If you are sailing, climbing or backpacking in the wilderness, you cannot rely only on your phone signal for distress communication. Enter the emergency communicators to the scene. These emergency communication devices come in two broad categories – Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) and satellite messengers.
PLBs are mainly one-way SOS devices that send distress signals to the rescuers in case of emergency, while satellite messengers provide additional features for limited two-way message communication. Modern PLBs and satellite devices both have GPS support built-in to share your coordinates along with the SOS signal in case of an emergency.
But which are the best personal locator beacons and satellite messengers in the market?
In this article, we look at a list of some of the best Personal locator beacons and satellite messengers available in the market for use in the outdoors. We will also look at some of the major factors to consider before picking the best satellite messenger or personal locator beacon for yourself or somebody else.
Best Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) listSome of the best personal locator beacons (PLBs) available in the market are listed below:
|ACR ResQLink plus 406 Personal Locator Beacon||Size: 5" x 5" x 2"|
Wt.: 8 oz.
- The best-selling, rugged PLB from the worldwide leader in the technology. Made in the US.
- Capable of transmitting satellite signal at 406 MHz along with a 5-watt homing signal at 121.5 MHz.
- Comes with a fixed, hard plastic case that is fully waterproof and floats when put in water.
- Backed by unmatched ACR white glove service support and 5- year warranty.
|McMurdo Fast Find 220 Personal Locator Beacon||Size: 5" x 5" x 3"|
Wt.: 8 oz.
- A well designed and economical PLB that works well for marine enthusiasts and outdoorsmen.
- Comes with a removable neoprene float case that ensures the PLB can float over water, and can be removed while on land.
- Has a built-in flexible retractable antenna, making it easy to handle.
- Comes with standard white glove support service.
|Ocean Signal RescueME PLB1||Size: 3" x 2.1" x 1.3"|
Wt.: 4.09 oz.
- A standard ultralight, certified PLB which can be operated with a single hand.
- 66 channel GPS receiver transmits location within 100 meters.
- Comes with retractable antenna and an in-built battery that can last more than 5 years.
- The device has the ability to float on water (15 m.), however like other PLBs, must be elevated above water to operate.
|Wireless Concepts Personal Locator Beacon MicroPLB||Size: 4.8" x 2.4" x 1.1"|
Wt.: 8 oz.
- A decent class II MicroPLB which is smaller than its counterparts.
- Comes with long lasting Lithium battery - lasts in excess of 24 hours and works well in extreme weather conditions.
- Backed by a 5-year spare and part warranty by the manufacturer.
Best Satellite Messenger listSome of the best satellite messengers (SEND communicators) available in the market are listed below:
|Garmin inReach Explorer+||Size:6.5" x 2.7" x 1.5"|
- Best-selling handheld satellite communicator with GPS Navigation.
- Provides the ability to send and receive customized messages in addition to SOS signals. Can also be paired with iOS/Android phones.
- Pre-loaded with topographic maps for most places in US and Europe. Also has built-in digital compass, barometric altimeter and accelerometer.
- Waterproof with IPX7 rating, with a battery life in access of 100 hours.
- Backed by a one-year manufacturer warranty.
|SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger||Size:3.4" x 2.6" x 1"|
- A smart satellite messenger that relies on the Globalstar satellite network.
- In addition to SOS message, you can send a preset message to up to 10 contacts.
- Waterproof with an IPX7 rating.
- Replaceable batteries – Lithium, NiMH or USB powered.
|BriarTek Cerberus Two-Way Satellite Messaging and GPS Tracking System||Size:4.7" x 2.6" x 1.3"|
- An iOS compatible, two-way messenger that relies on Iridium satellite system.
- With CerberTouch app, you can use the smartphone to send and receive up to 1600 messages using the system.
- Can also be used without the app for SOS and emergency communication.
|Garmin inReach Mini||Size:1" x 5.5" x 1.75"|
- Smaller, lighter counterpart of the Garmin InReach communicators.
- Supports reliable two-way communication via the global Iridium satellite network.
- GPS-based location tracking and built-in electronic compass.
- Does not have an internal memory - cloud storage available.
- Smaller battery than Explorer and SE models that lasts for up to 50 hours.
