Outdoor adventures are fun, but accidents and other chaotic events can have deadly consequences– even with today’s technology on our side. Mariners are particularly familiar with the unpredictable nature of the ocean. Rogue waves can cause instant chaos, even when the weather is clear. Mountain climbers face their own particular set of unique perils. According to Outside Magazine, accident statistics indicate that the average climber has a 1-in-2,000 chance of ending up in the emergency department every year.
When disaster strikes, a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) can serve as your “get out of jail free” card. With the press of a button, your PLB will obtain your GPS coordinates and start sending out distress signals. First-generation PLBs that came out in the 80s could only provide a rough estimation of where you might be within a 12-mile radius. Thankfully, today’s PLBs are far more precise. Some can even pinpoint your exact location down to a single meter.
Here are the best personal locator beacons (PLBs) you can buy:
- ACR ResQLink 400
- Ocean Signal’s rescueME MOB1
- ACR ResQLink View
- ACR AquaLink 350B PLB
- McMurdo FAST FIND 220
The best PLB for backpacking and hiking
ACR ResQLink 400
Quick, accurate and reasonably priced, the ACR ResQLink 400 is an excellent PLB for backpacking, hiking and other similar outdoor adventures. The fact that it’s Galileo compatible may help in a situation where your rescuers need very precise GPS data to find you. Since it’s buoyant and has robust waterproofing features, it can be used for canoeing and water rafting, too.
- Multi-function clip adds versatility. The clip that comes with the ResQLink 400 can be adapted to use with a belt, backpack or in a variety of other ways as well.
- Compatible with Europe’s new Galileo GPS network. In addition to standard GPS, the ResQLink 400 works with Galileo, which offers greatly improved GPS tracking accuracy.
- Fast positioning. The ResQLink 400 links to speedy MEOSAR (Medium Earth Orbiting Search and Rescue) receivers.
- Enough battery power to send transmissions for 24 straight hours. Like most PLBs, the ResQLink will operate for about a day before it runs out of power once activated.
- Exceeds the RCTM’s waterproofing requirement for beacons. It lasts for up to ten minutes when fully submerged in up to 33 feet of water and up to an hour if it’s closer to the surface.
- Five-year warranty. All ACR devices come with a five-year warranty and if one of their devices helps you escape a crisis situation they’ll send you another one for free.
- Doesn’t support AIS or DSC. The absence of AIS (Automatic Identification System) and DSC (Digital Selective Calling) compatibility limits its use in MOB (Man Overboard) situations.
In a nutshell
The ACR ResQLink 400 supports Galileo, which is a new GPS network that provides one-meter accuracy. It also supports standard GPS. This makes it an excellent choice for backpacking and camping in off-the-grid locations. Another nice thing about it is that it exceeds the waterproofing standards put forth by the Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services.
The best PLB for MOB (Man Overboard) operations
Ocean Signal rescueME MOB1
Ocean Signal’s rescueME MOB1 combines the features of a PLB with those of a MOB device. You can use it to send out a preformatted message to your boat’s alarm system. This is helpful for alerting the entire crew that there’s an emergency. When used as a PLB, it can send out GPS signals for up to 24 hours. The seven-year maintenance period is another significant perk.
- Works with inflatable life jackets. As soon as the life jacket inflates, the rescueME MOB1 will start sending out help signals.
- Integrated DSC (Digital Selective Calling). The DSC feature can trigger your boat’s alarm system via VHF transmission. This is helpful for vessels with large crews, because it quickly alerts everyone that an emergency situation is taking place.
- AIS (Automatic Identification System) compatibility. AIS is especially helpful in MOB (Man Overboard) situations.
- Compact design. Ocean Signal bills the MOB1 as “the world’s smallest AIS MOB device.” Its dimensions are 5.3 x 1.5 x 1 inches.
- Enough battery power to send transmissions for 24 straight hours. The rescueME MOB1 is comparable to the industry standard for post-activation operation time.
- Seven-year maintenance period. You won’t have to think about having a new battery installed for seven years after you purchase it.
- Other PLBs have better waterproofing. While the rescueME MOB1 meets the industry’s waterproofing standards, other PLBs last longer when submerged and can continue operating at greater depths.
- Isn’t compatible with the new Galileo GPS network. While its GPS feature is reasonably accurate (100 meters), Galileo-compatible PLBs are even more precise (1 meter).
