Update: Read our 2015 review of 4 personal locator beacons.
There are moments in the lives of many paddlers when things come perilously close to going wrong. It might be a sudden offshore wind that threatens to send you to another country, a set of rapids whose difficulty you somehow misjudged, or a capsize into freezing water that leaves you unable to function. Proper training, thorough preparation, and wilderness-worthy common sense can help to prevent moments like these, but the reality is that they can still happen. If you can’t rescue yourself, your only hope for survival will be the ability to access outside assistance.
In such a situation, an easy-to-use and reliable signaling device, such as the personal locator beacon, is indispensable. The personal locator beacon, or PLB, is a pocket-sized emergency beacon designed specifically for paddlers, hikers, climbers, and other outdoor enthusiasts who might find themselves far from help when a life-or-death emergency occurs. Once switched on, the PLB will transmit a special signal that will alert rescue authorities to your trouble and whereabouts anywhere on earth. All you have to do is flip a switch.
You may have heard of rescue beacons before, but the PLB is in a class of its own. No other signaling device will work as fast and as accurately. Here’s how it works. Upon purchasing the PLB, the owner is required to submit a registration form to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). On this form you can include all sorts of important personal information that will become vital if a rescue is ever required, such as pertinent medical history, level of experience, emergency contacts, and so on. Once registered, your PLB’s unique identification code will be entered into a national database and your PLB will be ready for use. If you ever run into a life-or-death situation and need an emergency rescue, you simply switch on your PLB and it immediately begins transmitting a one-way signal, digitally encrypted with your PLB’s unique code. Within minutes a number of internationally monitored satellites will lock on to the signal and notify authorities of your distress and location to within three miles.
This is where the PLB’s best features kick in. Unlike emergency beacons of old, the PLB operates on a frequency (406 megahertz) that is able to transmit a digital signal complete with information. By the time the signal is picked up and transferred to the Mission Control Center (as soon as eight minutes after the PLB has been activated), rescue authorities already know your name (assuming the PLB is registered to you) and have a digital profile direct from your PLB registration form. Armed with your personal stats, they can take a number of initial steps to determine the nature of the emergency. First, they will try to contact you to make sure that the PLB was not erroneously switched on. Next, they will move on to an emergency contact, usually a friend or family member who may know your general whereabouts-and should have a copy of your float plan or itinerary. Now that they know exactly what they are looking for (e.g., an orange kayak, a green tent, two people with yellow PFDs) they will be able to determine the best way to make contact and give you assistance.
At the same time that all this is going on, the PLB is simultaneously transmitting a second signal, this one a homing signal, at 121.5 MHz. Once rescuers are in your general vicinity (within about 10 to 15 miles) they can lock onto the homing signal to pinpoint your location. As a valuable option, many manufacturers offer PLBs that are compatible with standard GPS units. This worthwhile feature sends your precise location (as read by your GPS) along with the initial distress signal. With GPS precision, rescuers can launch the fastest possible rescue. If the GPS unit fails or the battery dies, you still have the PLB’s homing signal to guide rescuers to your position. Higher-end PLBs come with an internal GPS chip. It can’t be used for everyday navigation like a normal GPS, but if you ever need to use your PLB, you won’t have to hassle with finding and connecting the GPS’s interface cable.
When used properly (i.e., it is registered and not abused), the PLB can shave days off a search-and-rescue effort. It also cuts down significantly on false alarms, which cost a lot of time and money. This makes the PLB an item that search-and-rescue officials wish more people had. However, the PLB is not to be used lightheartedly. Once you switch on a PLB, at least a handful of people may be risking their lives to save yours. It is not a free ticket home when you are up against a stiff headwind or a license to take stupid or unnecessary risks. Turning on a PLB should be reserved strictly for dire situations when all other rescue options have been exhausted.
The PLB has been around for a long time, but they were illegal in the United States and widely unknown until July 2003. Now that the word is out about PLBs, they will likely become the next “must have” for serious outdoor adventurers. A handful of U.S. manufacturers sell PLB models that pretty much resemble one another in features and price. Before buying a PLB, check to make sure that it transmits on both 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz-not all do. FCC regulations require that all PLBs have a battery running life of at least 24 hours and a battery shelf life of at least five years. After five years some PLBs require a manufacturer tune-up, a battery change/gasket check during which the manufacturer basically overhauls the PLB, checks its signal and verifies that it will work when needed. Other models are designed with owner-replaceable lithium battery packs (although you have to special-order the battery). The FCC also requires that all PLBs be “waterproof” at a depth of one meter for one hour-though they don’t have to float. Among the many PLBs on the market, these models stand out.