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Women on the Road

Off to a remote area? You need a personal locator beacon
A PLB can save your life at the push of a button

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If you were to get lost while trekking across the Amazon or the middle of Africa, what would you do? Imagine looking around and seeing nothing but trees, or endless sand, or frozen tundra.

What if the fog rolled in and refused to leave? Or you fell and broke your leg - or ran into someone in desperate need of help?

If any of this ever happened - and I assure you it could - wouldn't you want the cavalry to show up?

What if you only had to press a little button to make that happen?

Luzern mirror maze, SwitzerlandGetting lost is something we've all done... Photo Dave Shafer via Flickr CC

Until relatively recently, personal locator beacons were only used by sailors at sea. The landlubber versions are a 21st century invention.

Now, though, you can have one of your very own.

Here's how it works: you get into trouble, you press a button, help comes. That's it. 

More technically put, you unwind an antenna (on some versions) and press a button to activate the signal. The signal bounces off a series of military satellites and gives your location to a control room.

They check to make sure it isn't a false alarm (by calling a contact you registered when you bought the machine) and then alert the authorities - wherever you are.

I'm not being alarmist and most of your travels will probably be hassle-free.

But when I went to Central Asia recently, a beacon-type device was the first thing on my packing list.

You only need to think of PLBs and the like if you're headed to places with little or no cell coverage - like the center of Kyrgyzstan, where I've recently come from, or the Far North, the vast hinterlands and expanses of wilderness in the world's lesser-inhabited areas, and even some rural areas of otherwise well-connected countries.

File:Desert landscape on the Cabeza prieta national wildlife refugeYour cellphone might work here... but then it might not... Cabeza Prieta national wildlife refuge courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Now for the backstory: the PLB is only one type of emergency location device. The other is more of a satellite messenger.

  1. The PLB is high-powered non-profit system which works off military satellites that blanket every inch of the sky - the simplest and most effective solution.
  2. The messengers (there are two, SPOT and DeLorme) work on privately-owned commercial networks that allow you to communicate, at least a little. They're also known as SEND devices - satellite emergency notification devices. I took a Delorme InReach to Central Asia.

So which one is best for you, the PLB or SEND?

A basic guide to personal locator beacons 

The PLB is the simplest system: it's an alert. You can't message anyone, nor can anyone contact you. All it does is broadcast your location. That said, it is also the most reliable system with the best chance of rescue if something goes terribly wrong.

Here's what you need to know about it.

  • It's simple to use, but read the instructions before you leave. You don't want to be fumbling with a notice while you're hanging from the top of a tree.
  • Whatever happens (and I sincerely hope it doesn't) your PLB continues broadcasting its a signal for at least 24 hours, even in the coldest temperatures. Its battery can last up to five years. 
  • You can only buy it in your country of residence because you must register it. This allows the control center to check your whereabouts before sending out the white knights in shining armor.
  • It needs a clear view of the sky to work. In a dense forest you'll have to find a clearing or riverbank; in a building you'll have to get yourself outside. Like GPS, a PLB needs a direct line of sight to the satellite.
  • You can't use it like a phone - no texting, no calls. Just you and the middle of nowhere.
  • Not all PLBs have GPS. They still work, but the signal without the GPS coordinates won't be as precise so if the PLB is your choice, make sure yours has GPS.
  • A PLB isn't cheap but don't be tempted by a second-hand one. Technology moves fast - bandwidths have changed, it might be costly to change old batteries or it might be obsolete. So yes, not cheap - but there are no monthly or yearly fees and the machine is yours. Sounds like the perfect gift for the solo traveler! (Put in on your wishlist for your next birthday).
  • It's easy to carry, about the size of an old-fashioned cellphone, you know, before they all became flat...
  • Remember this is only an alert device - the price doesn't include the rescue so make sure you're covered by your travel insurance.

Here are two of the most popular PLBs:

Left, the ACR PLB-375 ResQLink, GPS included. You can get it from REI in the USA or visit Amazon 
Right, the McMurdo PLB is also available from Amazon - for UK buyers a much better deal than the ACR.

Two main types of satellite messenger and how they differ from PLBs

Now, for the messengers, of which there are two: SPOT, and DeLorme. Both allow you to communicate with friends back home, but they aren't as powerful as the PLB. 

Still, when my brother took his motorcycle up to the Yukon, I tracked him with the DeLorme and knew where he was nearly every second and received regular safety messages. And when I went to Kyrgyzstan, he lent it to me.

So let's look at the two.

The first is SPOT. It uses Globalstar's 48 satellites and covers most of the planet - but not all, because this little wonder doesn't really work in the Arctic or Africa.

The other is the DeLorme, which uses the Iridium network (with 66 satellites, you get global coverage on this one).

Here's what you need to know about them.

  • Coverage won't be as good as on PLBs but - where you do have coverage you can send and receive messages.
  • Initially they're cheaper but you have monthly charges.
  • The SPOT has an 'I'm OK' button and the DeLorme InReach works more like a smartphone, so if you want to tell someone you've broken a leg but don't need to be evacuated, this might be handier.
  • Make sure you buy one that's waterproof and floats, especially if you're going kayaking or sailing.
  • Given their newness, not all airport staff might be familiar with PLBs or SEND devices. To avoid any unpleasantness print out a copy of the manual and take it with you, and keep the emergency number nearby in case you set it off by mistake; at least you can call and apologize. I forgot to do all this and was almost hauled out of the airport in Uzbekistan for having this device with me; I managed to shrug it off and make it look unimportant but there could have been trouble.

So what will it be? PLB or SEND?

If all you're concerned about is rescue, then the PLB makes sense, and you'll probably never have to use it unless you're in a dire emergency - and I hope that never happens.

If you want to stay in touch with the world and call in when you're facing an emergency, the SEND might be more useful.

Click through to these SEND messengers and read some of the reviews...

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