In a nutshell
Ocean Signal’s rescueME MOB1 is a hybrid PLB/MOB device. That means that it’s just as useful in MOB (Man Overboard) situations as it is for sending out a locator beacon if you get lost or encounter some other kind of disaster while at sea or during a hiking trip.
The best PLB with a display feature
ACR ResQLink View
Most PLBs don’t come with a display and this makes them somewhat tricky to use, especially when self-testing. That’s where the ACR ResQLink View comes in. Its interface walks you through the self-testing procedure so that you don’t have to refer to a manual. If you ever have to use it, you can use the display to check your coordinates and monitor the remaining battery power.
- Built-in display. The display– which lets you view your GPS coordinates and monitor your beacon’s status– is the ResQLink View’s most distinguishing feature. Most PLBs don’t have any type of display.
- Improved GPS accuracy with Galileo GPS. The ResQLink View works with both standard GPS and Europe’s new Galileo GPS network which is several times more accurate.
- Enough battery power to send transmissions for 28 straight hours. The ResQLink View exceeds the industry standard for operational longevity.
- Exceeds the RCTM’s waterproofing requirement for beacons. It keeps sending signals for as long as an hour when submerged close to the surface of the water and up to ten minutes in up to 33 feet of water.
- Customizable styles. The ResQLink View comes with several different skins, which change the way it looks.
- Five-year maintenance period. The battery will remain trustworthy for up to five years after purchase.
- Expensive compared to other PLBs. The display feature seems to have added to the ResQLink View’s production costs. This extra feature is probably why it is a bit more expensive than the average PLB.
In a nutshell
As its name suggests, the ACR ResQLink View’s main benefit is its display. With a glance, you can look at your GPS coordinates or check the battery power. This can provide essential data in the event of a disaster that causes you to activate the device. The screen also comes in handy when self-testing.
The best PLB for sailing and fishing
ACR AquaLink 350B PLB
The ACR AquaLink 350B PLB doesn’t only meet the RCTM’s waterproof standards for beacons, it exceeds them. In addition, its built-in buoyancy system will help you retrieve the device if you happen to drop it in the water. All this– in combination with its simple interface and bright strobe light feature– make it an excellent option for fishing, sailing and other similar activities.
- Bright strobe light. Designed to get the attention of rescue teams, the strobe light helps them visually identify your location from afar.
- Exceeds the RCTM’s waterproofing requirement for beacons. It resists water immersion for up to an hour and it’s watertight enough to keep sending signals for ten minutes even if its depth drops to 33 feet.
- Simple operation. All you have to do is extend the antenna and then press the “ON” button to call for help.
- Enough battery power to send transmissions for 24 straight hours. The AquaLink 350B PLB has enough power to keep on sending signals for a full day after activation.
- Five-year maintenance period. You can keep it for a full five years before you have to send it in for a battery replacement.
- Supports frequent self-testing. The battery supports up to 12 self-tests per five-year maintenance period.
- Doesn’t support the new Galileo GPS network. Standard GPS provides 100 meter accuracy, but Galileo can pinpoint a GPS position down to the meter.
In a nutshell
The ACR AquaLink 350B PLB seems to be designed to appeal to fishermen, yacht operators and canoers. The fact that it’s buoyant means that you can simply turn around and pull it out of the water if it happens to fall in by accident. It also exceeds the RTCM’s waterproofing requirements.
The best low-cost PLB
McMurdo FAST FIND 220
The McMurdo FAST FIND 220 is a compact, inexpensive PLB that has better features than you might expect. Chief among these is its Galileo-compatible GPS unit. Galileo is a new GPS network that came out in 2016. It’s multiple times more precise than standard GPS.
- Affordable price. The FAST FIND 220 is about $50 to $100 cheaper than the average PLB.
- Enough battery power to send transmissions for 24 straight hours. Like most PLBs, it can send transmissions for about a day after activation before its power gives out.
- Galileo-powered GPS accuracy. Galileo-compatible PLBs provide one meter accuracy, while non-Galileo GPS PLBs are accurate within 100 meters.
- Six-year maintenance period. The battery will retain its power for up to six years before it requires replacing.
- The strobe light sends out a morse code signal. Anyone who knows morse code will see that you’re in need of help because the flash intervals indicate SOS.
- Compact and lightweight. It’s only just over 4 inches long, which is about an inch smaller than the typical PLB.
- Not as much waterproofing as some PLBs. Most PLBs can continue operating when fully submerged under about 30 feet of water for ten minutes, but the FAST FIND 220 is only rated to last for five minutes under the same conditions.
