and accurately relay your information to a worldwide search and rescue network.

There are a few other features of the ResQLink that make it a desirable choice. There’s a built-in buoyancy for water use.

A range of attachment clips, including a belt clip and an oral inflation tube clip, give it an increased wearability for varying activities. And the built-in Infrared and bright LED strobe lights ensure extra visibility for nighttime rescues.

Pros

  • Price – Only a one time purchasing fee is required, with no additional subscription costs.
  • Buoyancy – For use on the water.
  • Ease of use – ACR have worked with hikers for a device that’s incredibly simple to use.

Cons

  • No two-way messaging – The uses are limited, as you can only send out a signal.
  • Portability – This is larger and bulkier than some other PLBs.

ACR ResQLink 400 PLB

The ACR PLB is a basic unit that’s linked to a trusted network of search and rescue with proven results, then the ResQLink 400 is a decent purchase. 

With an intuitive button system, a built-in infrared and bright LED strobe light, and a compact size, the ACR ResQLink 400 will slide easily into anyone’s emergency kit.

It may not have the features of some higher-end devices, but it will send out an emergency beacon.

It can be frustrating to purchase PLB’s because it’s an expensive item that you don’t want to use. A ResQLink 400 will give peace of mind without the high prices of some other options. A good option for a basic hiking beacon.

Pros

  • Ease of use – In a distressing situation, the ACR ResQLink 400 is intuitive and basic.
  • Infrared and bright LED strobe lights – The built-in lights are invaluable for assisting a low-visibility rescue.
  • Price – No subscription costs, and a cheaper device all around.

Cons

  • Basic – This is an incredibly basic device, with no two-way communication and limited features.

What are the Best Satellite Messenger 2021?

The Best Satellite Messengers 2021 are:


Somewear Labs Global Hotspot

Photo courtesy Somewhere Labs

The Somewear Labs Global Hotspot is a relative newcomer to the market, and with that comes some great features.

Most notably, the Global Hotspot can be used both as a stand alone emergency device, and with a mobile smartphone. This has its advantages, and it has its drawbacks.

When connected to a smartphone app, the Global Hotspot can be used for two-way non-emergency communication with family and friends. It can switch between cellular networks (if available), wifi and Satellites as needed.

Need help with navigation? Download maps to your smartphone and use them offline when navigating in the backcountry.

There is the ability to receive 7 day weather forecasts while off grid in the middle of nowhere. And if the weather does turn bad the device floats and is water resistant to 2 meters for 30 minutes. Wish I had all these features when I was thru hiking some remote sections of trail and bicycle touring in very remote areas.

It also features GPS tracking which will allow friends or family to track your exact location or follow your path in real time. A great GPS tracker for hikers which is so much more than just a satellite locator. The GPS tracking can be toggled on or off from the device, so there is no need to have a working smartphone for the tracking.

There is paid subscription service to use the device for two way communications, which is lower cost than most others on the market.

The device itself can be used to send out an SOS signal, which communicates with GOES Worldwide. If your phone breaks or runs out of battery in the middle of the nowhere the SOS button on the device will still work.

The Somewhere Labs device battery lasts a very long time, up to 10 days with out charge when tracking at 10 minute intervals. It can send or receive more than 1000 messages on one charge. It can be charged via micro USB which can be plugged into a portable battery such as an Anker.

This is a smart service all round, I think devices like this will become the future of backcountry communications. Think about it, a system that can be used in an emergency to effect a rescue and be used for communication with family and friends and tracking.

This is the Best Satellite Messenger Device on the market right now at a competitive price.

Pros

  • Subscription costs – A limited subscription is cheaper than many others available.
  • Portable – The device is very small and lightweight at only 4 oz.
  • Two-way messaging – By being linked to a smartphone, the Global Hotspot contains consistent communication with the outside world.
  • GPS Tracking – GPS tracking can be used without the need for a smartphone

Cons

  • Reliance on smartphone messaging – A smartphone is much more breakable than a satellite messenger.

Garmin InReach Mini

For such a small device, the Garmin InReach Mini is stuffed full of features. From two-way messaging to a 24-hour SOS service, this is a palm sized electronic to meet almost every need.