- Available in two colors and backed by a one-year warranty.
|goTenna Off-Grid Text & GPS Mesh||Size: 4.8" x 2.4" x 1.1"|
Wt.: 8 oz.
- A unique product that converts your smartphone into a pair-communicator with a range of about 4 miles.
- You can send messages or share GPS locations.
- Comes in pair, so you can communicate with at least one person directly.
- Works with Android or iOS phones.
What are different types of emergency communicators?
In order to understand the different types of emergency communicators, we need to look at the underlying communication networks used by each category of communicators. There are two major network systems used by these devices:
- Non-profit COSPAS-SARSAT Network:
- For-profit satellite network :
As per the official COSPAS-SARSAT website, this non-profit satellite network is defined as “A satellite-based search and rescue distress alert detection and information distribution system, best known for detecting and locating emergency beacons activated by aircraft, ships and hikers in distress.”
The COSPAS-SARSAT is the complete satellite supported network in the world and is backed by national and international governments. This satellite network supports all the Personal Location Beacons (PLBs) listed above. Since this is a non-profit network, there are no subscription charges to use the distress service, though there may be charges for additional services such as self-test messaging.
An overview of how this system works in depicted in the infographic below:
These for-profit satellite networks provided by Iridium and Globalstar (or Inmarsat satellites for satellite phones) use a constellation of GEOSAR and LEOSAR satellites to provide communication. The GEOSAR satellites provide an ability to communicate, while the LEOSAR satellites help in providing the GPS/Location information. These satellite networks are used by satellite messengers and satellite phones to communicate. The Spot Gen3 Satellite Messenger uses the Globalstar network, while all other satellite messengers use the Iridium network. Since these are for-profit networks, there are subscription charges for using the service.
Now that we have looked at the two types of communication networks, let us look at the types of emergency communicators:
- Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) : PLBs are typically SOS devices which use the satellite network to send distress signal at 406 MHz frequency with(or without) the GPS coordinates. In addition, the PLBs emit a powerful 5 watt homing signal on the 121.5 MHz emergency frequency. With the help of these two emergency signals, rescue control centers can pinpoint the distress location and dispatch support. GPS positioning helps in pinpointing the distress location with more accuracy. PLB’s have a secure battery that lasts for about 4-5 years. The battery can only be replaced by authorized service providers and manufacturers.
- Satellite Messengers (technically SEND – Satellite Emergency Notification Devices) : Satellite messengers use the 1610 MHz band to communicate. These devices can send distress signals ( at 1.6 watts for Garmin InReach and 0.4 watts for SPOT Gen3) to the commercial rescue centers operated by the satellite network providers, which in turn share this information with the local rescue control centers to dispatch support. In addition to SOS, the satellite messengers can provide efficient two-way communication in form of pre-defined (SPOT Gen3) or customized messages (InReach). Moreover, latest satellite messengers can integrate with iOS or Android smartphones using special applications, making it possible to view the phone messages and communicate over social media. Satellite messengers have rechargeable batteries that can last up to 100 hours on a recharge.
How to pick the best personal locator beacon or satellite messenger?
As discussed in the section above, different categories of emergency communicators offer different sets of functionality, even though the underlying purpose is the same. Picking the best satellite messenger or personal locator beacon can often be a challenging task, considering your distress preparedness depends on what you choose. The major factors to keep in mind while picking the best emergency communicator for you are listed below:
- Purpose and Type of communicator
- Network Reception provided by communicator
- Size and Weight of the communicator
- Battery Life of the communicator
- Additional Features
Purpose and Type of communicator
Whether you should go for a PLB or Satellite Messenger can often be difficult to decide. We list down the major differences between the two so that you can decide which type of emergency communicator you want to opt for:
Pros and cons of a Personal locator beacon
Pros and cons of a satellite messenger
In summary, if you are looking just for a distress device then opt for a PLB as it is more likely to help in that situation. However, if you are looking for more features such as two-way communication, smartphone integration etc., you should go for a satellite messenger device.
Network reception provided by communicator
The network reception provided by the underlying communication system is also an important criterion to consider.
As discussed above, the PLBs use governments backed COSPAS-SARSAT network, so the network reception is superior to that provided by any commercial satellite network. A communication link using the COSPAS-SARSAT network can take anywhere between 5-10 minutes to establish, while in the case of commercial satellite networks it can take up to 20 minutes to establish the link. Modern PLBs also take advantage of GPS positioning systems to enhance the accuracy of distress location, so you should always pick a personal locator beacon which has GPS positioning enabled.