- It lacks built-in buoyancy. If it slides out of its buoyancy pouch, it will sink in water. Most PLBs have a built-in buoyancy system.
In a nutshell
Even though McMurdo’s FAST FIND 220 is notably less expensive than many competing PLBs, it brings a lot to the table when it comes to features. Since it can connect to the new Galileo satellite network, it’s significantly more accurate than PLBs that can only interface with the standard GPS satellites.
Buying guide for PLBs
The Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services is the international non-profit regulator organization that sets the standards for all kinds of different nautical equipment. Some PLB manufacturers seek only to meet its waterproofing requirements, while others offer even better waterproofing features.
Operational performance hours
Typical PLBs can operate for about 24 hours after activation. Those with better battery efficiency can operate for as many as 28 hours straight.
Battery maintenance period
Expect to start thinking about replacing your PLB’s battery after about five years. Depending on the battery type, you may be able to wait as long as six or even seven years. To replace a battery, you usually have to take your PLB to an approved retailer for service. Some PLBs feature user-replaceable batteries, though.
Galileo vs. standard GPS
Galileo is a new GPS satellite network that went live in 2016. Not all PLBs support it yet. PLBs that only support standard GPS offer 100-meter accuracy. That’s still very precise compared to non-GPS PLBs. However, Galileo-compatible PLBs can detect your exact position down to the meter.
Size, shape and weight
Most PLBs are about five inches long and two inches wide. More compact PLBs are available, though. Size and weight might be a factor if you’re a backpacker, but the small differences among the different PLB brands probably won’t matter to fishermen and sailors.
Color availability and skins
Some PLBs come with a variety of different skins, which you can use to change the way your PLB looks. The skins work just like mobile phone skins. You can snap them on or take them off with your fingers.
MOB stands for Man Overboard. Most mariners use AIS when addressing MOB situations because it works faster than GPS and interfaces with a wider range of communication devices. If you use a VHF system to communicate with your crew, you may want to get a PLB that supports Digital Selective Calling (DSC). Some PLBs that support DSC can automatically trigger VHF alerts when they make contact with water.
Interface and display
PLBs with displays are convenient because they’re easier to use. You don’t need to use a manual to perform self-testing. Once activated, you can check the status of the battery just by looking at the display.
Are you part of an organization that requires frequent PLB self-testing? Some PLBs have higher self-test limits than others. Check the specifications before you commit if you need to self-test your PLB on a regular basis.
Low-cost PLBs typically aren’t as rugged as mid-range and high-end PLBs are. They may not be as buoyant or as water resistant, either. Prices start at about $200.
At the $300 price range, you’ll start to see AIS integration and other niche features that add versatility. Some mid-range PLBs work with the Galileo satellite network and can be used as MOB devices.
The most cutting edge PLBs come with built-in displays and other premium features like extended battery life, Galileo network support and better-than-average waterproofing. You can expect to pay about $350 for a high-end PLB device.
Frequently asked questions
Q: What’s the difference between a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) and an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon)?
A: The main difference is battery life. Most EPIRBs will transmit distress signals for about two and a half days before their batteries give out. You’ll get less operational time (usually about 24 hours) out of a PLB. In addition, buoyancy is a standard EPIRB feature. Most– but not all– PLBs will float in water. Cost and weight are some other key differences. EPIRBs tend to be heavier and more expensive than PLBs.
Q: What’s the difference between 406MHz PLBs and 121.5MHz PLBs?
A: 121.5MHz is the analog frequency that legacy PLBs used to use to obtain positioning information. New PLBs use the faster and far more accurate digital 406MHz frequency to communicate with satellites. Most new PLBs still support 121.MHz, but that’s mainly so that they’ll be able to communicate with older SAR equipment should the need arise.
Q: When is it appropriate to activate my PLB?
A: You should think of your PLB as a last ditch effort to call for help. Do not activate your PLB unless you’re in a dire situation and you’re completely out of options.
- Don’t forget to self-test your PLB on a regular basis– especially before you head out on an adventure that will take you off the grid for an extended period of time. If your self-test fails, you’ll have all the communication resources you’ll need to find out what’s wrong with it.
- If you ever have to activate your PLB, keep it on until it runs out of batteries. If you turn it off and turn it back on frequently, SAR teams might begin to suspect that your genuine distress signal is actually a hoax.
- Dropped PLBs should be inspected for cracks. Cracks can compromise a PLB’s water resistance features and leave it vulnerable to the effects of corrosion.