Other than the size, a huge advantage of the InReach Mini is you can send and receive messages from the device itself.

So even if you’re paired smartphone breaks, you can continue to communicate via the global Iridium network. It also makes for a great satellite hiking tracker being able to send waypoints from the device.

The SOS signal interacts with GOES services for worldwide rescue, and confirms whether your message has been sent and received.

There are a few downsides to this otherwise fantastic device. The small size is ideal for portability, but does affect the ease of use. The communication is satellite only, so it doesn’t link to a cellular conversation. And the subscription costs can add up.

Overall, a great hiking emergency beacon and a popular gift that parents buy their kids when they decide to go thru hiking alone.

Pros

  • Two-way device communication – Messages can be sent and received via satellite, on the device itself.
  • Size – Incredibly compact, it can be carried with no problems.
  • Smartphone integration – It pairs with a smartphone for maps and improved communication.

Cons

  • Small screen – It can be tedious to send messages from such a small device.

Garmin InReach Explorer

If the Garmin InReach Mini covered almost everything in a small device, you won’t be surprised to learn the larger bulk of the Explorer houses the complete package. 

Alongside the standard SOS messaging, the Garmin InReach Explorer features sophisticated two-way communication, access to maps and navigation tools, and even weather forecasting.

Of course, much of this is available via subscription costs. It even pairs with a mobile device, for easier communication.

The only disadvantage to the InReach Explorer is its size. Despite the bulk, ease of use is nowhere near that of a phone. And more compact devices have similar usage. A popular Garmin Emergency Beacon with Satellite Messaging for hiking.

Pros

  • Two-way device communication – Messages can be sent and received via satellite, on the device itself.
  • Smartphone integration – When your smartphone is powered up, the Explorer app is easy to use.

Cons

  • Size – This isn’t the most portable, but using the screen is still tedious.

Spot X

For people who like to go minimal in their packing, the large Spot X may seem like an odd choice. However, the Spot can be used similarly to a smartphone, meaning only one device is necessary.

The integrated Qwerty keyboard makes the two-way messaging system of the Spot X easier to use than that of the Garmin.

It comes with its own number as well, so people can contact you easier without an already open line of communication. It also has share features and a compass, alongside the standard SOS.

Pros

  • Keyboard – The Qwerty keyboard sets this device apart from other messengers.
  • Smartphone Integration – For easier use.
  • Battery life – A longer battery life than some similar devices.

Cons

  • Bulky – The usefulness of the keyboard is slightly undercut by the size it adds.

Zoleo Satellite Communicator

Zoleo are relatively new to the market, and they’ve brought with them some innovative ideas. Their two-way messaging system works across cellular and satellite signals, for uninterrupted communication.

This is a major bonus, especially for anyone planning a long trip.

The downside is that without the smartphone, the Zoleo has limited functionality. The SOS signal still works, but only a basic preset ‘I’m OK’ message can be sent. 

Pros

  • Multi-signal messaging – The two-way communication functions uninterrupted across a range of signals.
  • Preset ‘I’m OK’ message – A reassuring bonus should your smartphone break.

Cons

  • Limited on-device communication – If your smartphone breaks, the Zoleo loses much of its originality.

Spot 3 Satellite GPS Messenger

If you enjoy maintaining some form of communication when you’re exploring, but don’t feel particularly chatty, the Spot 3 has many appealing features.

There is no two-way communication, but unlike basic PLB options more can be sent than just a distress signal. The Spot 3 can be used to send a quick preset check-in message, to ensure everyone you’re still okay.

It also has a tracking feature, for some level of communication. This is all supported by AAA batteries, which are easier to change in an emergency when compared to other charging methods.

Pros

  • Preset communication – This sends out more than just a basic SOS signal.
  • Battery supported – Lithium batteries make for a quick change in difficult circumstances.
  • Ease of use – Communication is simple and intuitive.

Cons

  • No two-way messaging – The device only sends messages, it doesn’t receive them.

Buyer’s Guide

These emergency devices are an indispensable part of the kit for anyone who enjoys spending time outdoors. Here are a few key features to look for, so you can stay safe on your journey.