Within the commercial satellite network space, Iridium network used by devices such as Garmin InReach Explorer+ two-way communicator is considered superior with wider coverage around the globe, though Globalstar network used by Spot Gen3 Satellite Messenger has recently added a bunch of LEOSAR satellites to its constellation and hence offers better services than before.
Review the coverage map provided by each network before picking the best satellite messenger for your needs. For personal locator beacons, it is less of a choice as almost all beacons use the same government-backed network.
Size and Weight of the communicator
Since you would like to carry the emergency communicator with you at all the times, the size of the communicator is an important factor to consider.
Almost all PLBs are less than 5 inch long and hence small enough to fit in the pocket. Similarly, the satellite messengers are as compact as a small smartphone and hence can be carried easily.
If you are backpacking or hiking and carrying your own supplies, the weight of the device becomes important criteria to consider. Thankfully, almost all the emergency communicators are ultralight, with a weight less than 8 ounces and hence comfortable to carry along. The Garmin InReach Explorer+ two-way communicator is the bulkiest and heaviest of all the satellite messengers at 8.0 ounces.
Battery Life of the communicator
The battery life of the communicator is another important consideration. After all, you would not want to run out of the battery in an emergency situation. PLBs such as ACR ResQLink+ Personal Locator Beacon have a battery life of 5 years, and can work continuously for more than 24 hours with 10 min interval beacon. These batteries are non-rechargeable and can only be replaced by authorized replacement centers.
The satellite messengers use Lithium-based rechargeable batteries. The clear winner among satellite messengers in terms of battery life is the Spot Gen3 Satellite Messenger , which has a battery life of 150 hours( on one charge) as opposed to the 100 hours provided by Garmin InReach satellite messengers. Devices such as goTenna Off-Grid Text & GPS device also use rechargeable batteries which can work for more than 20 hours when in listening mode.
Please note that the batteries of these devices should only be replaced by authorized vendors only, as only then you can be guaranteed of full battery power in the time of need.
In addition to the factors listed above, there are some miscellaneous considerations that can make a specific option more attractive than others.
Almost all PLBs listed above float on water but have to be elevated in order to communicate/transmit signal. These devices such as the Ocean Signal RescueMe Personal Locator Beacon and ACR ResQLink+ Personal Locator Beacon come with flexible retractable antennas and hence considered very reliable, though they need a clear enough communication path. Satellite messengers also require a clear communication path to transmit and receive information.
In addition, the PLBs and mesh networks such as goTenna Off-Grid Text and GPS device do not require any subscription plan. This is a huge factor, considering the subscription plans can cost about $50 per month. Satellite messengers, on the other hand, require a subscription plan. Check the manufacturer’s site for more information on the plan and picking the best personal locator beacon or satellite messenger for your needs.
Latest satellite messengers offer the unique advantage of syncing with your smartphone. This is especially useful as you can receive messages and also send social media updates using your messenger. Moreover, smart messengers such as the Garmin InReach Explorer+ two-way communicator provide additional features such as a digital compass, barometer, altimeter, and accelerometer as well as all the features of a handheld GPS. But again, this device is more than 70 dollars costlier than the standard Garmin InReach Explorer two–way communicator so the extra investment may need some thinking on your part!
Which are the best Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) and Satellite Messengers and what our picks are?
The ACR ResQLink+ Personal Locator Beacon is probably the best personal locator beacon for distress/emergency communication over land and hence our favorite. The company ACR Artex is the worldwide leader in emergency communication devices and has a lot of military and armed forces experience, which it has utilized in developing these personal locator beacons. The ACR PLBs are certified by COSPAS-SARSAT Network and can be easily registered with the emergency response agency in respective countries (NOAA in the US). Each ACR device is certified by FCC, COSPAS-SARSAT, Canada and RTTE.
The ACR ResQLink+ is well built, has a built-in LED strobe and a hard plastic case making it fully waterproof and suitable for marine usage as well. Its waterproof and buoyant design is the main differentiator over the cheaper ResQLink model, but 10 dollars is a small price to pay for this design feature. At 1.9″W x 4.5″H x 1.6″D and 5.4 ounces, it is reasonably small and compact to carry on outdoor excursions.
When activated, the ACR PLB device is capable of establishing a link within a short duration of around 5-8 min. The ACR PLB device sends a distress signal at 406 MHz frequency with the GPS coordinates. In addition, the PLB emit a powerful 5-watt homing signal on the 121.5 MHz emergency frequency, making it highly reliable when it comes to emergency communication.
The ACR ResQLink+ is equipped with a 66-channel GPS that is capable of fixing your location to within 100 meters in no time. A Super bright LED strobe light helps SAR professional to get a visual fix and find you quickly in case of distress. Moreover, the ResQLink+ is designed to work well with Avalanche beacons, so you can use it as a transmitter for mountaineering as well.
The ResQLink+ Personal Locator Beacon uses an internal battery which can last up to 5 years. The expiry date of the battery in month-year format is displayed on each device. Once activated, the battery can last for up to 30 hours, giving enough time to the rescuers to locate you.
In addition, each ACR ResQLink+ Personal Locator Beacon is backed by unmatched ACR white glove service support, which includes a paid “Self-Test” message service to check the reliability of the device. Every device is individually tested and certified and backed by a five-year manufacturer warranty.
Garmin InReach Explorer+ two–way communicator – Editor’s choice for best Satellite Messenger (SEND device)
The Garmin InReach (formerly DeLorme Inreach) Explorer+ two-way communicator (Garmin InReach) is the best-selling and reasonably reliable two-way communicator which uses the high-coverage Iridium satellite network (almost 100% across the globe) . The Garmin InReach comes with decent annual and monthly subscription plans.
The Garmin InReach has a compact design and fully functional colored screen with a virtual keyboard. This allows you to send customized messages up to 160 characters directly from the device. Moreover, Garmin InReach Explorer+ has a superior “pairing” capabilities, allowing you to pair the device with your iOS/Android smartphone to send and receive messages.
In the case of distress, the Garmin InReach Explorer+ sends an SOS signal with 1.6-watt power, which is lower than a PLB, but still about 4 times the signal power of SPOT Gen3. This means, when compared to other satellite messengers, you have better chances of rescue when using a Garmin InReach.
The Garmin InReach Explorer+ device is waterproof with an IPX7 rating. The device has rechargeable Lithium based batteries with a battery life in excess of 100 hours when not in use. It also has a 2 GB of device storage which can store some types of topographic data, communication messages and additional information.
The Garmin InReach Explorer+ model has some additional features such as a digital compass, barometers, GPS tracking etc. In addition, it comes pre-loaded with topographic map of most locations in US and Europe. So, it does justify the additional cost when compared to the Garmin InReach SE or Inreach Explorer model.
Note: We have not used or evaluated each of the option listed above, ourselves. Use your own judgment while picking the best emergency communicator. For evaluation information and test results of some of the communicators listed here, you can check out the OutdoorGearLab’s post on the subject.
Power chargers for Satellite Messengers
PLB batteries are irreplaceable and you would need to get the battery replaced by authorized service centers only, you can use rechargeable batteries with your satellite messengers.
If you ever run out of charge, you can recharge your satellite messengers such as inReach using a solar charging panel or a compatible USB power charger. Consider the following options if you are looking for a suitable solar charger or USB power charger for your satellite messenger.
- Gomadic Garmin (DeLorme) InReach compatible Solar Charger
- Goal Zero 41022 Guide 10 Plus Solar Recharging Kit
- Anker 21W Dual USB Solar Charger
- Bastens USB Power Charger for Inreach
Final thoughts on the best Personal Locator Beacon and Satellite Messenger to buy in 2017
In this article, we looked at some of the best personal locator beacons (PLBs) and satellite communicators available in the market. We looked at why these items are an important gear to own if you are climbing, sailing or backpacking in the wilderness. We also looked at the underlying technology behind these devices and the factors you should keep in mind while picking the best option for yourself.
If you are looking for just a distress communication device then go ahead with a Personal Locator Beacon. However, if you are looking for some additional features including two-way communication, then a satellite messenger will be a suitable option.
Do let us know how you found this article and if you would want us to consider anything else. Happy Exploring!!