Emergency messaging

Emergency messaging is the primary function of any PLB or satellite messenger. The device needs to send out a signal that communicates both where you are, and that you’re in danger, and it does so via satellite.

Then a search and rescue (SAR) service can come and find you.

The most basic of devices will only communicate that you’re in danger. More sophisticated devices can be used to communicate in greater detail, so the SAR can respond better.

All PLB and satellite messengers should be equipped with SOS emergency messaging.


Two way Satellite Messaging messenger
Sending Messages using a Satellite Messenger paired to a smartphone – Photo courtesy Somewhere Labs

Non-emergency messaging

Non-emergency messaging allows a person to communicate more with friends and family.

A basic device will be able to send out preset messages of reassurance. Other devices can be used similar to a cell phone, only signalling via satellite rather than cell towers.

Some devices also include tracking, which will regularly update a chosen correspondent with your location.

Non-emergency messaging is less important than emergency messaging, and more expensive. However, it does greatly improve communication. Another advantage of a two-way system is it allows you to cancel an SOS message should it be sent in error.


Signal

The functionality of any of these devices relies on satellite systems. This is a generally reliable form of communication, but there are flaws. To send a satellite signal the sky must be visible, and a multitude of other factors can cause errors.

A message will only be sent when a satellite is in range, which means there will be times when coverage isn’t possible.

One of the advantages of a two-way messaging system is it allows you to check your signal. With a one-way system, you may get home to find that none of your messages were received at all although this should be rare. 

It’s impossible to check your signal before you go as it depends on so many varying factors. However, each device uses a specific satellite network.

COSPAS/SARSAT, Iridium, GOES, and GlobalStar are all networks with a history of service and a proven record. 


Ease of use

Ideally, an SOS beacon will never need to be sent at all. When they are needed, the situation is often stressful and fraught with danger. An SOS button needs to be easy and intuitive to use.

Other features, such as non-emergency communication, maps, and smartphone apps may be more complicated and will need some time to learn the process.

All these devices are small, so functionality does suffer but those linked to Smartphones will have lots of added functions that stand alone PLBs do not have.


Size and weight

Portability is an important feature of a PLB or a satellite messenger. They need to be on-hand at all times, and shouldn’t weigh a kit down.

The majority will be small and lightweight, but some more sophisticated options are bulkier.


Price 

There are two price points to consider when purchasing a PLB or satellite messenger. The first is the upfront cost, and the second is a subscription plan. The initial upfront cost of these devices can be expensive.

For a PLB, this is often a one time expense. Systems with two-way messaging will generally require a subscription fee. In some cases, this is quite expensive.

However, it does allow for greater communication. Always consider both prices before making your purchase.


Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need to register a personal locator beacon?

Yes, most personal locator beacons require a registration with the NOAA (National Ocean and Atmospheric Administrator). This is generally a free service, and must be done before you take your PLB anywhere.

Each country has it’s own registration system and when traveling between countries the PLB must be registered in that country.

Registration can be done online, and must be updated every two years. You should also update your registration whenever your information changes.


Do I need a personal locator beacon?

A personal locator beacon is an essential part of the emergency kit for most people who enjoy exploring the backcountry. If you regularly venture into areas that are away from other people, a PLB could save your life.

If you spend time on difficult or tricky terrain, then a PLB is a valuable resource. Especially if you enjoy exploring alone, then a satellite messenger allows you to maintain contact throughout a trip.


Should I buy a personal locator beacon or a satellite messenger?

A satellite messenger has more options, where a PLB is often cheaper. Which you buy will be a choice determined by where you like to travel, how often you travel, and how much communication you desire.

The advantage of a satellite messenger is that they allow for two-way communication, so you are more connected with the outside world. A PLB can only be used for SOS emergencies, but there are no subscription fees required.

A PLB has a battery that can last for years and a Satellite Messenger has a battery that will last a week or more. The Satellite Messenger battery can be recharged in the field via a USB and external battery such as an Anker but the battery. A battery on a PLB must be sent to the manufacturer to be replaced after a couple of years.

Another one of the Best Hiking Gear Reviews from BikeHikeSafari.

Best PLBs and Satellite Messengers for Backpackers and Hikers

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